It was one of those cringe-inducing moments.
Nelson Mandela’s personal assistant Zelda la Grange let rip on Twitter on Saturday with her hurt towards the ruling ANC and President Jacob Zuma, and how unwelcome they had made her feel in South Africa as a white person.
In a series of tweets La Grange despaired of how white South Africans were being spoken about and treated, particularly by Zuma, and wondered if white South Africans and businesspeople should leave the country and take their money and talent elsewhere.
“If I was a white investor I would more or less leave now. It’s very clear from Jacob Zuma whites are not wanted or needed in South Africa,” tweeted La Grange.
She was referencing a remark made by Zuma during the ANC’s recent birthday celebrations. He said the country’s problems began when Dutch administrator Jan van Riebeeck arrived on our shores.
La Grange later apologised for her tweets and generalisations.
‘Us and them’
I found it difficult at first to put my finger on what bothered me about La Grange’s tweets.
I understood her despair and anger with a president whose remarks can be so wounding given how often his administration has let us down.
I also recognised in her Twitter rant the confusion and anger that I see in so many of my white friends, who don’t understand why they are being perceived in such a personal way as the enemy.
But there is something that bothers me about the framing of their complaints. It was talk show radio host Redi Tlhabi who put her finger on it.
Tlhabi, in the gracious but direct way that characterises her commentary, questioned La Grange’s need to be made to feel welcome in South Africa. “JZ has a go at a lot of people all the time,” pointed out Tlhabi. “They do not need to be ‘made’ to feel welcome by JZ or anyone. It is home.”
And then, in a lovely analogy, Tlhabi noted she owned a home with her husband, but he did not have the power to “welcome” her to her own home. Needing to be welcoming in one’s own home means at a deep level “you function through the prism of ‘us’ and ‘them’”, said Tlhabi.
I cannot emphasise enough how critical this understanding of the world and our place in it is.
South Africa is going through a fraught time, where our national debate has moved from a simplistic reconciliation towards vociferously challenging racism and inequality. The debate is heated and often ugly and the injustices are real.
Tlhabi pointed out that Zuma takes stabs at judges, journalists, white people and others.
This is a time in our country when everyone is having a go at someone or other it seems.
City Press reported yesterday that a Johannesburg restaurant owner allegedly told a patron that “what all black girls need is a good shagging … a fuck”, after a complaint about a meal.
This is the latest in too many incidents of racism towards black people – and not just in Cape Town.
Then there is the backlash against minorities in the state institutions, which seem to have spread to the public sphere.
There has been a fresh wave of anti-Indian sentiment that I have been exposed to as a columnist. A lot of those taking issue with my points of view or opinions include a gratuitous attack on my race. I’ve had death threats and repeated injunctions that I should leave the country.
Some time last year, I began finding the racially-loaded attacks in our country a bit unbearable. There seemed to be so much hatred in our society. I started taking it personally.
But then something rose up in me. I did not articulate it as well as Tlhabi did – our conversations with ourselves are rarely that coherent.
Criticism is not hate
I refuse to accept the victimhood that many white South Africans seem to have. If I am attacked and I was wrong about my opinions and my identity played a role in that, I will be open to correction and honestly discuss this with my critics. If, however, people attack my race gratuitously and question my place here, that is their problem. My place in my own country will not be dictated by changing winds of public opinion among a certain section of society, because they do not have that power to do so.
The same applies to ugly racists who turn a complaint about food into an attack on black women in general.
In one of the biggest understatements ever Jesus once said: “In this world, you will have trouble.”
I have been attacked by black people and white people and everyone in between, by supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the Democratic Alliance and the ANC. I have been wrong and have tried to acknowledge as much, and I have been targeted unfairly and been the victim of the vilest hate speech.
This is the world we live in.
We define ourselves
As people we are going to be attacked, vilified and treated unfairly, whether it is for the colour of our skin, occupation, gender or whatever distortions and projections people see when they look at us.
When we are attacked unjustly we can choose to fight it and be part of a change, as the woman who was allegedly attacked by the restaurant owner is quite legitimately doing. We can choose to honestly self-reflect and see if there is something to be said in the criticism, and where we need to change. We can also choose to dismiss it and carry on with our lives.
But what we cannot do, and what La Grange was guilty of doing, is to allow someone else to define who we are and where we belong. When we experience the worst racism, the most upsetting bias and meanest attacks, let us remember who we are within ourselves. Let us refuse to hand over power to any person to define who we are.