Verashni's advice to Zelda not the the right response

Zelda le Grange with Nelson Mandela. (Reuters)

Zelda le Grange with Nelson Mandela. (Reuters)

Yesterday’s piece by Verashni Pillay that made a point I also saw other South Africans making online, namely that Zelda’s la Grange’s tweets created an ‘Us’ and Them’ kind of environment. 

And she added –  “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.” 

I disagree. When I saw Zelda La Grange’s tweets I was gobsmacked. Some of them, I thought were fair comment, but a series of them were bizarre, arrogant, seemingly equating whiteness with being foreign, and holding the country to ransom with foreign investment.  

Here are some of them: “I’m sure comments like :unafrican to have dogs,stress is western creation,Van Riebeeck etc all good for investment in SA.”

“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.”

“Next time a white business man from the US or Europe brings investment with job opportunity they must be told they are not wanted in SA.”

“White foreign investors must also stop making BEE partners rich. Jacob Zuma made it clear whites are not welcome in SA.”

This was what I tweeted as a response at the time: “Entitlement, ignorance & Twitter: The problem with the #Zelda tweets in three words.”

I don’t think Verashni’s advice – to refuse to hand over power to any person to define who we are – is the correct response here. In fact Verashni’s statement actually embodies salient beliefs often expressed in South Africa’s public discourse, which is not helpful at all.

The key issue I think is what South Africans perceive to be the relative imbalances of power between groups in the country. In our public discourse being white is embodied with the ability to be a master of your own destiny. 

A prejudice Zelda herself kind of confirms with her tweets about whites moving and taking their money for good measure as well. Not all people can cross borders that easily Zelda! Conversely there is an ideology among black South Africans that they do not have what sociologists call “agency” or the ability to do stuff. 

They are at the mercy of structural issues in society – poverty, racism, colonialism. So for example when xenophobic violence broke out in 2008, former president Thabo Mbeki blamed everything, from black self-hate, to criminals, to a third force. Anything and everyone got the blame but black South Africans killing black foreigners out of hate.

If this is your frame of reference then what President Jacob Zuma says about whites is acceptable, because it’s in a way it is inconsequential – even if he is the leader of South Africa.  

Verashni – to her credit – did not say that what President Zuma says does not matter, but saying that Zelda should not let herself be defined by others is firmly on the same train of thought. She has the power to do so is implicit here. Would this be the same advice we give lesbians whose lives are threatened? Of course not.

What’s more this is on the face of it the liberal point of view. In other words we live in a world where we are all autonomous individuals, and where society does not matter (Hello Margaret Thatcher!). 

Moreover the liberal world view is also a way of viewing the world that does not accurately describe how the world works. We are who we are because we are embedded in a social world around us.  

Again it comes down to power. A Somali in the Vaal triangle cannot define him or herself. For better or for worse we are all part of society. By and large for better I would argue. 

Because if we are not part of society, we are only participants in the market. And if a market participant is all you are, you only matter in accordance with how much money you have (again reminding me of Zelda’s tweets). Most people, although we want money – sense that it is not enough – we also want a sense of recognition and that we belong.

Defining yourself as part of society is not possible – it requires societies buy in – unless you have power to just claim it.  The question then comes back to this. Do whites have enough power to define themselves in South African society without the agreement of society? That might have been true 40 years ago. It is less true every day.  

And that whites have less power is a good thing.  It’s rarely healthy in any society if a minority has so much power that they can define themselves in spite of the majority. 

But the corollary is that South African society should act with increasing responsibility – even towards whites. I will close this essay with this quote:  “We’re never so vulnerable than when we trust someone - but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy.”  ? Frank Crane

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