/ 1 September 2016

Dear Best Whites of Jo’burg: Please don’t panic now that the city has turned blue

Herman Mashaba of the Democratic Alliance is Johannesburg's new mayor.
Herman Mashaba of the Democratic Alliance is Johannesburg's new mayor.


There are many social groups in South Africa deserving of empathy, but an under-recognised one of late is the white liberal. To clarify, I’m not talking about any old white liberal. Neither I am using “liberal” in the way that the Democratic Alliance is always yammering on about, with its connotations of individual liberties and free markets and what-what.

I am talking about a very specific type of white liberal I have referred to in other writings as a Best White. Being a Best White is a highly performative identity that revolves around proving to everyone else that you are not like the other whites.

Ordinary whites are racist; Best Whites believe they are the opposite of racist and specialise in exposing other white people’s racism. Ordinary whites are wallowing around in their inherited privilege; Best Whites are checking their privilege, and then checking to see whether everyone noticed. Ordinary whites have no understanding of the struggles of working-class black South Africans; Best Whites are down with the common man and woman.

They’re out there giving comrades’ handshakes to every passing car guard. They refer to the black woman employed by their parents as their “second mother”. They’re getting tattoos in isiZulu. They are so woke, they haven’t slept for years. They are the Best Whites.

As someone who dabbles in Best Whiteness, I am not immune to some of the above behaviours. You can only imagine my distress at the recent emergence of “Becky” as a derogatory slang term to describe a particularly out-of-touch white woman.

The website Very Smart Brothas defines a Becky as “a certain type of privileged young white woman who exists in a state of racial obliviousness that shifts from intentionally clueless to intentionally condescending”.

A clever friend elaborates: “A Becky can talk about her own experiences with an almost admirable endurance, and only ventures into any political discussion to say ‘what if’, ‘not all’ and ‘that’s so sad’, accompanied by clutching her pearls and highly strategic tears.”

At least I don’t have any pearls. Still, I can barely log on to social media any more without seeing this shortening of my first name used in every second tweet to deride the kind of person a Best White would cross the street to avoid. I’m considering changing my name to something more me, like “Ubuntu”.

In short, it’s no picnic to be a Best White called Becky.

Save your sympathy, though, for other South African Best Whites currently facing the greatest threat to their identity since the realisation that swaddling oneself in shweshwe fabrics from head to toe could be construed as cultural appropriation rather than admiring homage.

I am referring to the anguish currently besetting Best Whites domiciled in Johannesburg. They have spent years making it plain that they dwelled in a moral league far above Capetonians purely by virtue of living in an ANC-controlled metro. They have worn the fact of existence in a non-blue metro like a badge of honour.

“I just can’t breathe in your city, man!” they’d say to Cape Town friends, as if Patricia de Lille was literally siphoning the oxygen out of the air above Gardens. When undertaking December pilgrimages to their ancestral home – the Cape beaches – the very sight of a City of Cape Town logo could cause a Jo’burg-based Best White to break out in hives.

A rite of passage for particularly fervent Best Whites was a highly ostentatious move from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Like reformed smokers who take every opportunity to cough dramatically at cigarette smoke, they would then devote their days to telling everyone within earshot how this semigration spared them from an inevitable transformation into white supremacists. You would never hear them complaining about potholes, or Johannesburg’s erratic power supply. God forbid! To hear them speak of it, the City of Gold was an egalitarian utopia. Cape Town, by contrast, was essentially Orania.

But the times they are a-changin’! Johannesburg has fallen to the DA. And oh, the indignity: the mayor they’ve been shafted with isn’t even a former anti-apartheid activist like De Lille. It’s a man who worships capitalism, the free markets and the transformative power of hair relaxers. His name lends itself to silly puns. Can you hear that sound? It’s the Best Whites of Cape Town throwing back their heads and howling with laughter.

To the Best Whites of Jo’burg: the main thing is not to panic. It’s true that overnight you have had the moral high ground swept away from you, and this must feel disorientating. But look on the bright side! For one thing, you can start vigorously complaining about potholes and the erratic power supply now, secure in the knowledge that this will not be interpreted as anti-ANC critique. For another, you can consider moving back to Cape Town. And if all else fails? Pick another ANC-run metro. Polokwane has some lovely features.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s true. Jo’burg is turning blue – and nobody is bluer about it than the Best Whites.