​The unbearable whiteness of white philosophers

FNB is one of the 'immoral cartels that continue to run South Africa's economy', says Nyasha Mboti. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

FNB is one of the 'immoral cartels that continue to run South Africa's economy', says Nyasha Mboti. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)


White guilt is a tokoloshe. It just won’t go away. Hence the fleeting sympathy with Raphael Winkler’s position in “Who has authority to talk about identity?”.

He is just the latest in a long line of liberal scholars who keep attempting to exorcise white guilt, with predictable results. Once tokoloshe bound, always tokoloshe bound.

Guilt is neither something that one chooses nor a label arbitrarily tattooed to someone’s skin. It is, rather, a function of history: the automatic outcome of the bad things that one or one’s ancestors did. The moral is that you reap what you sow, best encapsulated in the elegant concept, among the Shona of Zimbabwe, of ngozi (the unwashable “spots” on Lady Macbeth’s hands).

When you play in the mud, expect dirt to stick to you. Dabbling in evil has a cost on the dabbler too — a verdict of guilty, and some form of payback.

South Africa, being a product of continuous mass systemic plunder, theft, torture, looting, rape and genocide lends itself to the much-deserved reaping of guilt — haystacks upon haystacks of it. It is not unreasonable to imagine that, when whites feel guilty about apartheid and colonialism, they are simply reaping some of the guilt they sowed.

Philosophers such as Winkler risk embarrassing themselves when they participate in the project to make white guilt go away. It is a Sisyphean task. Like the golem, which cannot be called back.

The problem partly lies in that unfortunate word “authority”. South Africa is a country that — since Jan van Riebeeck invented his own brand of “authority” by planting a wild almond fence and building a series of forts to keep the Khoi from their grazing lands — has dealt with one authority-planting white man after another, from Van Riebeeck to Tulbagh, Kruger to Smuts, Rhodes to Milner, and from Verwoerd to De Klerk. These were men who vested themselves with various modes of psychopathic authority over black bodies, stealing land, property and wealth, and getting away with it.

The tokoloshe of white guilt is a direct outcome of their authority. Their guilt, on the other hand, is their identity. Their identity is their guilt, and the reason it will not go away is because there has, as yet, been no payback. The ngozi on their hands is largely unwashed. Indeed, worse theft goes on as we speak.

The words “authority” and “identity” belong to a violent language and a language of violence in which this country continues to be all too deeply implicated. Indeed, the two words have deep histories in all the other lands of the world plundered by Europeans since the 15th century. From the fences and forts, which authorised exit and entry of the “natives”, to the pass laws of post-1948 South Africa, all the way to the modern-day construct of makwere­kwere, the question of authority and identity cannot be asked with careless levity, except when one’s intent is to troll.

When Winkler opines that “experience” is not that important, he is in effect saying history is not important. But how can you have South African identity without South African history? Does he not know that white guilt is a historical phenomenon? It is bound in history, context and experience.

White guilt is neither a figment of the imagination nor a false memory. It is, rather, an outcome of bad things that none denies were done, and that continue to be done. Indeed, white guilt has always been a facet of white identity. There is nothing to debate here. Attempts to separate guilt from identity, like Winkler’s, always result in illogicality. One cannot compel the impossible. Can a start date come after the end date? We must not try to massage a porcupine.

Winkler may know that, in our context, authority and identity emerge from the histories of the so-called “native question”: the regulation of the “native’s” life, and the imposition of white spokespersons over the native. As articulated in Mabogo More’s pointed response to Winkler (“Isn’t identity informed by experience?”), it was whites who had the authority to know and speak on behalf of the “Bantu”.

It is notable, for instance, that Verwoerd himself cut his teeth as minister of native affairs, a job that required him to be an authority on the “natives” and “native welfare”.

The very justification for empire and colonialism rested, in part, on the racist assumption that the “native” was a child. This child had to be taken care of, governed and punished for his or her own good. Indeed, a study of apartheid segregation instituted in the 20th century will show that every single one of the forms was justified as being beneficial to the “Bantu”. The “childification” of the African, of course, served another purpose: it facilitated daylight robbery.

The regulation of the “native’s” life was conducted by and through “authority”. It was achieved in the codes of governors (such as the Tulbagh Code), native administrators, commissioners of native affairs, Bantustans, influx control, prison, torture, live ammunition at Sharpeville in 1960 and in Soweto in 1976 and, of course, all the dehumanising modes of cheap black labour and wealth theft that became the Cape winelands, De Beers, Gold Fields, Gencor, Anglo-American, Sanlam, Absa, FNB, Nedbank, Standard Bank and all the immoral cartels that continue to run South Africa’s economy.

Authority and identity are inseparable from the “native question”, the question of how stolen wealth was to remain stolen. That question was settled through two things: the imposition of white authority and the forging of the identity of the true owners of South Africa’s wealth.

Perhaps Winkler has come across Gayatri Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak? Winkler does not think that “someone who experiences … oppression has the authority and knowledge to speak about them”.

The problem, however, is that Africans are not just someone. They are real, flesh-and-bone claimants to justice, land and redress. The strategy of abstraction that Winkler uses is meant to make the black body disappear from its own story, to erase Africans from an Africa deemed a terra nullius and to conveniently replace them with white “beneficial occupiers”.

“It is doubtful,” says Winkler, “that the oppressed worker in a capitalist system, the oppressed woman in a patriarchal institution, will always produce a reliable discourse on the coercion and domination to which they are constantly subject.”

Winkler is talking trash. What does he mean by “reliable discourse”? He seems to mean that all know­ledge must first be filtered by white know-it-alls in order for it to count. He doubts that “first-hand experience” carries with it any authority. Who then should know my scars better than me? Why should the book-learned expert know oppression better than the oppressed?

Just because white philosophers do not “hear” black people’s pain does not mean that such pain does not exist or that Africans cannot speak. It simply points to white privilege, racism and arrogance.

To Winkler, Africans can only qualify to be the objects of white research or, to use More’s term, “native informants”. This is not completely surprising. At work are two things: expert dissembling, and a pervasive swart gevaar.

Swart gevaar — the neurotic fear of whites of masses of ordinary Africans — is always intellectually expressed through the diminution of the validity of black claims to ownership, justice, redress and the return of stolen wealth. There are grounds, of course, for understanding why those who bear much of the responsibility for the rape and plunder of the world would be paranoid.

Winkler argues that “it is an altogether different thing to talk about my experience, to evaluate it or make a judgement on its basis”. Essentially, authority is a “property of our judgments in so far as we purport to say something true by means of them, and not of our experiences”. Hence “to be black or a woman, to experience oppression, are facts about me. They are not judgments about my person. They carry in themselves no authority. In consequence, they cannot qualify someone to speak on such matters with authority.”

Again, this is mere trolling. Winkler’s claims on authority arise firstly from his dependence on so-called uncontroversial intuitions as the basis for dismissing African claims and, secondly, from his strategic attempt to defend himself and his white colleagues in the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa (PSSA) from allegations of racism. The whites of the PSSA generally seem to have a colonial and contemptuous view of ordinary Africans.

Consider, for instance, Winkler’s colleague Thaddeus Metz’s view that philosophy “calls for engagement with professionals from other backgrounds, not so much with the ‘person on the street’”. The reason for that? “Precisely because morality is so complex,” he says. If one is going to “seek out a theory about it, it would be most productive to engage with those who are most familiar with the relevant evidence and inferences.”

Those who have relevant evidence and inference, of course, are the elites among us, particularly those belonging to well-drilled and well-connected clubs of white philosophers. This kind of sectional thinking, to my mind, fails to demonstrate the practice of philosophy in all its lofty dignity. It is, rather, trolling of the worst order.

Whose intuitions should count as reliable evidence? Intuitions, so trolls the white philosopher, “are beliefs that are firmly and commonly held by most informed interlocutors”. Such judgments can be overridden “only with substantial evidence”.

Thus white philosophers carefully restrict the circle of informed interlocutors — such that entry is only to those they consider “informed” — and what counts as substantial evidence.

The disease of Winkler and his PSSA colleagues, as far as we can tell, is the contemptuous disavowal of the “person on the street”. Whether or not such a disavowal is racist readers must judge for themselves.

The disavowal of the oppressed is the very basis of white authority. Such authority largely finds its roots in a very specific pseudo-historiography — the one that claims that the “Bantu” are not native to South Africa. Indeed, Winkler’s opinions draw from this very pseudo-history. According to this myth, black people are as foreign to South Africa as whites, since they both arrived in the land at the same time.

Professor EG Brookes, one time “native representative” in the Union of South Africa Senate, pointedly asks: “Taking South Africa as whole, what right have the Bantu to it which the Europeans have not? They are not the aborigines as so often termed; they are conquerors as foreign to South Africa in 1500 as Europeans were. If force confers rights on them as against Bushmen and Hottentots, it confers rights on Europeans as against them. The same argument applies to occupation. As far as beneficial occupation goes Europeans have the stronger claim; their superior ability and civilisation would have warranted subjugation even of the aborigines.”

The informed interlocutors of the PSSA are the beneficial occupiers of all African philosophy.

In the book, In Smuts’ Camp, BK Long writes: “The land in Southern Africa was not the land of the Bantu who were the ancestors of our natives. The Bantu invaded Southern Africa from the north overland just about at the same time as the early Dutch settler invaded it from the south by sea … Native title to Southern Africa is no better and no worse than white title.”

Stripped of its flimsy philosophical pretensions, this is the same argument that Winkler is making.

Nyasha Mboti is an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and writes in his personal capacity and on behalf of the UJ’s Black Academics Forum.

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