Privilege (n): a special right or advantage that only one person or group has.
As I landed in Cape Town for the launch of our first publication, an anthology of 12 children’s stories, Chosi Ntsomi and its English version Story Story, Story Come, I couldn’t help but think of Helen Zille’s tweet on “black privilege”. On May 17 at 7.31am she tweeted: “Well you clearly don’t understand black privilege. It is being able to loot a country and steal hundreds of billions and get re-elected. If people want permanent poverty for the masses they are going about it the right way. #BlackPrivilege.”
This would have been laughable if there were not so many people who actually believed that Zille was correct, forgetting that she too is one of those politicians; she served two terms as premier of the Western Cape, from 2009 until 2019.
Had she been interested in ensuring that the poverty of the masses in the province that she led was reduced, the place where we were launching the book, a school in Khayelitsha named Molo Mhlaba would never have needed to exist. Its founders, a group of black women who formed the Thope Foundation, opened this school for black girls in Khayelitsha with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. The founders believed that the province’s department of education was failing black girls.
Before introducing the panellists for the book launch, principal Rethabile Sonibare explained the reason for the school’s existence (and the need for more like it). She said: “Those of us who were among the first black students to attend certain resourced schools know what it was like. Too often we would be ignored or silence ourselves so that we wouldn’t stick out too much. When we started, we wanted to provide quality education in an environment where the children would feel empowered and free to interrogate everything.”
A day later, I had a conversation with a friend, a mother of two girls. Her daughters attend one of Cape Town’s elite private schools where parents have to know someone and have lots of money for their child to be admitted. The school, her alma mater, would not admit her eldest daughter when they initially applied despite its commitment to diversity and a preference for enrolling the children of former students. She had to call one of her teachers, who still has ties to the school, for her child to be given a place in the school. Her daughter is one of a handful of black pupils at the school.
“The school was more diverse in the 1990s when I went to it than it is now, Zuks, and I am constantly fighting,” she says.
One of her fights was to ensure that her children were taught isiXhosa by a black person. She had to do the research and hand it over to the school’s administration because they had informed her that they could not find a qualified black isiXhosa teacher in the Western Cape.
The fact that black citizens in the province have felt the structural inequality, which resulted in the Rhodes Must Fall protest to decolonise education, should make Zille and her supporters rethink their position. The lowest hanging fruit for any government is education and healthcare. The fact that residents of the Western Cape feel the need to establish private schools because the government schools have failed them rubbishes her assertion of “black privilege”. Further, the fact that the black people who are somewhat better off still have to fight discriminatory admittance policies should make her pause.
Black people in Cape Town should not be doing diversity training at companies and schools, and yet they do. Perhaps Zille and those like her in South African suburbia should rather try to get to know their black neighbours and extend the same empathy to them as they do to their white friends. After 74 years, I cannot imagine that Germans would talk of Jewish privilege. I wonder, then, why Zille and her ilk find it okay to speak of “black privilege” a mere 25 years after black people got the vote without reparations. I am not holding my breath with the Western Cape’s next premier.