White people: Accept the past still matters




The South African Reconciliation Barometer is a public opinion survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa since 2003. It is the world’s longest running public opinion survey on national reconciliation and provides a nationally representative measure of South Africans’ attitudes towards reconciliation.

The survey is conducted every two years and the results of one section from the most recent report are disappointing, but not surprising. The questions relate to the legacy of apartheid in terms of spatial apartheid, continuing poverty, white privilege and land ownership. The results point to the conclusion that many white South Africans are still deeply in denial about apartheid’s legacy.

When asked whether, in general, residential areas in South Africa are still racially segregated because of the lasting effects of apartheid, the percentage of white participants who agreed with this statement stood at only 51.1% of the total white group polled. Many white South Africans seem to be either ignorant of the concept of spatial apartheid or, more problematically, are aware of it but don’t see its significance or effect as a continuing lived reality for most South Africans.

Spatial apartheid refers to the segregation of people based on their race, defined by the Population Registration Act of 1950, into group areas as outlined by the Group Areas Act of 1950. Part of the problem in post-apartheid South Africa has been that there is very little transformation in our patterns of living and so spatial apartheid is still very much a feature of our current society.

Some of those 51.1% polled would possibly point to the influx of people of colour who have moved into areas previously reserved for white South Africans under apartheid. Although there are examples of this happening, what is missing from their understanding is that the people of colour who move into previously white areas are the exceptions not the rule. The majority of people of colour within our society still live in areas that were reserved for their racial group under apartheid.

One of the greatest indicators of white denial of the lasting legacies of apartheid lies in the response to whether they agreed with the statement that many white South Africans are well off today because of the lasting effects of apartheid. The percentage of white South Africans who agreed with this statement stood at a very low 39.2%.

A possible defence of this position is that we have been living in a democracy for more than 25 years. They could also note that for many years we have economic policies in our country that address the legacies of the past such as black economic empowerment and affirmative action.

Whereas these views may be used to downplay the legacy of apartheid in present-day South Africa, they totally ignore the legacies of more than 350 years of colonial rule and 46 years of apartheid, which have led to structural and institutional inequality in our society.

This kind of reasoning has been researched by American scholar Dr Robin DiAngelo and can be explained by the idea of “white fragility”. This term denotes the inability to tolerate racial stress or a challenge to the positions or perspectives of white people. She notes that white fragility functions to block obstacles and regain white racial equilibrium.

Three important statistics that illustrate the continuing legacy of apartheid are, first, that the racial composition of those within top management and senior management stood at 67% and 56% for white South Africans and only at 14% and 22% for black South Africans respectively.

Second, the structure of the economy remains largely unchanged and unemployment stands at only 7.6 % for white South Africans but at 31.1% for black South Africans.

Third, the average annual household income a year for black people stood at an average of R92 893 in 2018. This figure stands at R444 446 for white South Africans. This means that, on average, white South Africans earn about five times as much as their black counterparts.

Ultimately, the question is how can we as South Africans move forward when the majority of white South Africans seem to refuse to accept and acknowledge the legacies of apartheid and colonialism, and how these have affected and continue to affect the current realities within this country?

DiAngelo offers some ways in which the white population can foster healthy dialogue on the legacies of apartheid. These practices include the acceptance from white people:

• That they are not qualified to determine whether people of colour’s experiences are legitimate;

• That they do not know the best way to challenge racism;

• That their proximity to people of colour does not make them free of racism;

• That they bring their group’s history with them and that this history matters; and

• That the recognition and acceptance that people of colour’s distrust of white people is rational.

Two other practices she suggests are crucial to changing the current situation. First, white people in our society need to break from solidarity. By this DiAngelo means the unspoken agreement among white people that as a group they will keep each other comfortable around their racism. Second, that racism and the legacies of racist institutions hurt and affect people of colour 24 hours a day, seven days a week and that interrupting this is crucial to changing the situation.

Until these realities are accepted and behaviours are changed, we as South Africans are going to struggle to have conversations that will result in meaningful reconciliation between the races — no matter how many World Cup trophies the Springboks bring home.

Mikhail Petersen holds a Bachelor of Social Science degree in politics and economic history as well as an LLB from the University of Cape Town. He is an intern with the ­Sustained Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

Mikhail Petersen
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