Claudia Hirtenfelder
Claudia Hirtenfelder

I’m exhausted

I’m exhausted by my privilege. I’m exhausted with restaurants filled with primarily white patrons. I’m exhausted that those serving these white consumers are mainly black. I’m exhausted by the ignorance of those in the vicinity to see the difference. I’m exhausted when I climb off a Gautrain bus only to see a man scrounging through the dustbin furiously trying to open up a carton filled with old grapes. I’m exhausted by the men I see carting other people’s waste — recycling and receiving minuscule compensation and recognition. I’m exhausted by lack of tolerance informed by race politics. I’m exhausted of leaders acting without tact. I’m exhausted by the denial that our system still privileges male voices and pockets. I’m exhausted by the numerous bare feet and hungry eyes I encounter on any given day. I’m exhausted by the fact that I’m not doing enough, and I’m exhausted that all of this runs through my mind on a simple walk to work.

I’m exhausted.

But I’d rather be exhausted than ignorant. I’d rather have a pinch of discomfort every time I sit in a restaurant filled with only white consumers than be ignorant to the fact that 20 years after democracy wealth and space are still racially constructed. I’d rather let a man searching for food get my thoughts rambling than turn a blind eye and refuse to see him for what he is – proof that our society remains grossly unequal. I’d rather be cognisant of the people recycling in our cities than curse them for dirtying up the lawn in front of a posh suburb. How dare they! I’d rather be angry at our grossly gendered division of labour and differing gendered pay scales than view it as normal and natural. I’d rather be ashamed at the behaviour of our political leaders and party politicians than shrug it off as another day in SA. I’d rather be exhausted by the bare feet and hungry eyes so that I make a call to friends for shoes they no longer use and give a bucket full of non-perishable foods. I know it’s not enough but it is something, something I would have failed to do had I not been exhausted by the racial, gendered and class politics of our everyday lives.

I’m exhausted.

I would rather be exhausted than ignorant because ignorance it what fuels our acceptance of unequal situations that should make our guts turn. Ignorance is what makes us trepid about our politics. Ignorance is what makes us make shallow statements like “I worked for my wealth”: without recognising the structural advantages that paved the way. Ignorance is not lack of education it is a lack of desire to open your eyes and see our world. Further, it is a lack of willingness to once you see it to think about it, contemplate it, and wonder why and how it has come to be viewed as normal.

I’m exhausted

Yes, I am privileged and my awareness of my privileges in certain situations (not all) makes me tired but I’d rather be exhausted and contemplative than ignorant and unwilling to change. I also realise that my talk about tiredness may sound insensitive because surely those without some of my privileges are far wearier. My point is, I agree. I see their weariness in the face of my privilege and I think about it, I don’t repress it and refuse to acknowledge such divides exist. Indeed, I’d rather have bags under my eyes than cover my face and reality with a make-up that masks the world we truly live in.

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    • bernpm

      Exhausted because a restaurant you visit has only white customers?? No doubt, you have a car. Take a few blocs further and find a restaurant with a mixed population or go to the nearest town ship and find yourself an all black restaurant of shebeen.

      “I’d rather let a man searching for food get my thoughts rambling than turn a blind eye and refuse to see him for what he is …..” Instead you could take the doggy bag of our copious meal and give it to this man or better -as one of my friend often does- invite the man at your table and pay for his king’s meal.

      Just getting exhausted is the weakest excuse I have ever heard. Economic and social inequality is a world wide phenomenon. “Feeling exhausted” does not make it go away.

    • Charles Ash

      Give this woman a case of Bells! We need more people like you effect change in South Africa. Far too many people are wilfully ignorant of the real issues facing our country and their role in implementing the change needed.

    • Daniel

      So why no mention of the systems that cause these problems? You’re exhausted by your privilege, but what about the world makes and sustains your privilege? Not merely other ignorant people, I’d bet.
      Is it not capitalism with capitalists, and their private bodyguard (the state), that relies on structural hierarchies in order to function?
      And why are you going to restaurants? Seems that trading ignorance in for exhaustion hasn’t stopped you from experiencing the luxuries of those parts of your privilege that aren’t forced on you – despite your apparent discomfort.
      Sure, your contingent situation may give you some leeway here, but it’d be nice to have a sense of how it does, if it does.

    • Insomniac

      Lady, (I use this word in that peculiarly South African way), why do you give things to poor black people? In ten years time, the rich black people who now govern your country will be giving you things because you will be poor. Why be self conscious? Why be patronising? Why be exhausted? After 20 years you have a right not to feel these outdated emotions. Enjoy your restaurant time. Seize the day!

    • I Sacks

      Claudia on the contrary while I am more than angry at the state of things in this country,
      The corruption is refreshing to see so many people of all different races in our restaurants here in Cape Town. The complex where I reside to has residents of all races and while admittedly we do live behind our closed doors there is always a friendly greeting when we see each other. Our shopping malls are filled with beautiful black people beautifully dressed and having fun. If only the “leaders” would stop “fiddling”
      While our beautiful country burns so that we don’t have a revolution like Egypt or Ukrain.

    • Rob Pienaar

      What should exhaust you even more is the causes for the suffering you see all around you: A government that within just 20 years has managed to engineer the highest unemployment rate in the world today, and all the associated crime; A government that was born of the slogan “Liberation before Education” and then proceeded to systematically destroy the public education system; Surely the only government in the world that destroyed its public health care system; A government that appears to believe that entitlement is reserved for those that govern; And most of all, an electorate that doggedly continues to vote for this destructive government, regardless of how far it drives them into the ground. This last point is the sad legacy of apartheid that continues to cloud our vision for making SA the wonderful country it should be. Van Zyl-Slabbert, a great Afrikaner politician, told that, when the population register legislation was introduced, he warned Verwoerd that he was creating a legacy that would live with us for many years. He was so right – even today virtually no-one in the country can comment on any social issue without seeing it through racially clouded specs. We actually still to this day believe that, uniquely in the whole world, we have four distinct racial groups in SA. (I am even required to specify on my census form which one I fall into.) We MUST get rid of this old Nat. thing of seeing things racially and concentrate our sights on solving the real issues at…

    • Jacob

      I am exhausted reading that………

    • proactive

      Another one- exhausted? In need of a psychiatrist or a physical & spiritual break from the surrounds to obtain distance, refocus and be grateful for:

      • what parents & previous generations worked hard for & suffered- creating and leaving behind a bit more ‘privileged’, better, but partly confused and less appreciative generation?

      • feeling extremely about possessing too much privilege- why not change that?
      Swap the environment, avoid the Gautrain, the restaurants, waste your education, resign from a (well) paid job, and refrain from contributing waste due to convenient consumerism. Rather remain exhausted or leave behind an imperfect, unequal but somehow still functioning country, society & systems- being hopelessly gilt ridden?

      • longing for a sustainable less exhausting subsistence tribal life of the past, or serving the worlds forgotten- vegetating in abject poverty in Asia, Africa, South America or the join the 4 mio homeless in the EU? Visit the desert or similar temples for soul searching & meditation. Endless options!

      “When we are motivated by compassion and wisdom, the results of our actions benefit everyone, not just our individual selves or some immediate convenience. When we are able to recognize and forgive ignorant actions of the past, we gain strength to constructively solve the problems of the present.”
      ― Dalai Lama XIV

    • grant

      I am exhausted by people who constantly view the world emotionally and without careful logical thought about the source of these issues. I am exhausted by people who buy into the simplistic South African dinner table narrative. I am exhausted by those who feel privilege comes only to the those who oppressed and not to those who introduced skills into this country. I am exhausted by the constant guilt I am told to feel while those who have the power to effect real change do nothing. I am exhausted of being a target of both black South Africa and the white blinkered liberal establishment. I am exhausted by the constant threats to my sex and my colour. I am exhausted because while these threats are being made, I struggle daily in a system that despises me to create wealth and employment. I am exhausted by those who think that the only reason a person is poor in South Africa is because a white man took something from them. I am mostly exhausted by all the incessant wallowing in the past, by excuses, by blame. I am exhausted by the lack of progressive energy coming from those who now have power and by how little education, skill and merit are valued when it is clear that these alone will lift those who pursue them from poverty and closed thinking. I am beyond depressed that nothing I say will ever hold weight in South Africa because I am white and male. I am exhausted to think it has been 20 years of gluttony by our leaders yet to most, I am to blame. Simply exhausted.

    • Gagarin

      Many valid observations about human suffering, inequality and economic hardship. Yes you have every right to be exhausted at the suffering you see. However you may also want to have a closer look at the basic structures of the SA state and how this state is on its way to ‘transforming’ itself from democracy to dictatorship. The poor may always be with us. But it is up to civic minded people to catch a wake up and focusing clearly on the risks of SA being occupied from within by a new form of totalitarianism, that will make simple inequality seem the least of its problems.

    • @nateiv_sa

      I wish the bug you caught could permeate the global village – whatever caste.

      I believing you are refering to compassion fatique.

    • Jack

      You must maar be exhausted. Get that makeup. Sommer buy stocks in Estee lauder and Loreal. Because your exhaustion is misdirected.

      The last census shows that the black middle class now outnumbers the white middle class. If you sit in a restaurant filled with predominantly white patrons, is it their fault that those with equal economic privilege who outnumber them is not sitting in the same restaurant? Could it just perhaps be that the predominantly white patrons are just simply a concentration of white patrons within that restaurant because the restaurant appeals to white patrons, or that the restaurant is situated in a suburban area with a higher concentration of white individuals? I doubt you’d find many white patrons in a restaurant in Mitchell’s Plain.

      Predominantly black waitpersons serving white patrons… That indicates that you adhere to the view that waiting is a demeaning, low status profession and lament that predominantly blacks have to suffer this indignity. Have you asked those restaurants why they employ so many black waitrons, could it be that they are trying to meet BEE requirements? Maybe waiting is an easy accessible entry level job opportunity requiring relatively low levels training and no prior qualification, especially in the predominantly franchise market. Excellent for those seeking to enter the job market as a stepping stone. Surely the fact that blacks vastly outnumber whites and the huge supply of unemployed people for such an entry…

    • Jack

      In a broad stroke you place a stigma on all whites for their ‘privilege’. You ignore reason a la Critical Race Theory. ‘make shallow statements like “I worked for my wealth”. A white skin doesn’t make the information contained in telephone book sized textbooks miraculously import into your brain, write your exam for you, complete an end of year audit, draw an engineering diagram, or confer business savvy in a cutthroat private sector. In a broad stroke you seek to invalidate the 1000’s of hours of grind, sweat, stress and tears, often in to ungodly hours of the morning, which led to success simply because those individuals are white. No effort, simply white. Given.

      You lament that poverty foremost has a black face and is unequally distributed. You lament structural privilege, but only insofar as it benefits whites. No mention of the modes of redress that seek to transform structural privilege from white to black. Structural privilege is not being eliminated, simply its colour is being transformed. No mention of the billions of tax revenue gained from whites that has been squandered…

    • Jack

      that should’ve been used to redress the consequences of the past.

      I agree with you on the distorted pay scales based on gender, the privileges for male voices and our bad politicians and politics.

      As for the rest, you must maar stay exhausted. Enjoy.

    • Jack


      Brilliant comment.

    • Rory Short

      We live in a society with many problems, a messed up public education system being a major one. People with a poor to non-existent education have very little chance of lifting themselves out of poverty. Public education is primarily the government’s responsibility and the pudding is in the eating, the ANC has, for the last 20 years, borne that responsibility with very little success. We need a change of government

    • Jason

      Exhaustion. Shame. It will not restore the losses of history. Some people reflect on wars as brutal losses of life. Yet the human lives wasted through structured exploitation in South Africa is huge by generations. Simply exploding a (small) patriarchal black middle class in two decades (1994-2014) cannot erase almost three hundred and fifty years (approx 1600 to 1989) of Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British colonization of South Africa. That cancels out ALL gains made by the new Black middle class who are proven proxies of foreign capital, because they do not own significant wealth for most of the last century. Within the first ten years of the African National Congress’s existence, what is not reported widely is that the only reason that the ANC founders were not executed by the British royal house is the fact that they conceded to not resist British rule. Historic imperialism, capitalism and later neoliberalism are so intrinsic to the lives of most whites, that they will never understand their true level of social and economic privilege. The white denialists have emigrated, continuing to bemoan the situation even from thousands of kilometres away. The social chaos fermented by Apartheid scarred most South Africans to the point of dysfunction, Recently, the tiny proportion of whites living in shacks, compared to Blacks, confirms the depth of South African socio-economic inequality. True freedom is a hard road and we have to work towards a more equal society.

    • Peter

      It is usually a good idea to lie down and take a rest if one is exhausted.

    • Paul S

      Everyone is tired of the charade. It’s all going to change soon…it has to. When that change comes it will be quick and it’s going to catch the privileged folk unawares, given their massive disconnect with the working classes. Those primarily white restaurant patrons can only hope not too much blood gets spilled in the process. SA’s seem to think they are somehow miraculously isolated from the global trend of regime change brought about by ordinary people who are also exhausted with their lot. The service delivery protests and other actions we see are just the beginning.

    • Paul S

      The black middle class may outnumber their white counterparts, but take a look at absolute numbers for a minute. The middle class as a whole is a declining entity in SA and by a long chalk they are not the ones who hold the majority vote. They are also not the class that would foment chaos and radical change. The privileged view always seems to revolve around what the middle class (and whites in particular) have done to build the economy and how idiotic it would be for that structure to be attacked/redistributed/nationalized. Unfortunately the majority of SA’s couldn’t give a toss. They want change – now- and to hell with what happens to it all after that. No matter whether the inequality was brought about by then white privilege or now corrupt ANC. About time SA’s faced the reality that the thinking classes are not the ones that will be soon be holding the reins.

    • Momma Cyndi

      I am exhausted listening to people moan all the time and never just get stuck in and DO SOMETHING. Good grief! You have to grow out of teenage angst at some stage in your lives!

    • Julian Frost

      So you’re exhausted.
      So what do you intend to DO about these very real problems? And what do you have to say about the actions of the government of the day that perpetuate those problems instead of fixing them?
      Or are you just going to flagellate yourself and other whites over the colour of our skins?

    • maggielou

      I am just exhausted …. repeat .. exhausted …. repeat … exhauste. Yaaaaaawn!

    • Rameus

      Thanks for a brilliant piece Claudia and for being so forthright. We need more voices like yours in South African society.

      Looking forward to your next article…

    • Virgilio

      One has to love the comments made by white people who have tons to say about the present state of the nation but were silent during the good ol’ days of apartheid – and if you were kids during that time, you are products of an ignorant and impotent white society who chose to turn a blind eye to evil men and to this day remain ignorant of the infinite and long term effects of your parent’s refusal to set what was wrong, right again. Claudia is addressing this same smug arrogance and ignorance that is content not to change it’s perspective and remain in the bile is vomits out in the comments section of such articles.

      Some of us see beyond class and colour, but we also acknowledge the prejudices that fuel them. That is why some of us are exhausted and others are just remain ignorant.

    • Momma Cyndi


      Have a nap and, when you are feeling less tired, get involved in CHANGING things. At some stage you have got to stop whinging about being sick and tired of being sick and tired and DO something about it!

    • Julian Frost

      “Claudia is addressing this same smug arrogance…”
      Says the sanctimonious plonker whose smug self-righteousness blew out my hypocrisy meter. Also, it’s interesting that you believe you know so much about us. Please google “illusion of asymmetric insight”. You almost certainly know sfa about what makes us tick.
      Like I said in my comment, bad decisions made post 1994 have perpetuated inequalities. I also asked what you intend to do about them.
      So what would you have us do about them?

    • Loyiso

      The saddest thing that I see happening over and over again here on thoughtleader is that someone writes a nice piece, in their uniqueness of style whilst passing on a specific message, and people rush to comment without even trying to get the message being conveyed.

      If you can’t give a positive and constructive comment, then rather keep your comment to yourself.

    • Loyiso

      Below is a good example of how people can give positive feedback to the writer.

      Rameus #
      Thanks for a brilliant piece Claudia and for being so forthright. We need more voices like yours in South African society.

      Looking forward to your next article…

      I feel exactly the same as Rameus, nice truthful piece. Sadly I feel as exhausted as you Claudia, or even more, by the helplessness I feel about these challenges that prevail in our society. I’ve started an NPO in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, to help out where I can, perhaps you could do the same where you are. In the case of Politics, and Political Leaders, Legacy Privileges/Underprivileges, I remain exhausted myself as there is nothing much one can do to introduce positive change there.

      Help where you can and continue to be exhausted instead of ignorant.

      Great Piece.

    • Mr. Direct


      And what if you do not agree with the author, are you not allowed to offer your opinion?

      I do not agree with the idea that one racial group is responsible for the issues in this country. Is it not time that we venture away from this bullshit, and start looking at the problems as they stand, and the ways to fix them.

      Yes, yes, it all happened, yes, yes, the white man is evil, can we fix it now pleeeeaaaaase…….

    • Claudia

      Thank you for the comments! Good and bad – the article has started a debate and I truly believe that through debate and zoning in on what some of our hidden assumptions are we can start to become more sensitive to the histories that have informed them and disrupt ignorance (chosen or true).

      It is interesting that the mention about restaurants attracted a lot of comments. I recognise that in some places if I entered a restuarant the patrons would almost entirely be of a different race and that in some cosmopolitian areas you find restuarants that are more mixed than elsewhere. However, I find it startling that when I go out I find myself in spaces largely filled with white people – this is tied to years of segregation that I, growing up in a ‘free’ country, remained affected by the racial separation of space that occurred a generation before me.

      As I mentioned in the article I acknowledge that I am not doing enough but conversely I also think that there are many that go out and ‘do’ without thinking about the complexity of our context. We need to learn to be more critical and more aware of how our history has privileged some more than others and to be more nuanced as we try to move away from think in the world in only black and white.

    • Claudia

      Thought this article might contribute to the discussion on privelege