Koos Kombuis
Koos Kombuis

Whiteness – it must be possible to transcend black and white divisions (Part 2)

In many ways, this is a time of awakening.

I should say “rude awakening”, because the awakening I am speaking of holds many unpleasant surprises.

With “awakening”, I mean the sensation of seeing something for what it is for the first time. Waking up from false preconceived notions. A flash of recognition after which nothing will ever be the same again.

Almost four years ago, I remember feeling a warm fuzzy feeling when President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term. How I liked the man. Up till that moment he had not really lived up to all his promises, but, I thought, during the next four years, surely this man will show the world that he is a better leader than that war-hungry George W Bush.

Obama is now on his way out. He has proved himself to be no different from his predecessors. His interventions in Libya and elsewhere had caused chaos in the Middle East and his foreign policy was responsible for the migrant crisis facing Europe today.

Speaking of Europe, that continent is no longer the bastion of tolerance and elegant sophistication it was once. They are teetering on the brink of extinction.

Photo by Oupa Nkosi (M&G)

Photo by Oupa Nkosi (M&G)

Our salvation no longer lies with the West. Will Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump fare better than Obama? That is probably a rhetorical question.

“Awakening”, to me, means seeing something or somebody as if you notice reality for the first time.

It also happened between me and my family. After the death of my parents, I tried hard to reconcile with my siblings. We had become estranged years ago, there was a lot of bitterness. I started sending them birthday wishes, and made an effort to be nice. Reconciliation was achieved. The bitterness is gone.

Yet nothing has been solved. Not really. We still have absolutely nothing in common. I don’t hate them anymore, but neither can I love them. In fact, I don’t understand them at all. The feeling is probably mutual.

“Awakening” can, under some circumstances, be pleasant. In my previous column, I wrote about “whiteness”. I had had a bad experience with some middle-aged male liberals (like myself) at a party, under the influence of alcohol. When, later on, I met some of these people without the dulling effects of inebriation, they seemed quite nice. I was nice too. I awakened to the fact that “whiteness”, in itself, is not a crime. It might bespeak of a certain cultural blindness, and that blindness is something that must be addressed, but the situation need not be hopeless.

The crux of the matter is that, no matter how much we complain about one another, how much we hate one another’s guts at times, South Africa needs all South Africans to make us work as a country. Waking up to “whiteness” if it induces guilt is one thing, but guilt is not enough. In fact, guilt can become counter-productive.

So, in the end – speaking of “whiteness” – and having faced the “whiteness” within myself – it is inevitable, too, that I must transcend that. To my own credit, I must admit that, when I wrote about President Obama just now, I had completely forgotten that he was a black man.

I think that is a step forward. It is possible, it MUST be possible, to transcend the narrative of black and white divisions. Of course cultural differences exist. But these need not be definitive.

The present South African government is trying its utmost to revive racism in this country. They have to do it because they need scapegoats. They need others to blame for their own failures. They can’t blame the coloureds, though, because, frankly, they have long forgotten that coloured people even exist. They can’t blame the Indians, because that would insult their friends the Guptas. So they blame the descendants of Jan van Riebeeck. We’ve been there before, we’d done that ourselves a million times, all of us have been guilty of stereotyping others when it suited us, but it’s time to get over that.

The Boer War is over. We have moved on to the extent that, though I am Afrikaans-speaking, I find it hard to remember, after the fact, whether a conversation I had just had with someone had taken place in English or Afrikaans.

I look forward to a time when I can have a conversation with someone and not remember, afterwards, whether the person I spoke to was black or white.

We are not there yet. But it is a tantalising possibility. Once most of us reach that point, it will be the culmination of our collective awakening.

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    • Martin Babrew

      You could give Pres Obama a LOT more credit than you have. Pointing to a couple of his failings and ignoring the massive strides he has made and how much worse it would have been under a Republican is not balanced. Ask the people who now have affordable medical care for the first time, ask the LGBT community, etc.

    • Ishmael Mbetse

      Race exists. We can not deny that, but there is a difference between racism and racialism. Being aware of race is not a reason for one to be racist. Racism is something that people are taught, and in our country, lessons on how to be racist are still continuing -even with the painful and recent history that we have. We are not different because we are black or white…and that is why I share your conviction that it is possible to transcend black and white divisions, but I most certainly do not agree with the assertion that “the present South African government is trying its utmost to revive racism in this country.” The South African government was formed in 1994 on the basis of non-racism, and that foundation is still there. It is a constitutional tenet. Racism exists, and it is everywhere, and in spite of its shortcomings or failures, it is a fallacy and it is disingenuous to say that the South African government is reviving racism.