Martin Young
Martin Young

Now is a good time for South African whites to show courage

I can sum up my feelings over the last 20 years of democracy in South Africa as being a progression of emotions, from concern (pre 1994) to euphoria (elections) to “this is not so bad” to “quite comfortable thank you” (Mandela days) back to concern, (Zuma) then to anger (Nkandla et al), followed by frustration (Zuma again), and finally “Now I get it” – my own “road to Damascus” moment.

By “get it” I mean that I finally understand why people of colour in this country remain so angry, why the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall protests occurred. I understand why, despite the ANC having failed South Africans so emphatically, the people who have primarily been let down do not automatically exercise the power of democracy and support other parties well-qualified to govern, even those with strong black leadership. Many prefer not to vote, that’s all.

I know this because I have started talking to black people about these things. These are real, heart-to-heart conversations, and I have been astonished by what I have learned. I believe we can have these conversations because I have earned some trust through my efforts to talk their own language, even if only haltingly.

One newly discovered truth (shocking that it took so long to realise it) was that equality through equal access to opportunity still eludes the majority of people born in this country. Another was that continued support for the ANC may represent more of an “anti-white” sentiment than loyalty to a former liberation movement, or to the memory of Nelson Mandela as its leader. A worrying third was the growing attraction of the Economic Freedom Fighters, despite all reasonable signs being that South Africa would be in even more trouble if the EFF came to power.

Opening up about white privilege, whiteness and inequality is not easy. Thankfully more and more people are being brave enough to confront these sensitive issues, and this means looking deep within and being self-critical. It’s not always nice what one sees.

I’ll offer a topical example.

When I saw the well-publicised news clips about the shooting incident where a black alleged robber was gunned down by police, the immediate, ingrained thought in my mind was “Good. Another criminal gone.” It was almost a reflex, and immediately I felt embarrassed.

My second, more considered thought was “What if the robber had been white?” I probably would have reasoned “That’s a bit harsh! Innocent until proved guilty, etc, etc.” Then the distinct possibility came to me that a white alleged robber would probably not have been fired upon by the black policemen, because whites are still seen as being more valuable than blacks, even by blacks themselves. This, folks, is white privilege.

I can make this alarming statement through reference to posts like this that suggest this worrying idea is true, because they are written by black people who would know.

This discussion is not an easy one to have. Yet all over the world, where racism is still experienced in its most subtle form, ie failure to acknowledge white privilege, whites who “get it” are starting to talk about this openly. There are resources, documentaries like MTV’s White People, that are bringing the topic into the open, not to make whites feel bad, not to make us feel ashamed to be white as many against this will argue, but simply to educate us, so that we see the other side of the story.

To do so, to be part of the initial tide of whites to confront the advantages of the past and the present and to acknowledge them takes courage. My own experience is that this is a liberating process, one that removes both arrogance and guilt, and replaces both with empathy and understanding.

This is a very good time in South Africa for white South Africans to be courageous, before the millions of black South Africans still disadvantaged by white privilege run out of patience.

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    • Elvis

      It’s true. But there is a new generation that will not assign value on a person based on skin colour. These are people who understand that we are all equally valuable and have equal opportunities. However, these opportunities are not based on the same historical privilege.

    • Martin Young

      Elvis, the angriest generation is the new one – the Born Frees who see the difference between political ‘freedom’ and unequal access to opportunity. The ones who have to change attitude are the oldies like me.

    • Erhard van Zyl

      Dear Martin,

      One of the biggest problem with having a discussion like this is the use of the term ‘whiteness’. The reference to race all too obvious and will immediately polarise the debate to a point where nothing constructive is possible.

      I would also add that i think the term whiteness you use so often smacks of generalisation and intellectual laziness. You ask whites to rise to the occasion while using a term most whites I know and certainly myself will find offensive.

      Whites are taking notice of the current negative narrative towards the race they belong in the national discourse but have no idea what to do.


    • Martin Young

      Erhard, this is the term used all over the world. I don’t know of a better alternative, and none that would make it any less uncomfortable to accept that this is about being born into a certain race.

    • Jak

      I didnt get anywhere with white privilege. So I think what your saying is racist. I actually worked hard to be successful. Why don’t you talknow about black privilege. They have BEE and get into college with failing scores. That is black privilege.

    • dunesurfer

      Dear Martin,

      Sure. Point taken. However, we cannot, and should not talk about white privilege, until we don’t bring black privilege into the equation…lots of that privilege going around nowadays.

    • Kwanele Ngobese

      I am 24 and I have never voted in my life:), I always knew that one day my vote will count, and that day is now. I look forward in reducing the seats for ANC in Parliament 2016.

    • grant

      There is an equal obligation for black South Africans to face up to the disgusting looting and criminality with which this country is being run. Whiteness has no say in this, they simple pay for most of it and remain convenient targets.

      This debate is also utterly vague. So I own up to “whiteness”, what now? Must I pay money into a guilt account? Must I show more empathy? Must I pay black staff highly inflated, above market rates for their labour because of past injustice? Must I show understanding and compassion? Must I lend money interest free to staff to help them? Must I offer advice both life and financial to those who did not receive it under apartheid? Must I, on top of the tax I pay, contribute to charities to help the poor that our government could care less for? Must I support staff’s children when they need school clothes because I am from a culture where education is considered paramount? Must I give lifts to people on the road who are struggling with long walks?

      Well I do all of this and more.

      What are black South Africans doing to own up to the utter criminality of the ANC? What are they doing to stop the taxi violence and violence in general. Nothing. In fact, the majority of black South Africans are lining up and in some case getting violent to procure the position that will open the tap the trough. There is no future in this and every thinking person can see that the monster that has been created can’t be dismantled by the ANC since there is no will for those who are enriching to call it quits. Not now, not ever.

      So while we simper about in our bleating whiteness debate the country slides further into financial and social ruin. Who is going to have a debate and take responsibility for that?

    • Martin Young

      Erhard and Grant

      If I follow properly what black folk who write about this are saying, simply acknowledging our advantage is 70% of the battle won. Because when we acknowledge it and understand it, then the actions of those who did not get the same advantages we did become more understandable. Note, I’m not saying ‘commendable’, or ‘permissible.’ I disagree with much of the acting out of frustration that fills our news programs, but I understand where it comes from.

      Misunderstanding, not putting ourselves into other peoples’ shoes, is a big contributor to conflict.

      I’m doing as much as I can on a personal level, one person at a time, by being more socially and politically active. Here’s a link to one small idea that could give livelihoods to people all over the country..

      All I know is we can’t remain comfortable – too much is at stake.

    • Martin Young


      If you’re doing everything you say you are, the only thing left to admit to is being luckier in being born white than black, i.e. say yes, I had better opportunities. I believe that is the fundamental position change that we need to make.

      This is a different argument to the mismanagement and looting of the country, an issue with which I agree with you completely, and have written about it too …

      I still believe a minority has messed things up for the majority, but the level of anger is such that we can no longer afford an angry majority intent on acting out their anger. Zimbabwe’s example is too close to home.

    • Erhard van Zyl

      Hmm… again the generalisation – 70% done. If (like me) you are disabled (and BBBEE have no provisions for white disabled people) and white you have a huge battle ahead. My disability has severely impacted on my ability to access my white privilege.
      I acknowledge that there is certain advantages that whites enjoy from the past. Call it ‘Historic Privilege’, but please not ‘whiteness’. ‘Whiteness’ again for me is negative word. I think it would also be fair that certain blacks admit that they have a ‘Current Privilege’, because of the state’s equality legislation

    • Martin Young

      I suspect that even the disabled enjoy unequal access to opportunities based on skin colour, Erhard. The State’s equality legislation is designed to address exactly that, so of course it gives blacks some advantage at a specific moment in time in one area, and does not translate to general equality in the current set up.

    • Rory Short

      The bottom line is that we are all human beings and we have to deal with the particular life circumstances that we were born into. These circumstances will inevitably differ from individual to individual. In my early twenties I was privileged to come into contact with people and teachings about life which together changed my life for the better and would, if really ingested by any individual, change that individual’s life for the better too. I am white and the people who were transmitters of these valuable teachings were preponderantly white but not all of them. To me the only really disadvantaged people are those who do not encounter these teachings or ignore them.

    • Erhard van Zyl

      Any white person in this country that does not want to see black successes in the economy, education, sport ect. is extremely shortsighted. I for one believe the #FeesMustFall campaign was sport on.

      The best way to make white privilege disappear is to empower blacks to enjoy the same kind of privilege. Not with your agenda of tearing down white people.

      Do you want to encourage whites to help the country grow with a guilt trip? It will be way more positive to keep foreign terms like ‘whiteness’ out of the debate and lets get the white middle class reach out to the majority poor blacks; not because of some kind of guilt but because they recognise humanity of their compatriots.

    • grant

      Well you can call it lucky or you can call it the benefits acrued due the skills, education, Calvinist work ethic and sacrifice of my ancestors. Millions of people don’t get born lucky. They get born into a culture and get swept along by it and eventually help to define it. Getting lucky is winning the lottery. White privilege is not a lottery win, it has very clear roots only some of which admittedly rode on the back of black oppression, many of which did not. It gets built and passed down, much as philosophy and wealth in a family unit do the same. Many other factors influence white wealth and cultural hegemony. To reduce it to simple luck is intellectual dishonesty. It might make those wracked with white guilt feel better but it is factually inaccurate and it is not a helpful narrative. The foundations of white European wealth were forged in the crucible of Westphalia and the dog fight that was Europe for the past 1000 years and we are still living with that momentum. The agenda of the people who lived, struggled and died in Europe at that time was survival. It was often hell and eventually out of that hell endured by my fathers, fathers, fathers, there came, eventually, the benefits you call luck and privilege.

      Let me ask you this, are the Chinese lucky? The Japanese? The Germans? Should they examine their Chineseness and tap back on their growth and give the other poorer nations a chance? How do you even begin to practically implement something so farcical?

      There is a very strong case for leveling the playing field, helping the poor, spreading the amazing technology available around the world, educating the planet. These are all positive steps that can be undertaken without resorting to the degradation of European culture which it to date the most powerful and hopeful cultural force ever to have rocked this planet, warts and all.

    • Martin Young

      My ‘agenda’ is to suggest to white people that there is an invisible barrier to growing this country equally, and that barrier is invisible to us alone. Until we both see it and understand it we whites will remain obstacles to the painful changes that are necessary because, not of what and who we are, but because of how we react to black peoples’ demands.

      “Agenda of tearing down white people” is completely inaccurate and tells me that you don’t really understand the issue.

    • Erhard van Zyl

      The issue is we need a bigger pie.

    • carol berry

      Mr Young – long time since I have read anything by you! I am white – my father fought in the the war, and, upon his return, was given an rdp house and plot – we had no bathroom, we had an outdoor toilet (long drop), we peeed into a pottie at night…. and we were lucky enough to have a coal stove. I was in boarding school for 12 years, my father farmed other people’s farms during the day, then his own at night – on the day I left school, having gained a matric, within a week I was in a boarding house (to live) and had got a job as a typist – no gap year for me, no free versity (I would have loved to do medicine), (the inbetween week I spent at my boyfriends home…)

      Yes, I have always believed, and still believe, that, if you have a family of 5, and only 2 are working, because the other 3 are not allowed to get the work then want, the entire family suffers…. how much better if all 5 of the family can work…. for too long the non white people, excluding the indian fraternity who have always made their own “luck” by being hard working close knit families, were treated like children, and not expected to work for their life or living – just getting “hand outs” from whites and expected to be happy about it….

      I still believe the above – I am pleased to see that non white people can get education, can live where they want to – if they can afford it – etc….

      But I have found that the present regime just do not actually care about the people, they actually do not care about the country going forward and being able to support everyone who lives in it so that everyone in the country can give their best for the country…. surely if something – i.e. the water purification works – needs urgent repair, one must utelise the people with knowledge in this, be they white or not…. why bring in cubans when we have the people in south africa who know how to fix this….

      There is a huge problem with our present regime – regime covering the people in government not the general public, – in that they will not admit that they have messed up, they have messed up with electricity, with the post office not running, not to mention the train saga- Dr Phil says the first step to fixing a problem is owning the problem –

      Lets get the show on the road, let us all care about the future (and the present) of south africa – lets stop the white this and the black that – we all need to live decent lives – we can do it if we all try – stop placing the guilt trip on the whites and remember that the whites left a legacy which almost lasted 20 year – the roads, the hospitals (and i am not going to go down that road – anyone you know had to go to any of the government hospitals lately!!!!!), the schools – lack of – hearing of a grade 1 pupil drowning in a long drop at school – AND NO ONE MISSED HIM UNTIL HIS MOTHER CAME LOOKING FOR HIM, our dire standard of education…..


      Carol Berry