Martin Young
Martin Young

The question every white South African has to ask

“What if I were black?”

I am beginning to understand as a white person why the fundamental causes of the inequality that persists in South African society have to be addressed, and the critical role that we whites have to play in bringing about changes towards removing inequality.

Without white buy-in to the notion of a reconciled South African, multiracial and harmonious society, and what it will take to get there, our future as a country is very uncertain. We are clearly nowhere near there yet, and white intransigence is largely responsible. Black people have good reason to be angry because we clearly haven’t “changed” enough to see inequality start to disappear. This is the process lacking in our country at the moment.

The first step in starting this process is for whites to understand and acknowledge the challenges of being black under our present system. This is not difficult. Just ask the question and spend a few minutes thinking it over. It is too easy to be overcome by misconceptions and wrong beliefs, one example of which I surprisingly read recently from a well-educated white news editor, ie that “poverty is due to laziness”. How many other whites truly believe this? Too many, from the comments I saw on the thread following his post.

Now more than ever we need to use our “emotional intelligence” – the ability to put oneself in another’s situation and to read correctly the feelings and emotions of that person. The best way that I can think of to do this in the context of our racial debate is to imagine oneself in another colour skin.

So what if I were black? I didn’t choose to be white middle class. It was completely accidental, a winning lotto number in the vast multitude of possibilities of being a member of any culture anywhere in the world.

I know that if I had been born to an average South African black family, the chances of my being a self-employed, middle-class medical professional are ridiculously small, because of all the many obstacles that would have been in my way. I was just lucky to have opportunities that I could use to further myself. The vast majority of our fellow South Africans were not that lucky.

That single spark of recognition has changed my view on just about everything relating to discussion on race and on our politics. I don’t buy into the concept of “white guilt”, just that I have a responsibility being fortunate to offer a hand up to those who are not.

The processes and means by which that “hand-up” is accomplished are up to us as a society to decide, but any suggestion is bound to have detractors unless the need for it in the first place is recognised. The starting point is to acknowledge that we have to do anything at all.

For too long whites have been too disengaged from the challenges facing us as a country. An honest self-reflection on this simple question is a good place to start.

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    • Frik De Wet

      What if I were black? I would finally have some excellent rhythm and not look so damn awkward on the dance floor….

    • Karl-Heinz Sittlinger

      This is one of those discussion that may seem helpful, but in the end, it opens up questions beyond race, and we end up in the tired old class debate.
      Let me put up a theory: Absolutely anyone that has any kind of privilege, loaths to give it up, especially if your sacrifice seems to be swallowed up by other privileged individuals.

      While it is true and very good that we should use our “eq” to put ourselves into the position of someone who never had a real chance in this world based on his skin colour, we should not fall into the trap of blaming everything and all on apartheid (like we have been seeing a lot of in the ANC) lately, nor should we condone for reasons of political correctness actions that can only cause violence (TOKELO NHLAPO view that it’s OK to run around in a T-shirt with the f*** white people print). Nor should we allow institutions like the ANC to loot the state.
      So…let’s by all means put ourselves in the position to at least try and understand how black people feel about hundreds of years of oppression, but also understand that people of all color don’t like loosing power and privilege, which as we can so clearly see, includes the very people that were charged to help with the inequalities of this country, and instead are stealing as much as they can, while sowing hatred and decision purposefully.

    • martin

      The only way out of inequality is to become equal.
      And that means blacks improving themselves through education/ education/ and education to close the gap and become more employable, productive and wealthy over time. There simply is no other way.
      The only problem is that we have a government that precludes these possibilities. It has wrecked education – through its own actions and those of its trade union allies – and makes it extremely difficult for ordinary people to learn in the workplace because it has trashed so many jobs through its labour law regime.
      I really think you are delusional if you think that the whiteys have been responsible for that.

    • Jon Quirk

      We are who we are, and there is nothing any of us can do to change where we came from.

      I too was lucky in the lottery of birth; not that my parents were rich, very far from it, or offered me any other leg up – but I was born in Britain, where good schooling was the norm. I went to a very ordinary government school until the age of 11 when I was fortunate enough, had worked hard enough and had an IQ commensurate with, winning a scholarship and going on to a very good grammar school. Once on the right track I just kept going.

      I would like to think that all of this is possible in South Africa fifty years on from when it happened to me. If it is not then the education system is seriously deficient, and herein, I suspect lies the real problem.

      I had fabulous, committed and dedicated teachers; one drove me and four others around, in his own time and expense, in his little Ford Anglia to play chess. He was passionate about the game and its potential to grow minds, such that a young nine year old lad, from a school in the docklands could become national schools chess champion.

      Similar teachers gave of their time and energies in the sporting arena, and here too, thanks to their efforts, I too excelled.

      Dedicated teachers make the difference – break down the moulds that society tries to put us into and allows some, yes the lucky few, to rise above.

      In a South African context this means radically lifting the standard of teachers – breaking the SADTU hold that ties all to the lowest denominator, and placing teachers centrally as proud, important members of all communities.

      It will take a generation, there are no short-cuts, and it will take dedication; but it is the only way.

    • Jon Quirk

      This results from poor time allocation; whilst you perhaps were reading and studying, others were jiving and dancing.

      It is a simple matter of QED; reverse the roles and the reverse would apply – and then you too might be an unemployed, but highly talented dancer….

    • Manu

      Martin Young I congratulate you for having the courage to take the journey.

      I agree with you t100% hat white South Africans have to come out strongly and make it clear that they are against racial inequality. Racial inequality is in my view the biggest threat to the stability of South Africa, and if all are not fully committed committed to demolishing it, then very difficult times lie ahead.

    • Paul S

      A case of a day late and a dollar short. This introspection and self-analysis should have happened back in the mid-90’s, when the nation was receptive and ready for positive change. Neither white or black did that. Now we are at each other’s throats and the likes of EFF are now here to take what could have been mutually agreed upon.

    • Shelley Nott

      The thing that sticks in my throat is this assumption that all white people come from a ‘middle class’ background. I fully understand where there were privileges, but for gods sake not all of us even had supportive parents or a stable enough background, or a family network of people willing to look out for you. Some of us also grew up with no hope for further education – in fact, as an intelligent person who really didn’t have to work hard at school, it didn’t even occur to me to try and hit the best grades for a bursary, because no-one had bother to mention that was even an option. And there were a hell of a lot of other kids in similar situations, homeless at 17 with a matric and the clothes on ones back. The blanket covers way to broadly.

    • ian shaw

      Manu, the only ace in the ANC’s repertoire of vote-getting strategy is to keep the race issue in front and even inflame it.

    • Matthew Jensen

      Good article, the author is basically espousing a concept in philosophy called the “veil of ignorance” This clip is worth a watch to any interested.