By Jackie Shandu
Was Steve Biko over-optimistic when he said ”blacks are tired of standing on the sidelines and witnessing a game in which they should be participating”? It seems to me black South Africans do not want to be involved in the struggle for their own liberation. How else does one interpret the frenzy black people all over the country have gotten into as a result of Gillian Schutte’s letter to white people?
The letter says “Dear White People”. A white person writes to fellow white settlers to discuss their collective and unique problem of race privilege, supremacy and racism. Very well. This is precisely what Biko taught us, that the work of white anti-racists is in the white communities — they need to talk each other out of racial arrogance while we blacks talk each other out of self-hatred. Later we meet as equals, to decide on the kind of South Africa we want to build — if whites are interested. Biko reprimands white liberals out of black communities and reminds them they can’t have it both ways: gladly accept exclusive race privileges but also moonlight as anti-racists. The blatant hypocrisy is out there for everyone to see: accept skin-colour benefits and repeatedly vote back into power that racism machinery, yet make an empty claim to non-racism.
I welcomed Gillian’s letter because I thought she would create an alternative space for white activists who are crowding and collapsing the black struggle. I thought at last we would have white people talking among themselves about their issues, as opposed to the dominant practice of imposing themselves on black initiatives while their stomachs and purses are full of white privilege. With benefit of hindsight, I should have known better. Blacks, educated urban ones in particular, went crazy. It’s a combination of being star-struck, drunk, mad, high, possessed etc. All these states of body and mind at the same. This is the prevailing white effect on black bodies/minds. I am not faulting Gillian, neither am I interested in the subsequent discourse after her letter was published. I respect people and give them the necessary space to sort out their affairs. The letter is addressed to white people, written by a fellow white settler, raising issues of collective concern in the white community. I am not white, I therefore fall outside the scope and ambit of the letter.
But why has this letter caused so much noise and excitement in the black community? Therein lays the fundamental damage in the minds of black people. So unprepared and unwilling to fight their own battles, black people will celebrate any white person that purports to be doing or saying things on their behalf. Two phenomena are at play here: fear and misguided admiration. Black people fear white supremacy so much they would rather self-censor in order to remain in the good books of white people in general. Those who claim to be communist are under immense pressure to stick to the traditional Marxist lexicon of ”capital” against ”working class” even though its crystal clear that in South Africa capital is white and the working class black, save for the apartheid-created puppet black elite and the tender-manufactured political class. That’s why the victims of the ANC-sponsored Marikana massacre are all black. That’s why the victims of grand exploitation in the Western Cape farms are all black. That’s why victims of the ANC Lenasia demolitions are all black. Still, black communists prefer the abstract language so as not to offend fellow white comrades. We are a rainbow nation after all, well, so the fairy-tale goes.
The second phenomenon governing the pathetic behaviour of black people is misguided admiration for whiteness. Whiteness is shoved down our throats 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s on television, radio, internet, billboards, lecture theatres, company boardrooms, church halls — THERE IS NO ESCAPE FROM WHITENESS. Black people have deeply internalised the unquestionable supremacy of whiteness that even among themselves, in the ghetto, they are always exchanging ideas of how best and quickly to fully assimilate into the white culture, be it through moving to reside in Sandton, applying skin-lightening creams or plugging in straight hair to the heads of black women.
Whiteness is now a self-sustaining practice entrenched in the psyche of black people. Everybody who possesses white flesh is thus instantly admired, loved, looked up to as an ipso facto embodiment of truth, beauty, intelligent and progress. And if that possessor of the white flesh displays pity and solidarity for the never-ending horrors visited upon black bodies by white supremacy, he/she becomes an instant hero in the black community. We blacks fear whiteness, we are not prepared to confront it. We are desperate for some whites to intervene on our behalf, not unlike how some people left the soil of oppression and sailed all the way to Britain, to plead to the Queen to intervene on our behalf. Even black Americans, being a minority in the US, have never displayed such pathetic cowardice to fight against their oppression. But we, the indigenous people, the overwhelming majority have shivers down our spines from the mere thought of confronting white racism in our country.
Was Biko misguided in stating: “We are going to change South Africa. What we’ve got to decide is the best way to do that. And as angry as we have the right to be, let us remember that we are in the struggle to kill the idea that one kind of man is superior to another kind of man. And killing that idea is not dependent on the white man. We must stop looking to him to give us something. We have to fill the black community with our own pride. We have to teach our black children black history, tell them about our black heroes, our black culture, so they don’t face the white man believing they are inferior. Then we’ll stand up to him in any way he chooses. Conflict, if he likes, but with an open hand, too, to say we can all build a South Africa worth living in — a South Africa for equals, black or white, a South Africa as beautiful as this land is, as beautiful as we are.”
When will the culture of expecting white messiahs stop? When will we blacks take it upon ourselves to fight our own battles, to the exclusion of white do-gooders?
Jackie Shandu is an MA student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, currently in Germany on an exchange programme.