It’s time to admit it. You’re white and you benefited.
This is the challenge that Roger Young and Leonard Shapiro have set for white South Africans. The pair created and is selling T-shirts that read across the front: “I benefited from apartheid.” They say the T-shirts are their attempt at beginning “an important conversation about … being born into a system where whites were privileged”.
I think it a fair enough idea, though the phrase ought to be expressed in the present tense — I benefit. A quick gander at the indicators of privilege (income, asset ownership, access to opportunities) will tell you that whites still benefit from the effects of apartheid’s stacked deck, despite how some among them deny accruing a single benefit from the system and are the most vocal about the supposed hardships they face today.
The T-shirt’s Tumblr page has begun collating the responses of this vocal lot to being called out on their privilege. The results are predictable and mindboggling.
The other side of the coin is that this may devolve into “progressive” white folk wearing a T-shirt and earning cool points for acknowledging the patently obvious, yet doing little else beyond that. But let me leave white folk to their own and talk about mine instead.
It’s easy to critique another’s privilege but much harder to see your own let alone analyse and respond adequately to it. This is because privilege is an expression of relative position. Examining your own, though, is seldom a comparison of like with like. You hold up a subjective view of yourself against your outsider view of another. Your privilege you can qualify — I sacrificed this to gain that; I studied hard for this — but see little of the effort and sacrifices made by the other, often for naught. The privilege blindness becomes more acute when the relative privilege you enjoy comes at the expense of the other.
This is the only way I’ve been able to rationalise why there hasn’t been a call to arms from my people, the middle class, over the failure of this country’s public schooling system. I’d thought that we with greater access to the internet, TV and radio talk shows, news opinion pages and other public platforms would champion righting this injustice considering the effect education has had on our lives. But no.
We enjoy middle-class privilege primarily because we received a higher quality of basic education relative to what many others receive. We either lucked out and went to one of the few quality public schools there are or our parents could afford private schools — yet we credit individual efforts for our achievements. Not only that, the poor basic education received by many in this country makes middle-class privilege here all the more sweeter because we can afford things we might otherwise never been able to afford, like people to clean our homes and take care of our kids, tend our gardens, pack our groceries, open and close boomgates, pump our gas, shine our shoes … I could go on.
The point is the failure of the basic education system provides a large pool of cheap, unskilled labour to fulfil middle-class needs, whims and desires, and decreases the competition for middle-class jobs. As beneficiaries of the failure, it makes good sense, tacitly or explicitly, for us not to kick up a fuss over it, as inhumane and short term a view as that may be.
Things would be completely different if everybody received the same, high-quality basic education. There would have been tens of thousands eligible and qualified for that cushy office job you have and you’d have to clean your own house. Getting into university would have been tougher, too, if the public schooling system didn’t automatically disqualify almost 70% of those who matriculate from it.
So it’s no surprise that there was a muted response from us when Angie Motshekga said the right to education is not an immediately realisable right and that pupils should wait until government has the resources to deliver quality education. For this same reason there wasn’t as much as a peep from my people, the middle class, when the basic education department admitted that it is likely to miss its target of improving the quality of basic education by 2014.
Which is why if Young and Shapiro’s campaign achieves its stated aim, I might start producing T-shirts of my own targeted at the middle class. Across the front they’ll read: I benefit from the failure of the basic education system.