It is happening.
Last night in a church in Parktown North, three white Afrikaans men tried to explain how it feels to be white to an audience of almost-exclusively black South Africans. The previous night, in a church in Pretoria, three black men opened up to what it was like to be black, and what they thought of whites, to a whites-only audience*.
“You tend to find these conversations happening in homogenous clusters, whites with whites, blacks with blacks. We’re trying to bridge that divide,” says Thulani Madinginye, co-founder of Real Talk, the group that is spearheading this movement.
Thulani was also quick to apologise for the male-only voices on stage.
“It was a complete oversight and bias on our side as we were men organising the event,” he said after the event.
First up in Parktown North was advocate Johan Kruger. As the director of the Centre for Constitutional Affairs, it was clear he wanted the audience to understand how enlightened he was and how he, personally, understood the deep injustice of pre-1994, while conceding that “many white South Africans see 1994 as a compromise, not about achieving justice”.
His personal complaint then was of being repeatedly being seen in the same light of the unenlightened South Africans. Always the guilty white man.
“Often we don’t see each other as people, but products of our own prejudices,” he cautioned the audience.
Next up was Werner Human, an attorney for AfriForum, which he defined as a civil rights organisation to advance and sustain the Afrikaans language, comparing it to the likes of Equal Education. It was a comparison that stuck in the throat. While Equal Education works for equality and quality in education for every South African, AfriForum champions only Afrikaners. His opening gambit was perhaps the hardest to hear: “We are made up of different people with different needs.”
The premise of apartheid. Still there.
“We must acknowledge the wrongs of the past, but it does not mean there is a strike through the rest of our identity,” he went on to say. “We feel like we are being disadvantaged and that there is no room for us and our language.”
Last up was Andre van Zyl, a teacher.
“This is not something I envisioned myself doing ever,” he said, going on to list five things that he thinks black people don’t understand about Afrikaners.
“1. We are newly rich. A hundred years ago we had come out of two wars with the English. We had nothing. We are selectively bred to be hardy and contradictory.
2. All Afrikaners are mixed race – a mix of French, German, Dutch.
3. You cannot be an Afrikaner if you live outside this country. There is no second-generation Afrikaners. You cannot be Afrikaans without Africa.
4. We are confused and damaged. You can’t hurt others without hurting yourself.
5. We have no leaders who speak for us. We are leaderless. We have no political power. We have a sense of loss, guilt and frustration that the things promised by 1994 have not come to pass.”
The audience were polite. They listened quietly. Then the questions came. The format was set out in advance.
“You can only ask clarifying questions, no attacking,” instructs Thulani.
“What about Afrikaans culture is actually under attack and needs representation?”
“Aren’t you hiding behind the Constitution to be exclusive?”
“You say we need to be on the same side, but how can you be on my side when whiteness has always made me the other?”
“What do you mean about a sense of loss – what is that?”
The white men tried again. The attorneys seemed to retreat behind language. Andre dug deeper.
“How do I describe that sense of loss?” he says. “We got used to certain things and certain rights. We were in power. We had everything we wanted in this country. That sense of loss is not a rational thing, it’s a visceral emotional thing.”
Time was up too soon. They got a fierce round of applause. For being brave. For giving honesty a go. Everyone left wanting more. Needing more.
For twenty years we have kept our heads down. Tata Mandela encouraged us to forgive and so we built a rainbow and used it as a bridge to ferry us the other side. But we know now that the bridge was just a temporary fix, and in order to build a stronger, more durable rainbow, we need to create spaces in which we can confront and question the prejudice, ignorance and fear in each of our hearts – a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the everyman.
If you are ready to get uncomfortable in a safe space, this Saturday, October 17, Real Talk is hosting a “Perspectives in Black and White” dialogue (8.30am-1.30pm, entry free) at Pierre van Ryneveld Gemeenskapskerk in Centurion.
Also check out the Consciousness Café and the No-Name-Initiative, both of which hold probing dialogues across the country. Connect with them at:
*I was unable to attend the dialogue in Pretoria.