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Where were the white people on Reconciliation Day?

Yesterday we held our 21st Consciousness Café event of 2016 at the Joburg Theatre’s Penthouse. We chose this space not only for its floor-to-ceiling views of the city, an inspiring backdrop for a Day of Reconciliation dialogue, but also because it has safe parking and a bus stop outside. It’s accessible to pretty much everybody. When we arrived, the lifts were full of little blonde-haired children clutching their parents hands, on their way to watch the pantomime, Robin Hood.

As the classic tale of the hero who takes from the rich and redistributes to the poor took to the stage, 50 South African citizens gathered upstairs in a circle to have a four-hour group dialogue about what real reconciliation would look like and what’s stopping it from happening.

Among them were 46 black people and four white people. Four.

Where were you?

We joked that you had already gone to your holiday home. We reassured the room that white people had come in bigger numbers before, like when we held a Consciousness Café in the ’burbs. And yes, in fairness, by ratio there should have been less white people there. We are in the minority. We make up only 19.1% of the population of Gauteng* (out of a total population of 13.2m at 2015 census). Stick to the math and only 9.5 out of 50 should have been white.

But the room was not content with our explanation because this was the Day of Reconciliation; this was the day it mattered. This was the day set aside for us to rip the plasters off apartheid’s still suppurating wounds and, instead, what most South Africans – of all races – prefer to do is have a lekker time.

Let’s reconcile ourselves to another six pack of beers. Let’s reconcile ourselves to loud music and a braai. Let’s reconcile ourselves to another year of being divided so political elites can trample all over us. Let’s reconcile ourselves to the status quo because my life is fine. After all, I don’t really know all that much about it.

Earlier in the week, the arts and culture department tweeted: “How do you reconcile with other races when there is only one race at these dialogues, national days, imbizos etc?”

I’ve never wanted to be the finger-wagging white because I know it’s pointless. White South Africans don’t like being told what to do – it’s the colonialists’ complex (and the real reason why Brexit happened). The former top dog doesn’t like taking orders or suggestions from anyone. No one must call us out on our behaviour and nobody must tell us to reflect on the past. We already pay our taxes, what more do you want?

Well, after co-facilitating Consciousness Café dialogues all through this year, I can tell you what some black South Africans want.

They want you to listen to them.

They want you to come into a safe-enough space so they can tell you how apartheid and the myth of white supremacy messed with their minds. And how it’s still a daily struggle to tell themselves that they are good enough.

They want to tell you how hurtful it is when people say that “they must just get over it”, but how nobody ever says that to a Jew about the Holocaust.

They want to tell you how terrible it feels every time a white woman clutches her handbag when she walks past a black guy; how offensive it is that you can’t tell the difference between an engineer and a thief.

That racism is real and it’s still happening in a black-ruled country and where black people are in the majority.

They want to ask you why you are so scared of all black people (not just the criminals) because, after all, which nation of black people has ever invaded a white nation?

They want to tell you that retribution does not mean war, but the effects of the 1913 Land Act (that banned black people from owning land) and forced removals are a giant stinking hangover – worse than the one you have today.

They want to tell you how infuriating it is when you are studying philosophy at Wits and the subject of the African philosophy of Ubuntu comes up, and four of the five set readings are written by white men, even though there are at least another 20 recommended papers written by black writers.

They want to tell you that they are sick of feeling like unwanted guests on the land of their ancestors. They want to tell you that you are the settler.

They want to tell you that you do belong here, but you’re not African, and that your system of doing things is not necessarily the right or the best system for the health, wealth and well-being for the majority of the people of this country.

And you may have a lot of things you want to say back.

But you only get to say them if you actually come along.

Stop hiding behind the internet.

PS. The two young Jewish mothers who hired babysitters and came from suburbia, got to say something back. The dialogue was fierce. Black anger and white fear squared up against each other. Together we stood in a raging fire, and everyone left with their consciousness altered.

Our next Consciousness Café will be on Saturday, January 28 2017. Venue TBC. Follow Consciousness Café on Facebook:

This post was first published on Follow on Twitter @writerclb


  • Claire L Bell

    Claire co-runs Consciousness Café, a pop-up café which hosts dialogues about racism and other thorny SA issues. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to Time magazine, The Independent, The Scotsman, The Herald, and was an Open Society Foundation for South Africa media fellow. Her weekly blog,, is about racism, prejudice, and the difficulty of human transformation.