I can sum up my feelings over the last 20 years of democracy in South Africa as being a progression of emotions, from concern (pre 1994) to euphoria (elections) to “this is not so bad” to “quite comfortable thank you” (Mandela days) back to concern, (Zuma) then to anger (Nkandla et al), followed by frustration (Zuma again), and finally “Now I get it” – my own “road to Damascus” moment.

By “get it” I mean that I finally understand why people of colour in this country remain so angry, why the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall protests occurred. I understand why, despite the ANC having failed South Africans so emphatically, the people who have primarily been let down do not automatically exercise the power of democracy and support other parties well-qualified to govern, even those with strong black leadership. Many prefer not to vote, that’s all.

I know this because I have started talking to black people about these things. These are real, heart-to-heart conversations, and I have been astonished by what I have learned. I believe we can have these conversations because I have earned some trust through my efforts to talk their own language, even if only haltingly.

One newly discovered truth (shocking that it took so long to realise it) was that equality through equal access to opportunity still eludes the majority of people born in this country. Another was that continued support for the ANC may represent more of an “anti-white” sentiment than loyalty to a former liberation movement, or to the memory of Nelson Mandela as its leader. A worrying third was the growing attraction of the Economic Freedom Fighters, despite all reasonable signs being that South Africa would be in even more trouble if the EFF came to power.

Opening up about white privilege, whiteness and inequality is not easy. Thankfully more and more people are being brave enough to confront these sensitive issues, and this means looking deep within and being self-critical. It’s not always nice what one sees.

I’ll offer a topical example.

When I saw the well-publicised news clips about the shooting incident where a black alleged robber was gunned down by police, the immediate, ingrained thought in my mind was “Good. Another criminal gone.” It was almost a reflex, and immediately I felt embarrassed.

My second, more considered thought was “What if the robber had been white?” I probably would have reasoned “That’s a bit harsh! Innocent until proved guilty, etc, etc.” Then the distinct possibility came to me that a white alleged robber would probably not have been fired upon by the black policemen, because whites are still seen as being more valuable than blacks, even by blacks themselves. This, folks, is white privilege.

I can make this alarming statement through reference to posts like this that suggest this worrying idea is true, because they are written by black people who would know.

This discussion is not an easy one to have. Yet all over the world, where racism is still experienced in its most subtle form, ie failure to acknowledge white privilege, whites who “get it” are starting to talk about this openly. There are resources, documentaries like MTV’s White People, that are bringing the topic into the open, not to make whites feel bad, not to make us feel ashamed to be white as many against this will argue, but simply to educate us, so that we see the other side of the story.

To do so, to be part of the initial tide of whites to confront the advantages of the past and the present and to acknowledge them takes courage. My own experience is that this is a liberating process, one that removes both arrogance and guilt, and replaces both with empathy and understanding.

This is a very good time in South Africa for white South Africans to be courageous, before the millions of black South Africans still disadvantaged by white privilege run out of patience.



Martin Young

Martin Young is an ENT surgeon living an idyllic life in Knysna. He is a firm believer that "the unexamined life is not worth living", writes for a hobby and is happy to speak truth to power www.drmartinyoung.com...

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