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The dilemma of race

By Guy Chennells

This article is in continuation of a debate that I must admit I’ve only partly followed. It’s about race and being South African. If you know what you’re going to say in response already, this is not for you. If you feel a gnawing hunger for an unsure offering, like it’s a missing vitamin from your diet of opinionated point-makers, then tuck in your napkin and read on. Maybe you will add nuance to your views and help to broaden those of others.

My premise: there are some really nasty people in the world. Mostly, they make the lives of their spouses, kids, and co-workers unhappy. They manipulate, they judge unfairly, they use violence on people weaker than them. It is unfortunate that some of them are also great – not in the admirable sense, but in the sense that they have capacity to be influential on a level wider than just their families and communities. When those people get into power (and they’re the ones who fight the hardest for it) they do what all their co-assholes do and inflict misery on their entire circle of influence, bar the few that tow their narcissistic line.

People all lie somewhere on a good-bad continuum, I suppose, but on the other side of an arbitrary line on the continuum lie the rest of us. Not evil, per se, but not short of ugly motives, laziness, or selfishness either. Most of us are like this. If things are in our favour, we’ll take it. If they’re not, we’ll complain, endure and grow bitter. We’ll rail against unfair disadvantage, but quietly accept an unfair advantage. White people in South Africa were in a position to do the latter for years. If they just towed the line, or protested quietly, they could enjoy an unfair advantage in life at the glaring cost of anyone not fortunate enough to be in their arbitrary club. They did what people do – they worked hard, built businesses, studied, kept up with the Joneses. You would have done the same. It’s totally mind blowing how quickly people become accustomed to prejudice in their favour, and find the mental methods to live with it. It may sound like I’m justifying apartheid. I’m not, at all. But I want to lay the blame at two levels. Primarily, on those who are evil, narcissistic, obstinate, power-hungry, capable, and luckier or stronger than the rest. And then on those who are human and happen to fall among fate’s favoured few. I blame you. I blame me. I blame people for acquiescing to a regime of hatred and oppression when it suited them. I blame people for acquiescing to a regime of hatred and oppression when it suits them now. You are white and you are black. Some of you have thrown in your lot with evil in the past. Some of you do it now. Some will do it in the future. You, we, are all wrong to do it.

I hate that my education and success are illegitimate, built on oppressive advantage. But then I hate the idea of giving it up now because it was ill-gained. I do something to help those who are “historically disadvantaged”, but it’s always from my surplus. I don’t share to the extent that I’m financially equivalent to the people that I help. Andile Mngxitama wrote an arresting article that snapped me out of my malaise; but it also made me feel that as a white person, I’m trapped within this dilemma. He doesn’t seem to want me to progressively reform and give as much as I can bring my selfish soul to part with – that would be humiliating, insulting “benevolence”. What’s startling is that with this line of reasoning he fatalistically suggests that all white people can do is “simply laugh out loud”. In other words, coming from an unethical position of privilege there is nothing ethical that whites can do – the agency lies entirely with black people and whites should just carry on, waiting to see what happens, and not be too surprised if one day the privilege is taken from them.

Where does that leave me? I’m baffled by articles such as this that make valid points, but leave me unsure as to what I should actually do. So here is my unsure offering: in the absence of a clear, just path through the ethical quagmire, for South Africans who have to make choices today about how they will live, I suggest that the responsibility be shared. Without an environment created by people with the spiritual and character resources to accept white people’s inadequate attempts at redress, whites will remain too easily frozen in their heartless, arrogant, unapologetic ideology. People can only “lower the cordons in the locations of [their] hearts”, as Verashni Pillay called for us to do in her excellent article on the subject, when they are not under attack. What seems to me to be an inescapable, almost ironic, reality is that the economic and social fate of black South Africans is tied to that of whites. Like bricks in a wall, if you pull us out, the building collapses. Black people should consider whether they could live with an outcome where white people participate in an economic upliftment that sustainably benefits the majority of blacks. Because if whites lose in this country, so do blacks. That’s not an appeal for an Mbekian solution, one that is simply and blindly macroeconomic. I’m advocating the need for changed individuals, who do what they can (not what’s easy) with their conversations, finances, skills, and social capital. We need white people who go past soul searching to be deeply motivated to labour for structural change to our country’s structural racism. But I don’t think they will get there through attack.

So please, challenge us. Prod us and urge us, sometimes threaten us. But then humour us when we start to unclench our selfish, frightened fists. Cheer us on when we make steps toward recognising our racism and foolish self-righteousness, and we begin to repent. Encourage us when we offer a bursary (for example), and then show us how to give sacrificially when you use it to ascend into and above the middle class. Shame us into giving. We need your help if we are going to be better than the past. And God help you to be better than us when you find yourself in our shoes.

Guy grew up in KZN, studied in the Cape, lived in India, and now loves his home in Braamfontein, Jozi.

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