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Black consumers fuel white privilege

By Ntombenhle Khathwane

While I laud Gillian Schutte for calling out white privilege and racism on radio and on her blogs — I assume in an attempt to rid our society of such thinking so as to create a more equitable society — the most she can do as a white person is call it out or suggest a remedy, the solution has to come through action from black society. Every black person will agree with Schutte because we experience racism directly or indirectly through the remnants of the system that created and sustains white privilege, racism and supremacy every day.

Calling it out and raging about it as we have done year in and year out for decades will not change things. Even if all white people acknowledged that they are privileged because they are white, there’s no use in expecting them to hand anything to us. If I was in any position of privilege as a race, gender or tribe, I doubt I’d hand over my power easily, very few people would.

Most of the privilege we decry is largely based on socio-economic inequality. We decry the lack of black people in corporate South Africa and lack of opportunities to penetrate the business environment to create our own wealth. Yet blacks, especially the fast growing black middle class, is fuelling white big business and corporates. Many of the consumer-based businesses listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange are supported by the black middle class. From food franchisers like Famous Brands and retail chains like Truworths and Shoprite; banks like Capitec; housing developments and media businesses like Naspers are highly profitable and driven largely by the black consumer.

Change has to come from the black community, we need to reclaim our power. Our current government can only do so much, citizen activism is what is needed now. Change and action towards a more equitable economy will eventually happen either through disruptive revolution, as possibly led by Malema’s EFF, or we can collectively do it using “softer” methods such as consumer boycotts and petitions, which are used successfully all over the world. Boycotts similar to the Potato Boycott of 1959 started by Gert Sibande and the ANC. The Potato Boycott, which was spurred by the bad treatment of farm workers on potato farms in Bethal in the then Transvaal successfully campaigned for consumers in South Africa and globally to stop buying Transvaal potatoes. It was successful. Another option, which is my preferred option, is a “Support Black Business” campaign.

My argument is not about promoting reverse racism or motivated by a disdain for white supremacy. In fact I am not really concerned or bothered anymore about how white people see me as a black person or black people in general. I refuse to let it define me or my people. It seems to be human nature to craft our identity through belittling the “other”. This is the case in racism, sexism, tribalism and even religion. My point is to not let white supremacy, which is the basis of white racism, define me, my life experience and our collective identity as black people. It’s the unfortunate reality of life that differences will always be highlighted, what we need to evolve towards is accepting how others are different without feeling superior to them or needing to feel superior to them to feel good about ourselves. This competition to be superior is what grated Vladimir Putin about Barack Obama’s address regarding Syria wherein Obama praised and encouraged US exceptionalism, because in effect it is about American superiority over other nations.

Many of the things we consume as black South Africans — whether it’s popular high-quality brands in malls or no-name, low-quality brands in independent retailers — are manufactured by and sold in shops owned by other races that are more privileged than us. As things stand and are poised to continue, accumulation of wealth will continue to be skewed, meaning the socio-economic upliftment of black people will remain slow. It also means that many black people will remain dependent on social grants instead of entering the mainstream economy to earn more and accumulate real wealth to leave poverty permanently.

We too need to start big black-owned businesses in every sector and importantly support them. Even if current big business does employ black managers and appoint black directors on boards, the businesses are still majority-owned by whites. We need to start our own retail chains and compete with Truworths and Shoprite. I imagine a black-owned retail chain competing with Shoprite and Mr Price and even complicated businesses like insurance businesses.

This is no longer impossible, we have accumulated the skills in numbers to run such businesses well, we have the numbers to support them. I was so excited when Given Mkhari’s MSG bid to takeover TopTV. It was a step towards claiming ownership in an industry that is largely profitable off the back of black consumers. I am not alone in needing this to happen, evidence is in the excitement expressed by many at the launch of PowerFM.

I know socialists wouldn’t agree with such a soft revolution because it would seem as if we are merely replacing colour whereas they want a total change in economic system. I am convinced a fully socialist system would tank the country at this stage, but that’s an argument for another day. It’s time black people actively create and own their collective destiny and this applies to the continent at large.

Ntombenhle Khathwane is an Afro-optimistic social commentator, student of politics and pan-Africanist who believes Africans hold the key to their own development. She is an entrepreneur and black business activist fascinated by global markets and big business.

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