By Jordan Griffiths
In a recent article Khaya Dlanga looked at race relations in our country 20 years on and presented the argument that in his view black people have made more of an effort towards the process of integration. He cited how black South Africans move to white suburbs, learn English and Afrikaans and assimilate western etiquette. He argues that white people don’t make as much effort in learning about black culture. A second line in his argument is that white people don’t like talking about race and this hampers our ability to move forward in South Africa.
I believe Dlanga makes a few key points, which I believe hold value, but there is also obviously another side and element to this argument, which I would like to present. So here is a different few presented by a 24-year-old white South African.
Dlanga is right in citing how white South Africans don’t like to talk about race. This is obviously a gross generalisation but in the main, my experiences in the short life I’ve lived is that white people get really uncomfortable when talking about race. The discussions within family circles and friends on race are often diverted and avoided or sometimes more disturbingly casual racism emerges or as Dlanga writes the “get over apartheid” might come in.
The thing with apartheid that Dlanga must also try understand is that white South Africans are also trying to deal with it in their own way, old and young. Old white South Africans are trying to work through the memories they had of the system along with the fact that in their hearts they know they benefitted substantially even though they might not have supported the system or actively fought against it. Yet they stood back and passively gained from it. Young white South Africans such as myself are also struggling to acknowledge that we to have benefited from apartheid. The wealth our parents earned, the job security they had, it was protected by the system. My father who was Welsh was able to move South Africa because his skills were in short supply as black South Africans couldn’t enter his trade.
Dlanga cites how the Jews are particularly sensitive to discussions on the Holocaust, well so are the Germans. The Germans hate that part of their history as it is a legacy they will carry for a very long time. They shut it down as much as they can by passing legislation that bans any symbolism or activities that comes close to looking like Nazism. It is dangerous obviously to compare the Holocaust and apartheid, but the point is about looking at how the oppressed and the oppressors try and look back on a history they shared albeit in a fundamentally different manner.
White South Africans need to talk more about race I agree, we like to blame the government and ignore the blaringly obvious social ills in our society I can concede that. But there is also pain there as well, smothered-down memories of the past that no one wants to confront. It isn’t about making excuses but Dlanga talks about “western culture” and how we are gradually assimilating into it.
This concept of “western culture” is a dangerous one, because really it is hard to define, what exactly does it involve. Dlanga cites American culture like hip-hop and hot dogs, that isn’t only western culture. This a term that is used to try and blanket the activities of people living in all of central and western Europe along with those living in North America. That is a lot of people with lots of different views. So we must be careful when we use this term, because what actually are we talking about?
My understanding of “western culture” it is that it is a view that focuses on individualism and a constant drive for more and more. Now this has its strengths but also weaknesses. One thing that’s very prominent about this “western culture” is that it is all over the place, it is everywhere we look and it is presented to us as the best way of living. It taps into our own human selfish desires and pushes us for more and more. It isn’t a white, black, coloured or Indian thing, and it isn’t really even western any more. It is now a world view that drives the activities of billions of people.
As for white people trying to learn more about black culture, some of us are trying, maybe not enough for Dlanga but some of us are trying and you got to bear with us because it isn’t easy. I enrolled for an isiZulu beginner’s class at university and it is hard. I will most likely remain useless at it due to my lazy tongue. I am also a political activist and after one rally I found myself with fellow activists in a local tavern, the environment was totally foreign to me, I was the lone whitey and my fellow activists were changing between speaking different languages like a jukebox machine and all I had was English on repeat. Guys around me are moving between five languages with ease and I was throwing in something when I could, but I’m trying.
As I know, so are other white South Africans, there could be more of us I agree, and maybe we should try harder but I believe we will get there with a little patience and faith.
Jordan Griffiths is studying a master’s degree in security studies at the University of Pretoria.