Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

The problem with “Why I can’t ‘get over’ apartheid”

I had the privilege of teaching both “white” and “black” children during the apartheid era, during the transition, and thereafter. This was from about 1988 to 2004.* Xhosa teenagers in Langa High** (I taught there in 1989 and 1990) were highly politicised, talked about oppression and how to dismantle apartheid. Once the ANC was unbanned my lessons often got disrupted by their urgent need to talk about politics and whether or not to support the PAC or ANC. Around the same time I taught “white” kids privately in Cape Town and, shortly thereafter, in “white schools”. In those schools there was no interest in politics. It is not hard to see why; “white” kids at the time had nothing to strive for in terms of human rights. Black students, as second-class, disenfranchised “citizens”, had everything to fight for.

It therefore struck me as unusual that Khanya Mathambo, at a private school in Durban, leading (one readily assumes) a reasonably privileged life not available to “black” teens in the apartheid era or today in poorer townships, writes such a highly politicised essay. It is, in essence, no different to what I read or discussed with seventeen-year-olds in class at Langa High back in 1989. Her reflections (whether she realises it or not) are all about entrenching apartness, polarisation, and a perceived majority versus a perceived minority in her school. Her essay creates a world which consists largely of, to use her terminology, “black supremacy” versus “white supremacy”, about people not being able to get along and also the desire to make freedom fighters of her children one day.

Why does she need to be so politicised, indeed, even militarised? She has the vote once she is of age, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and all the rights entitled to any person in the South African Constitution. She goes to a private school, and yet, somehow, the essay she has written has not “moved on” from the kind of discourse I saw in teenagers’ writings and conversation at Langa High. She cannot possibly be speaking for “black” high school students in government schools in South Africa, or those in poor township schools, where the overwhelming majority of students, if not all, are black. Would a black student in these government schools see life in South Africa the same way as Khanya, a place of “colour-blind racism” and “micro-racism”? Would they perceive that all the white students in the school — if any at all — are in denial about racism?

Khanya is fond of othering. To what extent does this othering, this politicising of people into groups, emerge from the school environment and its educational syllabus, and to what extent is it her indoctrination from elsewhere? Do her peers at her school, particularly those who are in her “minority”, those who are “black”, feel the same as her? Or do they just get on with sport and all the stuff teens like to do? If one of the other teenagers at her school, black or white, wrote about their love for sport, catching up with their school mates, involvement in other extra-murals — and I suspect there are many like this, based on my two decades of teaching experience — would that kind of essay make it onto Thought Leader or elsewhere? Of course not. The dreary norm is often not of interest. So, is Khanya’s thinking the teenage norm; that is to say is she a genuine spokesperson like Kiwi high school student Anela Pritchard, whom I wrote about here? What I am really asking is the following question, which is not asked whimsically, as I respect Khanya’s talent and the thought that went into her article. Is Khanya’s role that of the martyred victim, of the visionary, one here to remind us of what her peers are forgetting, or are blind to? That actually, during and between cricket games and studying for exams and mingling with peers and going to parties, they are all … oppressed? Victimised? Somehow suffering from post-apartheid?

While Khanya’s essay — on the surface — is elegant for a high school student, underneath that surface it is disturbing, as it is so soaked with racism as a form of identity. It is also a call to be unhappy with one’s lot in life, because of all these “supremacy” issues. Further, her article is a distorted reading of recent history and current reality. This makes her eloquent, persuasive style even more perturbing. Here’s an example of distortion. She writes:

This sense of ownership over opportunities is, in itself, a sign of white privilege. This cry of the “racism” facing white people ignores how white people have never been and are not being occupied (sic) or oppressed purely because of their race, as black people were, and still are, around the world. And as Bantu Stephen Biko said, “… one cannot be a racist unless he has the power to subjugate”. (Emphasis mine)

What I have placed in italics is nonsense. This bit of fiction makes her indoctrination glaringly obvious. This is an irresponsible, naive argument for white supremacism. “White people” have been oppressed in many ways over millennia. The Irish (deemed as a separate race) under English oppression. The Jews in Nazi Germany, again as a separate race. Job adverts in Scotland in the nineteenth century often stated, “no Catholics or Irish need apply”. Endless wars in Europe over the centuries in which the losing countries’ people — all whites — went through staggering hardships. The Boer War and the cruel oppression of the Afrikaner in concentration camps. The Afrikaner might as well have been a separate race; semantics over words are meaningless when it comes to dire cruelty due to any form of discrimination. It is also nonsense what Biko wrote and I suspect the quote has been taken out of context. His statement depends on a definition of racism. There are people with all kinds of prejudices, not only racist, who have no power to subjugate.

She refers to “white privilege”. So there is no black privilege? Of course there is black privilege. See the polarisation in her use of who is privileged? It is an inflammatory remark that gets us nowhere. Khanya willfully creates an “us and them” instead of a “we are in this together” from the first sentence of her essay. Let’s look at her opening line. “As a black girl attending a private school, where white people are the majority, I often find myself on the opposing side of controversial issues” (Emphases mine). So … because she is a black girl she automatically needs to view white students in the framework of a politically charged term: a “majority”? Does she suggest she has to be on an opposing side because of her blackness? Change the opening noun in the sentence. If Khanya wrote, “As a girl attending a private school, I often find myself on the opposing side …” Her polarisation would now be the result of her gender. She is implying — perhaps without realising – –that she has no choice in the matter of being polarised (to her detriment) and that this is an unhappy, ineluctable part of being black. The identity markers serve to stress negative difference, without the need to reference apartheid. The references to apartheid in the title and thereafter gives her “plight” a sort of historically legitimised and martyred “glamour”. Does Khanya realise she has set herself up to be a helpless victim of her colour for the rest of her life? That she would like others to join this cause, as all visionaries do?My main reason for writing my response comes from this burning question: Is all this indoctrination what her “education” teaches her? For in education lies a significant part of the future of any country.

At one point Khanya writes, “White privilege is a very difficult topic to discuss. Those who benefit from this privilege vehemently deny that it is still detrimentally affecting the lives of people of colour to this day.” Does she really mean to say this? Who are “those who benefit?” I would have thought this included those in government and their lackeys, starting with the president. I would have thought matters that have a “detrimental effect” on everyone include items such as the abuse of funds and robbing the poor (such as the building of Nkandla) and the abuse of power and responsibility (for example the Marikana massacre); the abuse of tax money and ineffective management of manpower and resources, leading to poor government service delivery and the Eskom crisis. This is only to name a few, which all serve to “detrimentally affect the lives of people of colour”. All of which, to state the obvious, has nothing to do with white privilege or white supremacy. Who are these people who have “colour”? Are people of colour automatically assumed to be black only? The questions do not end. Khanya is deeply indoctrinated. One wonders what is going on in the South African education system.

Why the use of the word apartheid in her title? This implies that one institutionalised policy is responsible for all forms of othering -isms, of which only blacks or “people of colour” are victims. The other -isms would include classism, elitism, cronyism, the have nots and the haves. These have nothing to do with apartheid. The implication suggested by the title, and underpinning her essay, is that all the racial issues she is referring to – some arguably of her own making or the result of indoctrination – are the result of one historical event – apartheid. This is not so. Prejudice, ignorance, greed, fear and stupidity all underly the human compulsion to other and to hegemonise. Racism is only one fleur du mal of this dark side of human nature and, as we all know, precedes apartheid and will carry on regardless of apartheid being dismantled.

A sub-category of racism is “micro-racism”, as Khanya puts it. But it is not unique to South Africa and, again, has nothing to do with apartheid. Micro-racism is experienced all over the world. I experience micro-racism here in Auckland, New Zealand. Some natives here do not like all of us immigrants coming into New Zealand from Asia and Africa. When I open my mouth and Kiwis hear the South African accent, micro-behaviours of others towards me change — sometimes negatively, but often, thankfully not.

Khanya writes:

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Junior wrote that he has “been gravely disappointed by the white moderate … who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”. It is the white moderate who insisted that my friend and I were taking the matter too far when we reported an undisguised racist to his university. It is the white moderate that expects me to passively accept discrimination with the full knowledge that people fought and died so I did not have to face such discrimination. And so is it not obviously my duty to fight for my children and their children to come?

As there are no specifics, the reader cannot comment on the undisguised racist. The disturbing part is that the writer leaves out the fact that Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo and all the great freedom fighters also fought and died so a homunculus like Zuma and his cronies can abuse privilege and disregard social upliftment. The facts of abuse of power in South Africa have been ignored in her essay.

On the issue of getting rid of icons of the ancient regime and oppression, she writes:

… the insistence that people like Cecil John Rhodes should be celebrated for transforming South Africa and, as a result, black people should be grateful to him and others like him, is backward. He may be a part of our history that should be remembered but the people he institutionally subjugated should not be expected to be thankful for his “contributions” to South Africa.

Agreed, up to a point. But is anyone asking “black people” to be grateful to Rhodes? Are any black people currently “grateful”, or for that matter, white, coloured or Indian people? Is she suggesting they (black people) should be told they are feeling grateful when I bet they don’t and never have — and that they now should stop feeling grateful? This is thought policing taken to a level where she and her indoctrination decide for you what you are already thinking. Thought implanting, if you like. Further, why stop at removing Rhodes, as I argued here? Why not get rid of the endless multinational imported products that are all emblems of oppression, including “European” or “imported” oppression? The brand name sports shoes you might be wearing or the smartphone you use, made by oppressed factory workers living way under the breadline next to some godforsaken factory in China? Why not remove fiat currency? The issue is not about getting rid of “surface” manifestations of oppression. It is about looking deep within ourselves, to simple truths like caring for others, ubuntu, fellowship, the peace Martin Luther King eloquently speaks of which Khanya quotes, not high school indoctrination that uses a highly fictional version of current reality to create what — on the surface — appears to be eloquent and somewhat persuasive argumentation. That is how the Chinese Red Guard was made. That is how young people are persuaded to join movements which include — dare I say it — ISIL.

* Most of my teaching was done in a private capacity, not as a government employee.

** I am so glad to see smarter facilities at Langa High if some of the images are anything to go by. When I was there in 1989-1990, the school was very poor and had little in the way of facilities. Even classroom doors were missing.

Follow Rod on Twitter @rod_in_china

Tags: , , ,

  • A rebel without a satellite dish: Decoding the recent Steve Hofmeyr saga
  • Reflections on my life on Robben Island
  • Where is the wealth Malema wants to redistribute?
  • Has the time for ‘talks about talks’ come in SA?