By Gcobani Qambela and Simamkele Dlakavu
The results of the last South African census revealed a South Africa deeply divided along racial lines, with the black majority “still at the bottom of the rung” according to President Jacob Zuma. In terms of average annual income, a white household earns about R365 000 while a black household earns an average of about R66 600 annually. This means that it would take over 50 years for the white and black population to even out if the difference in their income growth remains steady. It is realities like these that black people living in a racially unequal country like South Africa have to contend with daily.
It thus came as a deeply troubling surprise to us to hear about the Red October campaigners and protests by white South Africans against a “genocide and oppressive state policies in favour of blacks”. Nechama Brodie has done an excellent write up showing how white South Africans are the least likely of any race group in South Africa to be murdered in South Africa, which we will not repeat here. While many white South Africans would at first appear to have distanced themselves from Red October activities, we argue that many are just as guilty, whether they claim an attachment to the Red October protests or not.
What we saw last week is a narrative of victimisation being perpetuated and strengthened by a powerful and privileged minority. This narrative of victimisation by privileged white people is very dangerous because, in the words of Sherene Razack, it has the consequence of “stealing the pain of others”. This is particularly important in the context of our history and the politics of memory in South Africa, where white people have been violently at the helm for over three centuries and yet nearly 20 years into political freedom still enjoy the social, political and economic safety net they enjoyed for over three centuries.
Red October is able to happen because white people have never collectively been repulsed, and consequently denounced their privilege out of true recognition for how such a white minority violently came to occupy the top tier spot over an unequal country like South Africa. In Whiteness in the Rainbow: Experiencing the Loss of Privilege in the New South Africa Melissa Steyn tells us that notions that white people are under threat or that there is a looming genocide against them in South Africa from black people or the government are false, for white people still enjoy better living conditions, opportunities for advancement and wealth acquirement than black people in South Africa. Steyn however tells us that it is “this comforting state of ignorance is characteristic of [white] privilege” and entitlement that allows inequalities to perpetuate against black people.
By situating themselves as under threat and refusing to acknowledge their ultra-privileged position in South Africa, white people are stealing the pain of black people who for the most part remain suppressed and economically disenfranchised in a country that is designed for the upward mobility of white people and black people as subordinates. Razack notes that this has the effect of providing white people with a form of “race pleasure” by confirming white superiority through the suffering of black people. As Steyn notes, in societies like South Africa, “where social identity has premised upon the subordination of the Other, the normalisation of society is experienced [by whites] as the confiscation of entitlement, rather than equalisation.”
The attitudes of some white people towards black economic empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action (AA) for instance are well documented. Many white people believe that BEE and AA policies advance a sense of entitlement among black people, therefore black people’s need for advancement is painted as undeserved or unearned entitlement.
This is done without a critical engagement however by white people of their own entitlement and the ways in which their unearned privilege dehumanises and perpetuates the pain and poverty that accompanies blackness. These attitudes towards the need for black advancement prove the normalisation and acceptance of black poverty and suffering; so for example BEE or AA comes to be seen as neo-white oppression by a black government and not as a means to redress the society fashioned by white colonialism and apartheid in South Africa.
Many white South Africans selectively remove themselves from the position millions of black South Africans find themselves in as if they had nothing to do with it. Erika Bourguignon tells us “we cannot act without memory, nor can we understand ourselves unless we can understand our past”. The actions of Red October are only a small part of what is a larger movement of “anti-memory” by white South Africans and their institutions to erase and render invisible black oppression and the “unbearable truth” of white history.
Red October is just one event of what is a larger problem in South Africa, of white South Africans attempting to steal black people’s pain and to de-historicise racism. This dehumanises black people and says that white people do not care about black suffering as long as their white entitlements and privileges remain untouched.
On Friday someone said “Red October is what happens when the oppressed are too silent about their oppression.” It’s clear therefore that black people need to speak out more because, as Octavia Butler warned us so many years ago, black people need to always “beware [because] ignorance protects itself”.
Gcobani Qambela is a 2011 AngloGold Ashanti One Young World Ambassador.
Simamkele Dlakavu is a politics honours student at the University of the Witwatersrand and the external liaison for the Young Economists for Africa.