On March 17 1992 the National Party, under former president FW de Klerk’s leadership, asked white South Africans a difficult question in the form of a referendum. The question was: “Do you support the continuation of the reform process which the state president began on February 2 1990 and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiation?” So 85.08% of white South Africans pitched up to vote and 68.73% of them voted ”yes”.
The answer to the rather vague question seems apparent today but it wasn’t so in 1992. Not within the national culture in which white South Africans were brought up. Whites born in pre-1994 South Africa were brought up in a national culture that urged them to hate blacks and fear them. Blacks were stereotyped as barbaric savages inclined to criminal behaviour. From the early 1950s the National Party government had publicly harangued blacks as communists who would traverse private poverty and condemn the country to a Castro-sque style of government.
The country held its first democratic elections in 1994. The ANC won 63% of the vote and a lot of whites were unhappy with the result. We know this because of the mass exodus of whites. One source estimates that 800 000 whites have emigrated from South Africa since 1994. Many did so because of an unfounded fear of genocide, others because of racist inclinations.
That said, there are more than 4.5 million white South Africans today, over 9% of the population. Many of the remaining whites do not consider themselves European, Dutch or English — they consider themselves South Africans. They were born in South Africa, to South Africans. They know no other home. Moreover, many of the whites who remain in South Africa do so willingly. They choose to stay here, to build a country they consider just as much theirs.
The South African narrative is, almost exclusively, told from the black perspective. In this perspective, the ordinary white South African is guilty by association. From the black perspective, whites are no better than the complicit German who did not himself kill any Jews but simply sat back and said “oh what the heck, it’s Jews anyway”.
This perspective, in my view, is not the whole truth. While the apartheid institution was designed by whites for the benefit of whites, it did not appreciate dissent from whites. Joshua Lazerson’s Against the Tide: Whites in the Struggle against Apartheid provides a brief but powerful description of the plight of whites who dared to go against the tide. White dissenters were crushed just as brutally as the black dissenter.
Many whites in South Africa today accept that their ancestors perpetrated gross injustices against blacks for centuries. They accept that the illegal and inhuman apartheid system caused deep inequities. They accept the imperative of black psychological and economic empowerment, provided within a transparent legal framework. Many accept land reform and land restitution provided it is not done vengefully, annihilating our already waning national unity.
While the government has made noteworthy strides to uplift black South Africans there have been colossal failures. Unfortunately the government is rarely willing to admit the shortfalls of its policies. The government is rarely willing to admit the harmful effects of cadre deployment and corruption with impunity. It is rarely willing to accept that it got its priorities muddled. Instead, apartheid is the automatic stooge for the improper exercise of majoritarian democracy and the whites, as the former beneficiaries of apartheid, must inadvertently accept the blame.
The weapon of choice against whites, who are justly disillusioned with the government, is the notion of “white privilege”. It is indeed true that the apartheid institution benefited whites. It is also true that the playing field for the ordinary white and the ordinary black are not the same. But the infamous ”white privilege” did not make all whites billionaires — capable of changing the plight of poor blacks at the signing of a single cheque. Many whites live today, as they did during apartheid, from hand to mouth. They struggle each day to feed their families.
The effect of our democratic racial discourse has been to force whites to politely recoil on issues just as important to them. Gillian Schutte appealed to whites “to recognise that by jumping in on national debates that do not concern them they are usurping a platform for authentic black voices to air their grievances about our leadership”. While I don’t doubt Schutte’s sincerity, her appeal is telling.
Many blacks are suffering from a renewed feeling of powerlessness. Blacks have observed the liberation struggle change its course, from national empowerment to personal enrichment. They have observed the “rainbow nation” transform from a miraculous nation of hope to an oligarchical banana republic. I suspect that whites are victims of that same powerlessness, only much worse because they have narrower room for complaint.