South Africa – a Window of Opportunity (Jeremy Burnham)

jeremyI am a white male, and have been listening to some black people in my country talking about where we are on our journey towards racial companionship.  I do not pretend to speak for them;  I reflect on what I hear and the conclusions to which I am drawn.

My impression is that there remains a shrinking window of opportunity for me as a white man in South Africa to retain a meaningful role in my country’s future.

Some voices I hear are for closing that window;  some try to hold it open.

The voices for closure are the rising tide of  black frustration at the failure of the system since 1994 to deliver wealth and opportunity as promised.  The popularity of Malema despite obvious incon­sisten­cies in his personal life tells me how much energy there is for national­isation and forced redistribution.

Why is this frustration aimed so much at us whites, not the government?  Two reasons:

The first is our failure as whites to recognise what we have done and continue to do.  Not only did apartheid inflict untold misery and leave a legacy of pain, poverty and abysmal basic education;  and not only are there still places in our country where blatant intentional racism persists;  what I am alerted to in my listening to black voices is that they experience a refusal in us whites to acknowledge the everyday put-downs – subtle and not-so-subtle – that form the reality of black experience in corporate, suburban and rural life.  The exhibition of that humiliating painting of the president is an obvious example – why were we so surprised at the reaction to that painting?

What makes our disingenuousness so infuriating to blacks is that the extra­or­dinary patience and generosity of both black leaders and ordinary citizens goes unacknowledged, while any mention of our own demeaning behaviour is dismissed by whites as yet another call to admit guilt.  This letter is not a call for us to engage in guilt.  Guilt calls for punishment and is just debilitating all round:  not what I am here suggesting.  Public apologies are an important beginning, but easy to orchestrate as they are to feign, although there may be a place still for genuine personal ones.  What is needed is some­thing much more tangible – and I believe a lot more rewarding.

A second reason why black frustration is aimed at whites, not the government, is the locus of wealth.  Whites clearly continue to own a disproportionate amount of the wealth of this rich nation, much of it traceable back to the exploitation of apartheid times and the colonial era before.  Here the situation is compound­ed by a financial system that insulates the owners of wealth from scrutiny.  Nothing new here – vehicles like the stock exchange have always made it difficult for ordinary people to follow the money.  Govern­ment re-allocates some of the excesses by taxation, but much of the flaunted wealth of the past hides behind tax hedges and lawyers and contrivances that most of us cannot begin to penetrate.

There is some blurring between race and class here.  There are of course some blacks who have now attained prosperity, although they may then have to run the gauntlet of “Who do you know?” from which we whites are largely immune.  For whites a growing black middle class is both a threat and a relief:  threat because it questions our past exclusive occupancy of that arena;  relief because it cushions us to a degree from the anger of the poor.

The window of oppor­tunity still has some voices that speak for keeping it open.  These include some of this middle-class black community who are enjoying and would like to continue enjoying the fruits of the struggle in which some of them engaged, some not.  Here again racial lines are blurred both for reasons of genuine friendships across colour lines and for strategic access to the action.

What can I do that responds in an authentic and visible way to this black frus­tration? – which is not condescending, and therefore further demeaning, and which can complement the continuing gener­osity of elders from all sections of South Africa’s black community.  Black anger demands, and white fear can only see, a win-lose outcome.  Is there such a thing as a genuine win-win?

I see two core activities that I can, and now must, engage in to begin the long (but rewarding) journey towards a truly non-racial and prosperous democracy in this country.

One is in my everyday life to wake up to what I do, much of it unconsciously, to disparage people of colour.  This includes recognising the ways in which my con­versations so often place whites at the centre of the action – I assume centrality without noticing how this marginalises and thus demeans.  A simple way of addressing this habit is by continually asking what I mean when I say “we”.

A more challenging exten­sion of this is to take responsibility when I am with other whites to demand of them courteous and respectful reference to, and behaviour towards, our black brothers and sisters.  It is not enough to say that in my culture “robust debate” and lampooning is accepted.  This new society of ours is too young and tender for such a luxury.  And let’s own the fact that whites have been responsible for an education system – black, coloured and white – that has not prepared us for such easy dispassion and humour across racial lines.

It is too easy to pretend not to notice abuse when it happens around me.  I owe it to all of us to stand up for racial justice.  Yes it takes courage and tenacity to stand for justice of any kind.  But it is a muscle that I can, and must, develop, and encourage others to develop.

The second activity I must engage in is to use my privileged access to the sources of wealth in this country and overseas to lobby for meaningful redistribution.  Yes, successful whites will say they have got ahead through hard work and sacrifice – that’s the nature of entrepreneurship, even if they may have benefitted from privileged access to resources and networks that gave them an unfair edge.  And of course there’s nothing wrong with being successful.  But what enrages black South Africans that I have talked with is that so many of us whites continue to enjoy privileged access to wealth and opportunity without acknowledging this, and without taking the initiative to leverage this advantage for the benefit of all.

Imagine if every successful white business person in South Africa personally committed to partner with and support two or three black start-up entre­preneurs for three years – to open a few doors and help them with access to the skills, finance and connections that drive the first economy.  It would not cost a fortune to provide those resources.  One morning a week would go a long way to healing relationships (on both sides), growing our economy and creating a safer, more resilient country for everyone.

Yes, these endeavours may stretch me beyond my comfort zone but they will also reward with friendships of a kind I may not have experienced before.  And, yes, it’s important to acknowledge that there are whites who have been doing this kind of thing for a long time now – there are many initiatives already out there.  But we need many more, and now.

We live in a new world.  We are moving into a post-capitalist era where technology gives us the possibility of servicing our needs and improving our lives with less and less exploitation of our resources, our environment and our fellow humans.  South Africa could be at the forefront of this new era if we could move beyond the battle-field of angry blacks trying to claim their fair share of the wealth of fearful whites.  The ANC and government, at least in their formal utterances, are largely conciliatory and constructive in this regard.  But whites have unique access to many of the critical resources that can really move this nation forward if we can but find imaginative ways to share them with our compatriots.  If we are to keep that window held open much longer I think we need to grasp the opportunity still provided by our country’s relative stability and prosperity to explore whole new ways of sharing what we have, whether we came to it through privilege, luck or even just hard work.

Let us begin this journey pro-actively and generously before the window closes on us.  And let us stop using political corrupt­ion and black cronyism to excuse our lack of active engagement in what could be such a dynamic and successful rainbow state.

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