View Full Version : White Identity In A Changing South Africa / Part Ii

lord patch
04-23-2007, 11:18 AM

Part II: This shouldn't happen to a white

Last week, we began a five part review of the book, "Whiteness Just Isn't
What it Used to Be - White Identity in a Changing South Africa," by
University of
Cape Town academic, Melissa Steyn. In last week's review, we discussed the
first of five narratives of "whiteness" - 'Still colonial after all
these years.'

This week, we discuss the second narrative, 'This shouldn't happen to a white'.
As we said last week, 'This shouldn't happen to a white' is a narrative
still deeply rooted in the belief of white supremacy. It is a self destructive
narrative of times gone by, clinging onto a system that has never had any
socio-political integrity.

In this week's review, we analyse some of the assumptions this narrative
appears to be based on, how these assumptions appear to impel the
narrators to cling
to whiteness at all costs, their economic motive, the discursive tools they may
employ in defence of their economic objectives and how its purveyors sink
into cynicism and gloom as the signs of inevitable failure stares them in the
face, from the very depths of irrationality, the politically unimaginable.

In the end, their pretensions towards 'ownership' keep them hostage to a
permanent season of fear in the mistaken belief that transformation is
reducible and will be reduced to revenge.

We conclude by posing two questions: "Should this happen to a human being?"
and "Could this happen to a white?"

'Whiteness is ownership of the earth'

In the recesses of their psyches, white supremacists firmly believe, as WEB
Du Bois analysed, that "Whiteness is ownership of the earth".

One of the all too often successful aims of racism has been to ensure that
both black and white people remain strangers to one another, who must never know
one another. This partly explains why the narrators of 'This shouldn't happen to
a white' regard existing economic relations as unrelated to past policies that
continue to determine the socio-economic exclusion of the majority.

Steyn reminds us that apartheid South Africa's isolation from the
international community and "government's manipulation of the media to
obfuscate the real
consequences of their policies, increasingly screened whites from contrary
interpretations of their society". She adds: "Enabled by economic and
political advantage, hundreds of everyday trivia reinforced the sense of white
superiority in a self-fulfilling manner."

These apartheid schemata have added to a "determined ignorance of whites",
the word "ignore" deeply embedded within "ignorance."

And so, one of the narrators of 'This shouldn't happen to a white,' a
horticulturist, says: "They [black people] think that everything gets served
on a silver platter and that white people didn't work hard in order to achieve
what they have achieved. Nonwhites are being treated with a 'poor hard-done-by'
attitude and literally being handed job opportunities, as for an example, on
a silver platter."

A secretary says: "Blacks want to have what we have, but in a shorter time
and without the skills and the knowledge that took years to obtain." In short,
Whiteness is clung to at all costs: whites must remain whites.

'Tamper not with our [white] form of existing'

Indeed, this narrative is most vocal against measures of economic redress
aimed at empowering previously disadvantaged people in our society. It seeks to
protect racial privilege, "a certain form of existing," as Frantz Fanon said
of the objective of racism. Redress is perceived as a violation of notions of a
white form of existing. The natural form of existing, the very order of
things, for them, is when whiteness means ownership of the earth.

For the whites who construct this narrative, the trouble begins when things
leave the places their conception of whiteness allocates to them. This is
when a
white marketer, in spite of the fact that the economic advancement of black
people is also in his interest, would rather "like to see affirmative action
take a more natural infiltration into the system," adding that: "There is no
need for the forcefulness with which the mistakes of the past are trying to
be corrected."

The white marketer, of course, sees no reason to explain what he means by
"natural infiltration". In keeping with the secretary who evidently believes
that hers is an exclusive vocation which only whites can grasp, the marketer
believes that whites are where they are today because of qualities that are
inherent to whiteness - not through the systematic policy measures of
apartheid engineering which, as Steyn argues, required massive
violence to enforce.

Clinging to a white form of existing requires further elaboration of the

'Reverse discrimination, retrogressive versus emancipatory identities and
effortless osmosis'

One of the central pivots of this narrative is the opinionation that the
democratic dispensation, through such policy measures as affirmative action,
is implementing reverse racism, against whites. A school pupil contributes as
follows in propagating the myth: "Nowadays, discrimination is against whites
and no more against blacks very much." But as if her whiteness remains the only
possession to ameliorate the discrimination she supposedly suffers, the
school pupil adds, "but I am still glad to be white, simply because we are much
more civilised than the black culture (they believe in witchcraft, etc)."

Claims such as the foregoing, asserts Steyn, give rise to "retrogressive
white identities" as opposed to "emancipatory" [or emancipating] identities that
are non-racial and inclusive in nature.

For purveyors of this myth, change, if it is to be permitted at all, must be
effected through what Steyn calls "a kind of effortless osmosis", which
could eventually bring black people to a level similar to that of whites. The
marketer and the secretary could take some comfort from this extension of the

The seemingly reasonable argument that our movement and government must
abandon affirmative action in favour of merit, is made within a broad context of
whiteness and specifically within the context of the narrative of 'These
things shouldn't happen to whites'. The meritocracy proponents effectively are
trying to sell to our movement and government the beguiling myth of effortless
osmosis as the vehicle for socio-economic redress.

Peddlers of this myth, however, are refusing to accept that 1994 was but the
beginning of a long and arduous road towards redressing three centuries of
the racially systematic exclusion of the majority. In effect, they seek to deny
our country and its citizens the possibility of shaping our own history by
shaping our present and our future. In contrast with the hardened
colonial discussed
last week, this colonial is more dangerous for their ways are more artful,
duplicitous and manipulative.

A narrative elaborated in terms of "reverse discrimination", "retrogressive"
as opposed to "emancipatory" identities, alongside the bait of "effortless
osmosis" as the vehicle for change, cannot but be self-defeating.

More cynicism and gloom

As with the narrative 'Still colonial after these years', this narrative is
likewise filled with cynicism and gloom. It holds no hope for the future,
seeing the end result as unavoidably disastrous.

Here are some of its typical representations:

South Africa is on a treadmill - going nowhere and therefore achieving
nothing [medical technologist]. Despite the political cant, ours will never be a
truly democratic society. The tyranny of the [black] majority will devour
individual genius, while mediocrity will be entrenched by a shaky constitution
The life of a white in the new South Africa will be hell, for since the
blacks have taken over the whole land, we have been set back and it is
on the road
to hell [high school pupil]. This narrative also pervades what may appear to be
serious circles. Writing this Wednesday in Business Day, RW Johnson, makes
the following remark about our government: "The state machine is collapsing and
is run by an elite which doesn't care anyway..."

Ten years ago, in 1997, Johnson wrote of apartheid in the June edition of
the London Prospect Magazine: "The big and virtually unspeakable truth is that,
wicked and dreadful though it was, apartheid was, if seen in comparative
perspective, a relatively mild historical experience. People were shoved
around, bullied and deprived of rights, not allowed to live where they wanted,
sometimes beaten up, often exploited and frequently humiliated: all
very horrible and
inexcusable. But compared to, say, what has happened in Rwanda, or the
Holocaust, or even with the almost casually atrocious and even genocidal
policies typical of many colonial and slave-owning societies, apartheid was
merely grossly insensitive and unkind social engineering."

We stop the citation at this point if only out of respect for our readers!

Steyn notes that this presentation of reality offers only "[withdrawal or
fighting back]" with complete withdrawal being emigration, open only to the
privileged. "For those who remain," she adds, "withdrawal entails narrowing
one's life into a smaller realm of simple self-interest, minimal desires and

The lecturer quoted above says: "I am becoming increasingly cynical about
the human condition in general."

Back in 2001, Steyn argued that: "It is conceivable that people who allow
their minds to be shaped in this way may begin to engage in collective private
violence, such as was known in the south of the United States." In South
Africa, this is typified by the kind of racial violence that we have seen in
incidents such as the death of a Nelson Chisale, the Limpopo farm worker who was
thrown into a lion's den on the instructions of his employer, and the
11 year old
child who was shot by a farmer who claimed that he mistook the child for a dog.
Needless to say that he received a R20,000 fine (half suspended).

Steyn says adherents to 'This Shouldn't happen to a white' narrative, see
the solution to their problems as only resolvable by "absolute gain or absolute
loss". It is the viewpoint of the dog-eat-dog in which "resources need to be
fought for, and one can only be firmly on top or utterly pulverised at the
bottom." Whites are now at the unacceptable "bottom," which is erroneously
equated to the suffering of "others" in the past.

The question of guilt and fear

'This Shouldn't happen to a white', the present narrative of our review, is
also driven by an innate fear which arises, in part, out of guilt for the crimes
visited upon the majority over centuries.

The process of transformation is therefore defined and feared as a process
of revenge. A farmer expresses this sentiment as follows: "I attribute present
changes to revenge for whatever happened in the past disguised as
redistribution and equal opportunity." He stresses that: "White is now
perceived as an
object of revenge. We (black people) will try to do to them (white people) what
they did to us." In reluctant qualification, the farmer continues: "A lot of
changes can be justified, but if the changes are perceived as
punishment or revenge,
then I would not like the changes to continue."

The constant reference to "revenge" suggests a queer acknowledgment of the
crimes of the past but which the farmer is neither ready nor equipped to
engage with constructively. This deeply laden fear seems to inform a variety of
issues concerning public discourse, such social challenges as may include crime.

Should this happen to a human being?

Vho-Mukumela Tshivhula (92) passed away on 27 January this year. Her funeral
was supposed to have taken place on 3 February at a farm outside the Limpopo
town of Louis Trichardt (Makhado) where she has lived with her family since the

Thirteen members of her family, including her late husband are buried on the
farm. The new farm owners however intervened through their lawyers and
refused the family permission to inter her remains.

Through the assistance of the Limpopo Provincial Department of Land Affairs,
the family challenged the farm owners and brought the matter to the Land Claims
Court. The Court found in favour of the farm owner, saying Vho-Mukumela
could not be buried "without the consent and co-operation of the [farm owner]".
The family has lodged an appeal.

In a statement issued this week, the ANC Women's League, said, among other
things, the Tshivhula family has "endured humiliation, harassment and loss of
human dignity over the past two and half months ...."

The right to a burial is not that clear cut after all.

Our movement has and will always respect the judgements of our judiciary.
The question - Should this happen to a human being - we posed when we began
narrating the Tshivhula family tragedy and the one we pose yet again below is
therefore not a legal one. They are moral questions in the context of the
narrative 'This shouldn't happen to a white'.

Could this happen to a white?

** "Whiteness Just Isn't What it Used to Be - White Identity in a Changing
South Africa", by Melissa Steyn:
State University of New York Press, Albany, NY. 2001


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