Is there space for white allies in Black student uprisings?

By Simamkele Dlakavu (@SimamkeleD)

Simamkele Dlakavu writes that black South African youth across campuses are asserting their Blackness and are rightly beginning to question the role of their white counterparts  within their struggles. 

The so called “rainbow nation” and “post-racial” youth of South Africa are starting to reject the labels imposed on them. They feel that those terms have derailed meaningful justice and reconciliation in these 21 years of our democracy. They are asserting their blackness and are questioning white people’s role within their struggles. What is striking about student movements like #RhodesMustFall is that non-blacks are not allowed to lead their movements, although they can attend of their meetings and can act as allies. These student movements prescribe to Black Consciousness politics with an intersectional approach. Why have these young people chosen to follow a line of politics that was practiced in the 1970’s by Steve Biko and his comrades? Are we not a non-racial country after all?

Their stance is controversial and uncomfortable for many, especially whites, who often call it racist. However, they are a few white people who support this stance, like Jon Hodgson who stated that whites should be “’filling up’ less space and black people ‘taking up’ more”. He supports #RhodesMustFall and says that whites should be working within their communities to achieve social justice, in order to be true allies. Max du Preez wrote a piece disagreeing with Hodgson. He highlights that “the new dictum [is] that white South Africans should shut up, stick to their own kind and let their black compatriots do the talking and the governing”. He criticises Hodgson’s views as seeming “to think black students and intellectuals don’t have the capacity to stand up to their white counterparts in a debate. They’re still catching up, he seems to say, so let’s stay out of their way so they can develop and grow up – almost like a kind teacher allowing his teenage pupils to argue in the class without the interference of a superior mind.”

What du Preez fails to understand is that we don’t want whites excluded because “black students and intellectuals don’t have the capacity to stand up to their white counterparts in a debate”. We want whites excluded from the debate because, as Toni Morrison says, their whiteness is a “distraction”.

Imagine if we spent our time engaging and debating with white UCT students such as those whose response to #RhodesMustFall was:

“….If it wasn’t for Rhodes, you wouldn’t have a university to go to. Wouldn’t you call for the removal of Mandela’s statue because he was responsible for countless murders and deaths during the so called struggle years? “

“This is what happens when the monkeys are allowed to run things…what in hell are the blacks talking about their history, do they even have a written language or history, or libraries to house their history. Stupid monkeys.”

When would we have time to continue our struggle? All of our energy would be sucked dry. Although not all white people are this overtly racist, white people are “unconsciously racist” to some extent. How do we expect people who have been taught their entire lives – in their communities, schools, church, and the media – that they are inherently superior and blacks are inferior, to suddenly shake those sentiments off because now we are “one”?

Furthermore, we need to constantly be aware that as the 2014 South African Reconciliation Barometer highlighted, only 53% of white South Africans who participated in the survey believed that “apartheid was a crime against humanity”. With such high rates of white denialism, at such a basic level, where do we even begin to discuss ways to overthrow the white supremacist capitalist system?

At a curriculum conference held at the university currently known as “Rhodes” a few weeks ago, students were questioned on why they were wearing their race on their sleeve because “not everything is about race”, as some academics present said.

Dr Nomalanga Mkhize responded: “Don’t ask yourself why these students are self-identifying as black….ask why we didn’t leave this question in the 1990s”.

A Black Students Movement representative explained that identifying as black “is the tool we need right now to speak truth to power” and that “we are not using the race card but we have been pushed into that corner….”

White allies?

There were of course white allies in the struggle against apartheid, such as Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Bram_Fischer and others. I asked Benjamin Glyn Fogel (a white male) on his stance on white people’s role in the black struggle. Fogel is an activist and writer whom I consider an ally.

“My own reading of the situation,” he said, “is that you are not going to win white people over” and that “white people are not going to give up their shit.”

Although in post-1994, plenty of white people have come out to say that they were disgusted by apartheid, that they never supported it and therefore were forced to confirm to its racist policies, Fogel doesn’t buy it.

“There was not a significant white anti-apartheid presence,” he said. And significantly: “Today 93% of white people vote for the DA. That’s a similar voting pattern [to the National Party’s support] under apartheid”.

To create an alternative space for white people seeking to fight for social justice, UCT formed the UCT: White Privilege Project. This is a space where white people can “explore what it means to be white in South Africa, what it means to be white at UCT…[and] what it means to be a white ally to #RhodesMustFall”.

“A quest for true freedom”

Du Preez questions why these students are following the politics of Black Consciousness in relation to excluding non-blacks in their struggle. Although he states that Biko’s philosophies are still relevant today, he cautions us to “keep in mind that he was speaking in the early 1970s at the height of apartheid and with no signs that white oppression was going to end soon. His words can’t all simply be applied to our society 21 years after apartheid – at least as applies to political freedoms – came to a fall”.

Biko himself stated that this “Black Consciousness approach would be irrelevant in a colourless and non-exploitative egalitarian society”. South Africa has not reached this stage, being black is still a liability today as under apartheid. Therefore we will still exclude white people from our struggles because we understand that they still benefit from the status quo.

Whites feared democracy, Nelson Mandela observed in the 1960’s.

“We [blacks] want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy”.

Today white people seem to fear black people taking up their rightful spaces, owning and driving their struggles, taking ownership of the land and the wealth of the country. To achieve true emancipation, “we now prefer acrimonious and robust disharmony”, because “we have lived with choreographed unity for long enough”, as eloquently pointed out by Sisonke Msimang.

This post was originally published here by the Independent Online. 


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