By Thato Magano (@ThatoMagano)
Reflecting on the Annual Ruth First Fellowship Lecture event last Monday, Thato Magano writes about what he imagines will be an impossibility to achieve: that South African whiteness could repudiate the comforts of its alligiance to global whiteness and see itself as inseparable from the dignity of black bodies. He expands on how the system of racism makes this impossible and perhaps land, within the South African context, might be a starting point to afford black bodies this dignity.
“If South African whiteness has an opportunity to write a new chapter in world history it will have to come out from under the umbrella of international whiteness and repudiate it. Putting itself at risk, it will have to declare that it is home now, sharing in the vulnerability of other compatriot bodies. South African whiteness will have to declare that its dignity is inseparable from the dignity of black bodies.”
These words by Ntate Njabulo Ndebele, which formed part of the concluding segment of Sisonke Msimang’s Ruth First Fellowship Lecture “With friends like these” last Monday at the WITS Great Hall, have continued to occupy my mind days after she and Panashe Chigumadzi, delivered their lectures. I have been trying to imagine what this repudiation by whiteness would look like. I have been trying to imagine what exactly is it that would embolden South African whiteness to walk away from all the privilege they enjoy in this country and the rest of the world, simply from the colour of their skin.
Let me state a few things before I go further. Yes, Panashe and I are friends and business partners. Her lecture, “Of Coconuts, Cecil John Rhodes and Consciousness”, is one I was intimate with from the day that she had intended to submit her research proposal for consideration. I had read through some of the back and forth’s she had with the committee and continued to quietly motivate and support her position. Hence it would also be prudent of me to disclose that I share all of her positions on the night, as I have in the past through our work on Vanguard Magazine.
I will not address her paper as it stands that I agree completely with her, however, I will concern myself with her comments on non-racialism and friends as offered in her answer to moderator Eusebius McKaiser. Yet we first need to dissect my questions around Ntate Ndebele and Sisonke’s position on not wanting to give up on the idea of a non-racial world, a non-racial South Africa at least, where whiteness knows that if it is to “fit in at all in the new Africa, it’s going to be sideways, where-we-can, wherever-they’ll-shift-up-for-us” as suggested by Nadine Gordimer.
As Msimang suggested in her lecture, the question we should ask South African whiteness is ‘are you just?’ as they continue to live in country where their socio-economic realities allow them the option of opting out of having a South African experience yet they live in the country. Msimang, justly, indicts South African whiteness with her references to the absence of authentic interracial friendships in the country or the mutual inclusivity of racism and intimacy, as evidenced by the references to our mothers who have raised thousands of white children or our aunts and grandmothers who have and continue to work in gated communities that have remained enclaves of whiteness protection.
And I fully agree with Msimang here. The reality of our lives as black people is that we are beholden to whiteness in ways that it is not to us. It is inescapable. We know from a very young age that if we are ever going to have any chance at economic prosperity, we have to twist our tongues and speak the master’s language. We have to learn, what Chigumadzi referred to as ‘white grammar’ and our parents have known all along that we need a Christian name that is easier for white people to pronounce.
South African whiteness does not have to do this in exchange. It has never had to. It’s interactions with the majority of the people who live in this country is purely a facilitated one, deeply transactional and unequal at best. Even twenty one years into an assumed equal society, whiteness has still not learnt to twist its tongue to learn Sepedi, Setswana or even the widely spoken isiZulu. At best, it has concerned itself with adopting a third language policy for public relations purposes as has been the trend with universities across the country.
And so this repudiation, this elective opting out as suggested by Ntate Ndebele and Sisonke is somewhat a stretch too far for me to comprehend. Let me illustrate this by way of example. A couple of years ago, when I was still working in corporate and had dreams of ascending the totem pole of promotions to eventually see myself at the head of the marketing department for the confectionary company I was working for, me and eight other colleagues went on a business trip to Dubai. It was a mixed group; two White females, two White males, three Black females and one Indian female. I was the only black male. We had flown first class on an Emirates flight and had enjoyed all the liberties of a first class ticket: the gourmet menu, the champagne and premium alcohol as well as the warm wet face towels that came with every whim from a passenger who wanted to wipe their face.
We arrive at Dubai International immigration and who gets to have their luggage searched? Who had to suffer the stigma and humiliation of an undignified and unwarranted search? Yep, me the black guy who had just flown eight hours in the lap of luxury. Me, who had just watched movies that had not yet been released to South African theatres. Me, who had just spent hours sleeping next to my Indian and White friends. As we stood at immigration and I was asked to hand in my passport while my bags were searched, my colleagues were all waiting for me on the other side. Their eyes were searching mine. I was embarrassed. All those kilometres away from Johannesburg, I was reminded not to forget who I was in the world. Not to ever forget that global whiteness had created and cemented it so that anywhere I go in the world, I am always reminded of this fact.
Global whiteness exists and functions within a framework that creates the ‘other’. Transitioning from a system of keeping indentured servants of all race groups to the institutionalisation of racist slave practices, its mechanics have since been premised on the fact that there is an ‘other’ that is not it – a subhuman, a non-entity. Since the Atlantic slave trade of the 1600s, whiteness has been invested in creating the other and after the 1800s, this other was determined that they will always wear black skin. Yes, African kingdoms and aristocracies had slaves even before whiteness became institutionalised in Africa; however, the purpose of keeping slaves was a very different motivation for pre-colonial African societies. Slaves were outcasts of society; they were mainly prisoners of war and from small scale societies who were always taken in with the intent of reintegrating them into societal and family life.
In as much as they had the definition of slave, they were not subjected to inhumane living conditions and back breaking labour. It was only after whiteness became involved in the transaction of enslavement that enslaved Africans became things. They became commodities that were bought and sold to advance European developments and industrialisation. It was from this point that it became a global phenomena that any black body can be randomly searched at a Dubai Airport while their white acquaintances can just walk past without as much as an air of suspicion. It would not matter, as Chigumadzi reminded us, how well he talked or how much money the black body had, the black body would always be treated as a ‘nigger’.
Global whiteness continues and will continue to benefit South African whiteness as the world is made in their image. The world is designed to recognise white pain and suffering over anything else. Capital is designed to recognise white legitimacy before it can ever recognise the merits of a black body’s creativity and innovation. Whiteness has inculcated among itself the idea that we are not the same and that the ‘other’, whom it has forever decided will be black, is not and will never be equal to it.
Yes, Sisonke, South African struggle history reminds us that our cause was always a just one. White struggle activists, those fully conscious of their privilege, refused these privileges if their black compatriots did not enjoy same. However, the question we really should be asking is why the system of whiteness still continued to confer these privileges onto traitors of the state of apartheid. Why was it made the responsibility of the white activists to refuse these privileges when offered to them? Why was it not foregone that they did not deserve the privileges as they were traitors of whiteness by joining blackness in the trenches to fight for equality?
I would offer that this is precisely why the notion of South African whiteness repudiating the benefits of global whiteness is an impossibility. The world is designed to benefit white skin, regardless of where it is in the world. In South Africa, it is an even worse reality for whiteness. The entrapments of global white privilege continue to make it safe harbour for white supremacist ideals. It is a comfortable existence that even if I, as a black body and imagining what I would have to give up, would not be willing to do so on their behalf.
Why would I want to give up the assumed deference to my language in every sphere of public life in this country? Why would I want to give up a culture that over eighty percent of this country’s population has been taught to aspire to as the ultimate conveyor of dignity and justness? Why would I, when there are enough safety nets the world over to know that even if black people ever tried to start a revolution, global whiteness will have my back and will soon enough meet out commensurate punishment, ala Zimbabwe, Cuba or Haiti? Why would I?
Now to focus myself on Chigumadzi’s statement that she “is not interested in having white friends until they have given back the land.” Since Tuesday, there has been dissection of this comment and even moderator McKaiser has commented that Chigumadzi cannot just say that they ‘must give back land and end it there. What about the class differences that we have to tackle that the giving back of land will not resolve.’ I have found this dissection interesting to say the least.
Even Panashe has shared with me some of the comments that came her way on Monday evening from whiteness. The main critique was that she has not given any concrete solutions to the issues of white domination in the way that Msimang had. I quipped back, saying “well, you did. You said they must give back the land and they chose not to hear that. That is the ultimate solution.”
This refusal by whiteness to see land as the ultimate signifier of their action to repudiate their benefit from global whiteness is the reason why Msimang, Gordimer and Ndebele’s position is impossible. The violence from whiteness of an expectation that black people must provide solutions to a problem that they continue to benefit from, I would dare suggest, is the reason why we can’t be friends, Sisonke. Whenever the question of land is brought up, we are assaulted with questions such as ‘what are you going to do with it?’ or ‘you don’t have the agricultural skill to till the land and make it productive’ or some other such violence. Let me share another personal anecdote why this is a violent expectation by South African whiteness.
In 2012, a friend of mine who works in educational development invited us, her group of friends, to help her facilitate a day of team building activities with the young people on her programme. All this was to happen on a farm just outside of Lanseria that is owned by her white friend’s family. When we got to the farm, I was struck by its breadth and struck up a conversation with my friend’s friend about the size of the farm and what they do on the land. He, a young man my age, told me that they have had the more than fifty hectares of land for something over fifty years in his family. It was his great grandfather who had acquired the land. On the farm, there were houses that belonged to his siblings, male and female, who lived there with their partners. There was also a small bed and breakfast operation.
When I asked him what his plans were with the rest of the land, as it had now become his responsibility, he told me that he was intending to build a multipurpose conferencing facility. From a farm that his great grandfather acquired because the land was available, to a small scale farming operation and a bed and breakfast addition by his father, now he was going for the jugular and building a modern conferencing facility. Generationally, each man in his family has been able to articulate their vision for these hectares of land that his great grandfather happened to come across. His entire family continues to benefit from generational security in the houses they never have to pay bonds for or have the anxiety of staying in a job they hate for fear of missing a repayment to the bank.
Similarly, my maternal great grandfather, because of homeland privilege as we lived in Bophuthatswana, together with two of his friends, acquired several hectares of land during the heydays of apartheid. The land housed cows all these years until a few years ago that mineral deposits were discovered on the farm. As a collective unit of families, we have gone through the process of prospecting the minerals and conducted a feasibility on the potential of a privately owned mine, which led to subsequently had discussions with interested investors. My great grandfather and his friends, collectively, have been dead for over forty years. This land has been in our families for well over forty years. It is only now that we have discovered the mineral deposits. It is only now that we can potentially turn the farms into a viable business venture. Generationally, we have awoken to the financial potential of what vacant land can mean for us.
Hence the violence of the expectation that the only reason we want our land back is for agrarian reasons is flawed. In the same manner that my friend’s white friend has the security to pursue his ultimate life ambitions without having to worry about employment and bonds, we deserve the same security. We deserve to have our land and decide whatever it is that we want to do with it. Be it my generation or five generations from now that viable economic use is found for the land, the inherent security in never having to owe anyone for where you live is the dignity that South African whiteness continues to deny us.
Global whiteness is facilitated by its ownership and control of space and land that is not theirs. The explorations from Europe, be it Columbus, Van Riebeck or Da Gama, were all premised on one thing. To seize whatever they considered uninhabited and uncivilised parts of the earth. After these conquests, they were bequeathed them by the royal aristocracies in charge of the dynasties of the time. The land that global whiteness continues to enjoy outside of Europe is not theirs and their refusal to give it back is the reason why South African whiteness will never find a way to repudiate itself from the global status quo.
Hence, as black people, our interest in continuing to maintain friendships ‘with friends like these’ is the counterproductive thing to do. These friendships will continue to coddle South African whiteness in its blindness to see how their continued ownership of the majority of South Africa subjugates all black bodies in this country. They will continue to participate in a global world order that sees us as below and undeserving of what is rightfully ours. If there is any hope that they can repudiate and offer themselves for just and fair friendship, then the land must return. Only once the land has returned can we talk about affording them the dignity of our friendships and the mercy of a stake in crafting a shared destiny in this country.
However, because of global whiteness, I fail to see how this will ever be achieved.
Rape: A South African Nightmare By Pumla Dineo Gqola
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