The concept of whiteness is a sensitive subject that I studied during my days at Rhodes University, and I’m sure it’s still a massive debate in the sleepy hollow of Grahamstown. And with the scourge of racism that’s gripped South Africa, late last and early this year, it’s a subject that’s garnered even more attention.
Yesterday Michael McWilliams spoke about the secrets of white privilege and will continue to explore this theme on Biznews. While below, Gerhard Papenfus asks what his role as a white person is. It’s a piece that will attract negative and positive sentiment but the important issue is that there’s discussion around an extremely sensitive subject.
And the only way to move forward is to lay everything out on the table. In the piece Papenfus is reminded that, unlike the Germans who have completely disassociated from the atrocities of the Nazis, the ‘whites’ show no true repentance. A thought provoking piece. – Stuart Lowman
By Gerhard Papenfus*
I’m ‘white’. I have no mandate to write this, no political constituency. The views I express herein are influenced by my prejudice, to what extent I don’t know. I cannot be completely objective; my experience, knowledge and understanding is simply too limited. Even a lifetime is too short to see the complete picture. I find it difficult to make sense of a rapidly changing South African landscape.
In writing this, I run the risk of being called all sorts of names and being labelled a ‘racist, insensitive, naive, anti-revolutionary and anti-progressive’. I write out of the context of my limited perspective and from the place in the world where I find myself. I am a South African in heart and soul. I love this country.
There is no place in the world where I would rather be. To a very limited degree, I understand South Africa’s challenges and complexities and I want to play my part in bringing about a future for all South Africans. I understand that I cannot claim a future for myself, unless I strive to create the space for all other South Africans to do the same.
I also understand that, in the final analysis, it is up to each and every individual living in this country, to accept responsibility for his/her own wellbeing.
I must admit that I do not fully understand the harm that apartheid has done to South Africans who found them on the wrong side of this evil ideology. I see the behaviour which is the result of this mindless ideology being imprinted in the minds of people, for many generations. I cannot even imagine the humiliation, frustration and anger it causes.
I not only see it, but I also make myself guilty of it. My view of people, depending on the situation, are still influenced by images which are deeply entrenched.
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I was born into the ‘privileged’ class – as if my ‘whiteness’ guaranteed the complete package of what the term ‘privilege’ entails. I get the impression that the material advantages which ‘apartheid’ attempted to guarantee, is the dominant objective now being strived towards. Apartheid was a failure.
The material wealth and twisted security it aimed to guarantee, was disappointing. The result is bitter. It’s coming to a formal end 21 years ago was a relief. Those who now strive for the same material benefits which apartheid strived to achieve, will eventually experience the same disappointment.
I have to carry this ‘privilege’ albatross around my neck, without having had the opportunity to explain my situation, to state my case. I had no ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’.
The extent of my privilege was never tested. From a young age I developed an awareness of the unfairness of the previous dispensation, but my protest against it was timid, hesitant, academic, unconvincing and insufficient. I was no ‘freedom fighter’.
I can see what’s happening around me. I see the spectacular growth of individual wealth in a contracting economy, which is not sustainable. I also see declining wealth, I see the increasing gap between rich and poor, growing unemployment, growing social discontent, failing service delivery, all of which affects the poor the most.
I see the neglect of the issues which can bring lasting empowerment, and a focus on those issues that can bring no lasting benefit, but is bringing about dangerous short term unrealistic political enthusiasm. I notice that a racial remark by an unknown person reaches the front pages of newspapers, whilst the murder of a farmer is not reported.
All of this notwithstanding, I see so many things that work; I see the most wonderful goodwill among ordinary people. I still hope.
Read also: James Myburgh: SA intelligentsia descended into ‘racial madness’
I am continuously made to understand that it is expected of me to make a greater contribution; that my resistance to change is a cause for the growing tension. I am sceptical, even irritated, when I hear calls for accelerated transformation. I wish that it would mean better education, improved skills, improved work ethics, changed attitudes, more mutual understanding and the creation of an enabling environment.
But what it means, unfortunately, is redistribution on a wide range of areas, including the shares in my business, my job. If only transformation was that simple; if only it was that simple, that by giving away these things a lasting solution would be created. All indications are that these policies have the opposite effect.
Somehow I get the impression that when open debate on these issues is invited, what is meant is that I, branded as the perpetrator, must sit back and listen, whilst the victim explains my historical sins to me. Is it that simple? It is somehow expected that I subject myself to historical reorientation, then adapt my behaviour, agree to permanent economic suffocation? Not only for myself, but the generations after me?
Those who want to treat me as the perpetrator, do they realise that, at some stage, I might have been the victim. And do the victims of today realise that they are turning themselves into perpetrators, the ‘abused’ becoming the ‘abuser’. And in this manner, this evil cycle and the consequential blame game continues, one disempowered generation succeeding the other.
Fortunately, amongst all of this, there will always be those who will notice the opportunities in adversity, who will accept responsibility for their own lives, and will reap lasting benefit.
There are elements of perpetrators and victims in all of us. You might be so focused on your victimhood that you don’t realise that, whilst pitying yourself for being a victim, in another area you are a perpetrator. This applies to all of us. Life is not one dimensional. None of us were born evil. Neither is none of us beyond reproach.
We all need to do introspection; if we don’t, not only will we stagnate, but we will eventually find ourselves doing the things we were so strongly opposed to: “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brothers eye”.
Read also: Apartheid-style race-based laws damaging SA’s employable future
The current system of ‘affirmative action’ is as ugly and dysfunctional as its predecessor: apartheid. If you find yourself caught up in the wrong skin colour, you are subjected to a legal framework aimed at keeping you out of the mainstream economy for ever; the objective of the so-called ‘seamless transition’.
If, as a result of this new style transformation, you either lose your job, or are unable to find a job, and you start a business in order to make a living, you will find that many doors are closed unless you are the minority shareholder in your own business. This is economic genocide. The whole model is a breeding ground for racism with tentacles which will eventually plunge this nation into hostility and poverty.
I am reminded that, unlike the Germans who have completely disassociated them from the atrocities of the Nazis (who murdered between 6 and 11 million people), the ‘whites’ show no true repentance. Comparing South African style racism to Naziism is a different debate, but there is an important lesson to be learned from this proposition. The world punished Germany after WW1. They marginalised them economically, which was the main cause for WW2.
After WW2 the Allies learned from their mistakes and allowed West Germany to stand up as a nation and play its role amongst the nations of Europe. That lead to Germany becoming an European economic powerhouse and the stabilising factor in the European Union. All of this would not have been possible within a post-WW2 dispensation of punishment and marginalisation.
Such policies would have resulted in hardened attitudes, accompanied by constant regional tension. Germany would have been isolated; the world would have been poorer. No nation may be subjected to a legislative framework of disempowerment. Apartheid has taught us that lesson, but we are in danger of forgetting it. That applies even to a nation with a dubious past. Nobody is born and called to fail.
Using Germany as an example, it is no wonder that attitudes are deteriorating and hardening in South Africa. Employment Equity and Black Economic Empowerment has turned out to be a form of ‘punishment’ of ‘whites’. It has nothing to do with broad based empowerment. If, however, it is the aim, it’s a failure.
It has enriched some ‘blacks’ and impoverished many whites and millions of black people. It is a major cause of racial tension; it is the cancer of the economy, the cause of the lack of economic confidence and growth, the main reason for economic decline, the cause of the failure of government departments and parastatals – and the topic everybody refuses to talk about out of fear for retribution.
Read also: Mailbox: BEE – current version of Apartheid. Robbing the ‘Rainbow Nation’.
The race I am part of is inseparable from this nation. We are a part of this body. If we are marginalised, the body will suffer. If we are severed, the whole body will die. That applies to every individual and every group of people in South Africa.
Thus, in the current debate, I (and those like me) cannot remain quiet. I’m not a second hand citizen; I’m here to stay. My ‘sins of the past’ does not disqualify me from playing my full part in unfolding events. Quietly withdrawing from the debate, out of fear, guilt or self-pity, will be of no good, least of all to those who want to push me to the periphery.
Just a last thought, aimed at the perpetrators of the past who now pity themselves for now being the victims, the victims of the past who are slowly but surely turning themselves into perpetrators and, lastly, those who have always been victims, as a result of adverse circumstances or self-inflicted laziness, ignorance or bad attitude (not limited to any race): real wealth which brings lasting fulfilment was not achieved by apartheid, neither will it be achieved by ’empowerment’ policies which seeks wealth in the same depleted mine.
• Gerhard Papenfus is chief executive of the National Employers’ Association of South Africa.
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