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Racism outcry

2013-03-24

A disservice to white citizens

Opposition leader Helen Zille’s attack on Zuma shows how urgently we need increased activism around whiteness and racism

In Oslo this month for a journalism conference, I was struck by the improbable purity of Norway. Not only are the streets in the capital spotless and the melting snow in the mountains clean enough to taste, but the country’s lavish welfare system extends pre-cradle to grave – with world-beating maternity benefits for both parents – while gender equality is so well won as to be passé in conversation.
Norway has an international reputation for peace broking and human rights advocacy, belief in fair play being its demonstrable hallmark. I marveled at the reasonableness of a museum curator who spent fifteen fruitless minutes telling a bemused pair of three-year-old English-speaking twins in her own tongue why they should walk rather than run through the exhibits.
With fewer than five million citizens in the oil-rich country, Norwegians are clearly both prosperous and proud of themselves. From my hotel window, I watched several standing in the rain, their coats blown almost off their backs by gale-force winds as they photographed Oslo’s brand new award-winning Opera House.
Tolerance is instinctive throughout Scandinavia, although I overheard my hosts in Oslo commenting on the selfishness of Norwegian drivers. Was it in Norway or Denmark some years ago that the prime minister publicly took several months off to have a nervous breakdown, surely an unprecedented indulgence of leadership’s stresses.
What’s missing in Norway apart from reliable sunshine is humour. My Irish friend Rory reckons Scandinavians are just too good-looking to bother with jokes. According to him, the witty Anglo/Irish are by contrast so plain-looking that they can only attract mates through laughter. None of the jokes I threw into my conference talk drew even a snigger from the beautiful, attentive delegates.
The awards ceremony I attended is held annually to celebrate excellence in journalism. Significant prize money was won this year by, among others, two investigative reporters who disproved widespread accusations of racism made by the media against a local ambulance driver. What had been automatically judged racist was, on closer inspection by the reporters, a purely medical call by the driver in deciding not to ferry a victim of violence to the emergency room. One delegate, describing how the original story had horrified Norway, said the entire country gasped with relief on learning that the driver’s actions had not been discriminatory after all. Apparently the thought of even one bigot in their midst (never mind the millions – black and white – we harbor here in racism’s headquarters) was seen by Norwegians as an indictment of them all.
Because of their fascination with racism, I spent most of my time in Norway discussing the topic – which, despite a lifetime of exposure to it, I still find almost inexplicable. It’s a virus of the mind fed to us with our cornflakes during childhood, I told them. Tragically, unless those afflicted spend their adult years self-consciously unlearning ingrained attitudes of superiority, it lasts forever.
Out of loyalty to my own tribe, though, I speculated that whiteness in South Africa may no longer be entirely beyond self-examination. But that hope receded abruptly on the journey home when I read on the plane that opposition leader Helen Zille, in trying to deflect criticism of her all-male cabinet, described President Jacob Zuma as a “self-confessed womanizer with sexist views, who put all his wives at risk by having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman.”
Remembering that Zille had reputedly slept for only a few hours a day while campaigning, my first thought was that she might profitably be offered time off to have a nervous breakdown. However, on the multiple grounds that have since been debated in various forums, Zille’s stereotypical attack will deservedly go on record as a humiliating moment in SA’s racial history. That Zuma’s loud-mouthed supporters responded to her in gender language borrowed from the dark ages does not excuse her recklessness.
While I did not vote for Zille, for the same reason as the black woman who rang a radio station during the election run-up to say she disapproved of the ANC’s recent record but would never endorse the DA because she feared a return to the past, the Cape-based opposition leader is widely seen both at home and abroad to represent white South Africa. As such, she has done the country’s white population a grave disservice.
“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past,” wrote American novelist William Faulkner. Fifteen years into South Africa’s first democracy has seen the statute books stripped of apartheid laws as well as the dramatic growth of a well-heeled black middle class. But much remains the same. The constitution – repository of the nation’s values – is still far ahead of the country’s mood. And South Africa is still the most racist society on earth.
Zille should have seized the opportunity to demonstrate rare political (and for that matter white) humility by apologizing for her gaffe. Has she forgotten that disdain for the dignity of others (never mind the nation’s president!) gives impetus to rampant nationalism? Surely apartheid taught us that? Has she forgotten that achieving compromise with those whose manners we don’t fully understand or with whose causes we do not entirely sympathise is a vital characteristic of successful, open societies – the lessons Nelson Mandela tried so hard to teach us?
In my view her incautious outburst has betrayed white South Africa – especially, perhaps, those who believe she simply spoke the truth, as claimed by some in her party. Does the Western Cape leader not know that the “truth” you hear in what is arguably the most complicated society on earth is more often than not dependent on the colour of your skin? How often can blacks and whites actually agree about the truth of the same events?
We whites are undoubtedly in denial about the damage inflicted by us on black South Africans, and we are likely to remain so for decades if experience in other similarly traumatized societies, like Germany, is anything to go by. We need constant moral guidance. A new white humanity is unlikely to emerge if prominent white people are unable to be magnanimous in the face of the inexperience and ineptitude – political and otherwise – that pervades South Africa in the wake of apartheid.
Helen Zille’s embarrassing attack shows just how urgently we need increased activism around whiteness and sadly racism in order for people to gain insight into their position and privilege. I call on the many white South Africans who regret and resent Zille’s arrogance to denounce it publicly in whatever way they can: by writing letters to newspapers, phoning talk shows or sending emails of protest. Those of us who have tried to interrogate our whiteness seldom get the chance to stand up and be counted.

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