I was born in Africa, raised in Africa, the soil of Africa has roughened my toes and the sounds of Africa have nurtured my soul. The smells of Africa enliven my nostrils and the tastes of Africa are the tastes of some of my favourite foods.
But I am not black and can never fully enter into the black experience. I have never been stopped and asked, “Waar’s jou pas? (Where’s your pass?)” I have never had to gulp down a clandestine drink at a “sip and fly” . I have never trembled at the approach of bulldozers coming to demolish my house nor have I ever had to suffer the indignity of being addressed as “Kaffir!” I have not had to stand for hours in a queue for “non-Europeans only” although I am not a European.
Indeed I have been privileged by the “Abelungu Bodwa” (Whites only) signs that marked out the special treatment whites received in apartheid South Africa. The shortest queues, the nicest beaches, the best park benches carried that “Abelungu Bodwa” sign very prominently.
The best schools with the best teachers, the best hotels and restaurants, the best jobs and the best neighbourhoods also carried that sign, even if only metaphorically.
Buses marked “Abelungu Bodwa” carrying a handful of passengers in relative comfort routinely passed crowded, hot and uncomfortable buses filled to capacity and more; and these buses usually had much further to go than the “Abelungu Bodwa” buses, over potholed and dusty roads to “locations” far from the “Abelungu Bodwa” city. And in the “location” the experience of “Night screams, barking of half-starved mongrels, the rattle of wagons loaded with human manure collected from lavatory buckets … the smell of night … the throb of life seeking at once some violent release, some affectionate contact and a corner to deal with the terrors of night, to take stock of the hurts, the buffetings, the braveries of daytime …” (From Es’kia Mphahlele’s autobiography Afrika My Music. Ravan, 1984).
How can I, privileged white that I am, enter meaningfully into that world? In the South Africa of the early 21st Century that is no academic question. We live in a country riven by race and I cannot without great difficulty imagine myself in that world, in that kind of Kafkaesque world described by Lewis Nkosi in the early 1960s: “For a black man to live in South Africa in the second half of the twentieth century and at the same time preserve his sanity he requires an enormous sense of humour and a surrealistic kind of brutal wit, for without a suicidal attack on Dr Verwoerd’s armed forces, these qualities seem to provide the only means of defence against a spiritual chaos and confusion which would rob any man of his mental health.”
It is no academic question as it has to do with the very essence of being white in a country where that has had, over centuries, a very special meaning, a meaning of privilege over deprivation, a meaning of access over denial, a meaning of quality over meanness.
It is no academic question as I as a white person struggle to find my place in a country in which formerly everything was geared to the advantage of the white person and the detriment of others.
It is no academic question to ask how I can avoid the taunt of Steve Biko against those who tried to maintain their privilege by denying complicity in oppression with the claim to “have black souls wrapped up in white skins”? (Black Souls in White Skins, 1970; in I Write What I Like, edited by Aelred Stubbs CR, Bowerdean Press, 1978).
It is no academic question how I with my inescapably “white” skin can assert my African identity in a country in which “African” is most commonly used as a synonym for “black”?
As philosopher Samantha Vice has written (“How Do I Live in This Strange Place?”; Journal Of Social Philosophy, Vol. 41 No. 3, Fall 2010, 323–342.): “…my experience as a white South African raises starkly some questions about the nature of the self and the place of self-concern in a context in which injustice is the norm.”
Does my white skin mean that I cannot claim to be African, in spite of the African dust between my white toes?
Who am I in “This Strange Place”? This is a very pertinent and practical question, one which all “white” South Africans need to ask themselves as we struggle to come to terms with this country in which everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed.
Back in the 18th Century the Dutch-speaking farmers of the nascent Cape Colony began to speak of themselves as “Afrikaanders” – “Africans” – to distinguish themselves from their Dutch overlords of the Dutch East India Company. But this self-identification did not imply any sense of community with the black indigenous people, Khoisan or Xhosa – the “Afrikaanders” described themselves also as “Christians” over against the indigenous people whom they called “schepseln” (creatures).
This in spite of the fact that a great many of the “Afrikaanders” took concubines and even wives from among the “schepseln”. One very famous “Afrikaander”, Coenraad de Buys, even took the mother of a Xhosa chief as his wife – one of many, none of them white, be it said.
As Mphahlele wrote: “Race. Colour. The most emotive words in the dictionary of human relationships. All my life I have had to grapple with their meanings, with the energy they generate.”
I think all South Africans, of whatever “colour” have felt at one time or another in their lives the weight of Mphahlele’s words without perhaps being fully aware of the struggle.
Whether we individually like it or not, race has been for a long time a large component of the self-identity of each of us who call ourselves “South African.”
Poet Lionel Abrahams wrote of the difficulty we have in understanding others who are different in his poem “Into the Skin” from his collection The Writer in Sand (Ad Donker, 1988):
My way into you, stranger-neighbour,
is not to ask the way:
no instruction can lead me,
and nor can I practise or think
or feel my way in to be black or a woman,
victim or addict of blood
or money or prayer.
For me there are two related issues here – firstly the weight each of us gives to race in our self-concept, and secondly the way we individually and socially use the concept of race to maintain or strengthen our self-concepts.
The issue of how whites can relate authentically in South Africa today is not an easy one, to be sure.
Much as I would like to ignore or deny my white skin, it is a very definite part of my identity, especially in the eyes of others (I don’t notice the colour of my skin too much myself, after all). It becomes, in the race-ridden country that we share, a badge of privilege, a mark of history, and so separates me from others who perhaps see the skin and don’t want to see any further.
I could become very defensive about this and try to blame others for it. But I think, as a white, that my attitude needs to be very humble and to listen to my fellow South Africans with a keen awareness that I was extremely privileged by apartheid. And that the privilege continues today. I still live a “white” life, a life that was guaranteed me by apartheid. The guarantee has since run out, but the product still works, although it has definitely reached beyond its “sell-by” date.
“Digging old memories
is a manner of putting the future
Otherwise the future
is a void.” – from “No Lullaby for my country” by Vusi Mavimbela
Vice’s article can be found here: https://www.ru.ac.za/documents/Philosophy/How%20do%20I%20Live%20in%20This%20Strange%20Place.pdf
Also see Sipho Hlongwane’s article can be found here: http://www.thedailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2011-07-04-should-south-africas-black-people-get-over-apartheid-hell-no