What is beneath the silence?


Written February 2016

A few years ago, while tapping away on my laptop during a flight to Cape Town, the woman sitting next to me asked me if I was writing a book.

I was. She asked me what it was about. At the time, my answer changed, depending on who was asking. I decided to give this 60-year-old white South African woman the long answer.

I had been an Open Society Foundation fellow. I had spent three months in the old Transkei investigating what democracy had – and hadn’t – brought to rural South Africa. During that journey I had run headlong into my own fears, prejudice and ignorance. I was writing a book confronting the racist shadows in me, a 38-year-old English-speaking South African.

“Would you read it if you saw it on the shelf?” I asked her.

She sighed.

“It’s very difficult for me to pick up one of those books and read,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Tangled emotions of guilt and regret and deep, deep sorrow.”

I waited quietly, waiting for her to say more.

“We’re in a bit of haze, perhaps we’ve had to develop that to survive. I’m sorry that we are so dulled, that there is a dullness of interest, it’s just as though…” she thought for a while, “I think we had to fall asleep. For survival. To live with guilt and regret is too painful.”

Her words echoed something I had read in Jonathan Jansen’s book Knowledge in the Blood. In it he discusses Shattered Past, research that examiened the behaviour of post-war German communities. The research found that even after the communities came to have direct knowledge of the killings and torture of Jews, “the majority of the population rather preferred to cover its own complicity with merciful silence”.

For close on twenty years many whites South Africans acted similarly. Silence was the norm and when you did address “it”, it was often reduce to two words: “white guilt”. Go out of your way for a black person and a colleague might mockingly chide: “white guilt!” Turn away from a beggar, pretending that neither of you are there, and your conscience would taunt the same. Try raise the topic of apartheid and its link to poverty, poor education or crime at a braai, and the reply would be: “Enough of the white guilt already.” White guilt didn’t like to chat.

This week, I found myself reflecting on how the conversation has shifted, how 21 years later, silence and white guilt are no longer in charge. Since late last year, “whiteness” and “white privilege” have become the new buzz words, and the uncomfortable thing about these new labels are they invented for us by people who are not us. People outside of us are describing our behaviour. They are defining and framing our lives. They are labelling our own, ordinary, every day, sometimes shitting, sometimes amazing lives as a stolen good. How dare they? How dare they judge us? After all, we all know how the thieves are around here, don’t we?

Oh yes, the dialogue is shifting. Our culpable silence is being broken, and we are feeling angry, exposed and defenceless. What are we supposed to do now?

Well, if the Shattered Past research is anything to go by, what is happening now is as typical as our 20 years of silence. Just over twenty years after the end of the Second War, the old Germans to begin to die out, opening up a space for a new generation of thinkers and writers who were able to observe the past with a new critical consciousness.

And what is equally fascinating is what else the Shattered Past research noticed, namely that “the capacity for perpetrators to change only arose after the political elites recognized more than one pain and ‘the link between the suffering of the victims and the perpetrators’ was established.”

In other words, society as a whole had to start setting aside some compassion for the bad guys.

In post-war Germany, the blanket of silence had meant Germans had been stopped from processing their own war wounds: the rape they had suffered at the hands of the Russians, the deaths of the German soldiers, the intimidation and fear culture that had been Nazi Germany. This new consciousness also brought in a phase where those personal losses and griefs were permitted.

And I find myself wondering: is that we need to do? To permit the wretched white South Africans with their fortress houses and 4x4s and don’t seem to give a fuck about anyone but themselves, to have an opportunity to express their personal pain?

Now I admit, it’s hard to feel anything except contempt for some white South Africans. This past Valentine’s weekend I was down at the Vaal River and felt like chucking all this attempt at inter-racial healing in, as I witnessed the selfishness of those white South Africans, with their jet skis and speed boats, who driven drunk on the river, back to their vast houses that look more like fortresses than homes. How does one have compassion for people who seem to treat the world as just a giant playground, hoarding all the toys for themselves? Who are these people?

But I found myself wondering what lurks there, beneath all that bravado and shiny toys and heavy drinking?

In his book Jansen remembers how destitute the white Afrikaners were at the end of the South African War. They had been chased from Europe because of their religious faith, and then they had been defeated on the land that they tried to build a new home. And out of this defeat, poverty and fear, they rose again, and this time they tried to create a nation that no one could destroy, and they lost that too.

What lies in these people who have lost and lost and lost? Is that why they hoard? Is that why they close ranks? Is that why they have retreated to their fortresses? What will they say when they break their silence?

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