Where were the white people?


Yesterday we held our 21st Consciousness Café of 2016. Our venue was the Penthouse at Joburg Theatre. We chose this space not only for its floor-to-ceiling views of the city – an inspiring backdrop for a Day of Reconciliation dialogue – but because it has safe parking and a bus stop outside. It’s accessible to pretty much everybody. When we arrived the lifts were full of little blonde children clutching their parents hands, on their way to watch the pantomime, Robin Hood.

As the classic tale of the hero who takes from the rich and redistributes to the poor took to the stage, upstairs 50 South African citizens gathered in a circle to have a 4-hour group dialogue about what real reconciliation would look like, and what’s stopping it from happening.

Among them were 46 black people and 4 white people. Four.

Where were you?

We joked that you had already gone to your holiday home. We reassured the room that white people had come in bigger numbers before – for example, when we held a Consciousness Café in the ’burbs. And yes, in fairness, by ratio there should have been less white people there. We are in the minority. We make up only 19.1% of the population of Gauteng* (out of a total population of 13.2m at 2015 census). Stick to the maths, and only 9.5 out of 50 should have been white.

But the room was not content with our explanation because this was the Day of Reconciliation. This was the day it mattered. This was the day that has been set aside for us to rip the plasters of apartheid’s still suppurating wounds, and instead, what most South Africans – of all races – prefer to do is have a lekker time.

Let’s reconcile ourselves to another six pack of beers. Let’s reconcile ourselves to loud music and a braai. Let’s reconcile ourselves to another year of being divided so political elites can trample all over us. Let’s reconcile ourselves to the status quo because my life is fine and how do you expect me to care about your life – after all, I don’t really know all that much about it?

Earlier in the week, the Department of Arts and Culture had tweeted: “”How do you reconcile with other races when there is only one race at these dialogues, national days, imbizos, etc?”

And for once, the government is right.

I’ve never wanted to be the finger-wagging white because I know it’s pointless: white South Africans don’t like being told what to do. It’s the colonialists’ complex (and the real reason why Brexit happened). The former top dog doesn’t like taking orders or suggestions from anyone. No one must call us on our behaviour. No one must tell us to reflect on the past. We already pay our taxes, what more do you want?

Well, after co-facilitating Consciousness Café dialogues all through this year, I can tell you what some black South Africans want.

They want you to listen to them.

They want you to come into a safe-enough space so they can tell you how apartheid and the myth of white supremacy fucked with their minds. And how it’s still a daily struggle to tell themselves that they are good enough.

They want to tell you how hurtful it is when people say that “they must just get over it”, but how nobody ever says that to a Jew about the Holocaust.

They want to tell you how shit it feels every time a white woman clutches her handbag when she walks past a black guy. How offensive it is that you can’t tell the difference between an engineer and a thief.

That racism is real. It’s still happening. Every day. In a black majority, black-ruled country.

They want to ask you why you are so scared of all black people (not just the criminals) – after all, what nation of black people has ever invaded a white nation?

They want to tell you that retribution does not mean war. But the effects of the 1913 Land Act (that banned black people from owning land) and forced removals are a giant stinking hangover – worse than the one you have today.

They want to tell you how infuriating it is when you are studying philosophy at Wits and the subject of the African philosophy of Ubuntu comes up, and 4 of the 5 set readings are written by white men, even though there are at least another 20 recommended papers written by black writers.

They want to tell you that they are sick of feeling like unwanted guests on the land of their ancestors. They want to tell you that you are the settler.

And they want to tell you that you do belong here. But you’re not African. And your system of doing things is not necessarily the right or the best system for the health, wealth and wellbeing for the majority of the people of this country.

And you may have a lot of things you want to say back. But you only get to say them, if you actually come along.

Stop hiding behind the Internet.

PS. The two young Jewish mothers who hired babysitters and came from suburbia, got to say something back. The dialogue was fierce. Black anger and white fear squared up to each other. Together we stood in a raging fire, and everyone left with their consciousness altered.

Our next Consciousness Café will be on Saturday, 28 January 2017. Venue TBC.

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“How many white liberals are in South Africa?”


So there I was propping up a barn in Sweet Auburn, Atlanta. I was in town for a conference about racial justice (or the lack thereof) with my Consciousness Café colleague Keke. Two days before, Donald Trump had been elected president of the US, and the conference was a churned-up sea of angry, bewildered activists. After yet another day of high-intensity discussions, we’d gone out in search of beer.

Our taxi dropped us off on the corner of Edgewood and Boulevard, where a helicopter was whirring overhead, and police cars were parked up. In the distance we could hear drums and see flags waving, and as they got closer, we saw it was one of the many #NotMyPresident marches that were taking place across the US that day. There were probably about 300 white people, with a smattering of “people of colour”, being followed by a CBS news van, which was broadcasting this march live. The police stood back with their arms folded, watching bored, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the black faces had outnumbered the white faces, would the police have been so relaxed, and would the media have described it as peaceful? But I digress.

Within moments of entering the bar we immediately befriended two guys, one black, one white, who by some weird cast of fate, both had spent a lot of time in South Africa.

The white guy’s grandfather was Morris Nestadt, the former mayor of Benoni, the East Rand mining town where I had grown up, and he spent all his childhood summers there.

The black guy, LeJuano, was a mover and shaker who had spent six months living in Joburg’s trendy suburbs of Parkhurst and Maboneng, checking out the scene.

It was LeJuano, who, a few beers later, posed me the question: “How many white liberals do you think they are in South Africa?”

I hesitated. Contemplated. Took another sip of beer.

“That a difficult question,” I said.

Keke rolled her eyes. “Why is it difficult? Just answer the question,” she said.

“It’s difficult because it depends what you mean by liberal? Is it someone who believes in giving back the land? Or are you a liberal if you never say ‘I hate kaffirs’?”

“Mara,” says Keke. “Why are you complicating this?”

“Because it is complicated,” I said. “During apartheid, a white liberal was someone who didn’t support racial segregation. Back then, the DP – who are now the DA – were the liberals. But nowadays if you’re white and you vote for the DA, you are not seen as a liberal. In fact, liberal has become a dirty word, and those who would consider themselves the true liberals nowadays are what others would call the radicals. Those who fully support the EFF and “give back the land”. And if that’s the definition we are reaching for, then I’d say there are probably zero white liberals in South Africa. Or maybe ten a push.”

At which point LeJuano threw back his head and started laughing.

“You South Africans!” he said. “You’d never hear people in America talk like this.”

To which Keke rolled her eyes and demanded we stop talking about politics and order some more beers.

And so we did.

But ever since I’ve been promising that I would write about this because it has been on my mind a lot over the last six years. I initially wrote a whole chapter on liberalism for my book, Lost Where We Belong, and then took it out because I felt like I was posturing. Who the hell was I to stroke my beard and pontificate on liberalism? I didn’t even know what it really meant.

Which is perhaps, in essence, the problem.

Liberalism is a broad brushstroke. If you believe in tolerance, respect, freedom, dignity of the individual, multi-party democracy, the rule of law, accountability and the separation of powers, then you can probably call yourself a political liberal.

And by virtue of our Constitution, South Africa is, in essence, a liberal country. Most of these values are the founding values of the new South Africa, and surprising as it may seem, this nation of crotchety, recovering racists is actually collectively signed up to a liberal agenda.

But just like God gets a bad rap from the awful humans that sometimes do heinous acts in the name of God, so liberalism has got something of a bad rap from its association with a nation of recovering racists.

That said, often the real grind with liberalism in South Africa is more concerned with attitudes towards economic liberalism. Critics would argue – and I would agree – that a laissez faire approach to the economy only serves to benefit those who already have established networks, education and access to resources. And because of our unjust past, there is no equal playing field in South Africa, and so if we want to see a just and fair state – and not just a liberal state – then some level of state intervention is required.

This, of course, this brings us to the difficult conversation of what kind of state intervention is just and fair. And this is where it gets uncomfortable, and brings up the other “L” word: Land.

The 1913 Land Act forbade black people from owning land in South Africa. Throughout apartheid black people were forcibly removed from land close to the city centre, and forced to live away from desirable resources, networks and infrastructure.

For restitution to take place, for justice to be attained, it is believed that actions are going to have to be taken regarding reappropriation of land which are mostly uncomfortable, threatening, terrifying and unpalatable to the white people who live on that land.

And if the topic of “land” makes your mouth dry, your heart beat faster, and your eyes shut, does it mean you can no longer call yourself a liberal?

And if you continue to call yourself a liberal, but get sweaty palms at the mention of “land”, is it liberalism that is at issue? Or is it something else?

My favourite definition of liberalism comes from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote in his book, Unpopular Essays (after which this blog is named): “The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”

No one ever says to a Jewish person, “get over the Holocaust already”. They know the facts and the facts continue to stun, shock and horrify. But again and again, we hear white people say that black people should “just get over apartheid”. But if we were really prepared to engage with the facts about how unfair, cruel and destructive apartheid was – and how its legacy continues to be – would people really say that?

Which is why, right now, it doesn’t matter how many liberals there are. What really matters is how many listeners there are.

*Our next Consciousness Café dialogue is at the Joburg Theatre on Friday, 16 December, from 2-6pm. Free event. Full details here

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We are not the same, are we?


A koan is a statement that is both true and not true. The Buddhists contemplate koans as a way to reach enlightenment. Put simply, koans are head fucks.

For the past month, I have been getting uncomfortable with this koan:
“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all our histories are different, we are not the same.”

Another koan you can make out of this is:
“We are all the same in that we are all unique.”

Why does this make me uncomfortable? Because as a child of the Rainbow Nation which has non-racialism enshrined in its constitution, I have spent the last 22 years trying to undo the apartheid conditioning that drummed into our conscious and unconscious minds – through stealth, subliminal messages, structural inequalities and spatial positioning – that white people were different to black people. In fact, according to the message, we were so different, it was imperative that we were kept apart, and that we only inhabit the same spaces when we needed something from each other – mostly a labour-cash exchange. The only permitted relationship was transactional. For everything else – friendship, love, sex, laughter, worship, contemplation, education – you must stick to those who look like you.

Nelson Mandela’s vision changed that. We were catapulted into a new age where we were encouraged to not give any meaning to the colour of someone’s skin. We were encouraged not to make assumptions about someone based on their skin colour. Our new goal was to become a colour-blind nation. A goal long-since adopted by countries like the UK.

A month ago I interviewed a Fallist – the South African students leading the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests – for a piece I was writing about the shifting South African narrative. She agreed to speak to me as a favour, because, as she bluntly put it: “We are done with white people telling our story.”

She then went on to tell me how she hates non-racialism. That non-racialism is just a license for the privileged classes to enjoy a clear conscience while turning a blind eye to the continued suffering and economic struggle of black South Africans who have ended up there because of historic racism.

As a wealthy, successful black woman I know in her 50s, puts it: “Everytime someone says ‘I don’t even think of you as black’, I want to scream. I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get where I am today. When someone says they don’t see my skin colour, it makes me feel unseen all over again.”

I thought about this a lot over the past week while in Bulgaria on a travel-writing assignment, travelling around by steam train in the carriages that once belonged to King Boris III, the monarch/dictator who was murdered by Hitler’s acolytes in 1943 because he refused to send the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps. He was posthumously awarded the Jewish National Fund’s Medal of the Legion of Honor.

Bulgaria might be the ugliest country on earth. Not in terms of its natural beauty – it has its share of mountains, trees and a lovely spot on the Black Sea – but in terms of post-Soviet urban decay. Everything that was once believed to be grand, is cracked and crumbling. Apartment blocks with windows like eyes in mourning, mascara streaming down their face. It is not kind to make fun of another’s poverty, but being in Bulgaria is an aesthetic onslaught, your eyes constantly darting around, desperate to find a shred of beauty. You take pictures of flowers to ease the panic.

The Bulgarians have had a tough half a millennia. For 400 years they were oppressed by the Ottomans.

“We were slaves in our own country,” said the tour guide who showed us around the old town of Plovdiv, one of the few pretty enclaves in the whole country.

The word slave actually comes from Slavic, which describes the languages spoken in this part of the world.

In Sofia, the tour guide showed us a stone church built into the ground.

“The roofs of our churches could be no higher than a Turk on horseback,” explained the guide. Mindless, humiliating oppression. Your god must be lower than our people.

When the Bulgarians finally got rid of the shackles in 1878 they adopted an advanced democratic constitution though had to ask the Russians to help run the administration because they were without the skills and systems.

Later, during the first and second world wars, the Bulgarians made the mistake of siding with the Germans and after the second war, found themselves under the control of a new leader – the Soviets. And so entered a new period of repression under Communism. When the USSR began to collapse in 1989, 2.5 million Bulgarians – the so-called intelligentsia – left for Canada, USA, Europe and Australia, doubting that this country would thrive under democracy.

“Romania and Bulgaria were the only European countries who didn’t try and rebel against the Soviet state. That tells you something about the mindset,” says a Bulgarian physicist who I meet later on a plane. He fled to Canada in 1989 with the implosion of the USSR. “This is a nihilistic nation. Negative thinking runs deep.”

Which brings me back to my koan.

“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all of our histories are different, we are not the same.”

In the past year, at Consciousness Café – the pop-up dialogue café I co-run in South Africa to encourage frank conversation about racism and other ongoing injustices – black South Africans speak often about internalised oppression and the burdens of self-doubt and inferiority that people carry, often unconsciously, because of the legacy of apartheid.

Epigenetics – the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself – has even started to find that it is true, that we carry the anxiety and emotional strife of our parents in our DNA, just as much as we carry their facial features.

So where does this leave us, as we try to push forward and build a world where we treat each other with equal respect? How can we be both conscious of the long-term effects of the historical oppression on the psychology of members of our society, while at the same time, not always judging them on their history?

How can we be non-judgemental while also being conscious of the story that may lie behind someone’s race or gender, class or culture?

Koans are not meant to have answers. They are meant to be sandpaper for our minds. To make us continually aware of the complexity of existence and of how there are no absolute truths.

So I leave this here. I have no prescription. Except to always question authority.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb


The noise of the world is made of our silences


Why do I write about race issues? Sometimes I think I am crazy. Sometimes I am sure of it. Why admit to and reflect on dirty prejudices that haunt the shadows of the mind? It’s probably safer to poke a snake with a stick.

I found myself reflecting on this, this weekend, while reading All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that documents the horror of war and that was banned in Germany in the lead-up to World War 2 on the grounds that it painted Germans in a bad light.

For twenty years, South Africans subconsciously banned talking about racism. There was a collective belief that it didn’t support our Rainbow Nation’s war effort, namely the fight inside ourselves to forget the past and move on as quickly as we could.

That’s not to say people weren’t branded racists. “Racist!” became the punctuation mark to end any unwanted conversation. It was the silencer of choice used to quieten any unsolicited criticism, often of the government. But there it got stuck, at the level of insult, never probing, never advancing any deeper understanding.

That is, until March 2015, when the Born Frees woke up and called us on it, adding whiteness and privilege to the concepts to chew on.

The other day, a white woman from Kempton Park asked me to explain #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall.

“What do they want?” she asked.

I explained that because of income and education disparity, begun by institutional inequalities in the past and perpetuated by inequalities in the present, many black people continue to feel second-class citizens in their own country. Locked out.

“But it was hard for me too,” she said, going on to document the years of strife as she worked two jobs to pay her way through university, clawed her way into male-dominated work spaces, struggled to get promoted, be recognised, be seen.

“Then you understand,” I said.

One of the greatest crimes of apartheid was that it taught us not to have compassion for people who do not look like us. Compassion was for the person who sat next to you in church. Pity was for the maid.

We are still stuck here. We may shake hands, call each other bra and dance with petrol attendants, but we are still clawing our way to the place where we see each other as people.

That’s why I write about race relations. Because if I stand naked, and lay myself bare, you’ll start to see me. And we may start to see each other.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

Why the old Transkei?

Lost Where We Belong is my non-fiction book that explores the legacy of apartheid and the difficulty of transformation of the human soul, written between 2010-2015. I have been reading excerpts from the book on the streets of Joburg. After a reading in a small park overlooked by the Nelson Mandela Bridge, Bismark Matsheza shared his thoughts.
If you want to hear the reading, keep scrolling. Please share in your networks.

Transcript of interview

Me: What does it make you feel when you hear me read this?

Bismark: I love that you are trying to bring out the South African history, what used to happen.

Me: Does it make you want to read more?

Bismark: Yes. Actually, I wanted to ask you, did you write this?

Me: Ja, but I can’t get it published.

Bismark: Why?

Me: They say there is no market for a book written by a white person that confronts racism.

Bismark: That’s not good. Why would they say such a thing?

Me: They say the topic makes people too uncomfortable and that white people won’t read it.

Bismark: Why?

Me: Because it’s too uncomfortable and upsetting and it makes people feel bad. And so people won’t spend money on something that makes them feel bad.

Bismark: But you are saying what happened, so… right? You are talking about what happened. I’d love to read the book. I wonder why they say that?

Anthony (cameraman): Are they afraid of the truth?

Me: I don’t know. I was told my one of the South African publishing houses that there is no market for this. Penguin Random House says there is no market for this.

Bismark: But did they read this too?

Me: No, they read the first three chapters and said there was no market.

Bismark: Who else has looked at it?

Me: Two South African publishers and about fifteen international publishers says there is no market.

Bismark: So what are you going to do?

Me: This is it. If the establishment doesn’t want to listen, let’s take the story to the streets.

Bismark: That’s a good idea. There’s some people who doesn’t know what happened. I think what you are doing is good.

Me: Thanks, it’s great to hear. This is the first moment I’m doing it and I was wondering if it was boring you.

Bismark: Like I said, was supposed to go and buy something but when you started reading I was like, okay… so that’s why I remained sitting here.

“I am discontent with the second-hand diet of fear that I am being fed from afar…”

“Why the old Transkei? I thought it would be a safer place to probe at my scars…”

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Thoughts Must Fall – a rethink


The great thing about writing a blog is that it makes you really think about your thoughts. Not just before you write – that, you’d hope, would go without saying – but once they are out there for the world to see. Writing a blog is a bit like walking around with your pants down – everyone gets to see what you’re made of – and you find yourself wondering what so-and-so would think if they read it. It makes you start a dialogue in your own head and with that comes the possibility for further shifts of the mind and heart.

Recently I wrote a blog titled “Thoughts Must Fall”. It was a critique of a critique, and a few weeks later I doubted myself and took it down to reflect on what I had written.

So what had I written?

When the #ZumaMustFall protests gained momentum in December 2015 – with marches in Joburg and Cape Town scheduled for the Day of Reconciliation, a national public holiday – a UCT professor called Adam Haupt had written a Thought Leader piece titled – “Whose Hashtag is it anyway?” – arguing that #ZumaMustFall was cultural appropriation. Haupt’s argument was that the hashtag #MustFall was the property of those within the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, a voice of the youth that was riling against a status quo which benefitted so few at the expense of so many.

Although by the time of the marches, everyone in the country, regardless of race and age, was pretty much sick to the back teeth of President Zuma and the allegations of state capture and misappropriation of state funds, the #ZumaMustFall protests, at least in Cape Town where Haupt lives and works, was seen as being led by moneyed white South Africans. (Later in January, someone even paid for a gigantic #ZumaMustFall banner to be printed at an estimated cost of R200,000 and hung – without municipal permission – on the side of a Cape Town building.)

Up until then, the #MustFall protests had been directed at people like them – people with what Haupt describes as unearned privilege – and for them to use the hashtag as their own legitimate voice of protest was deemed a form of cultural appropriation.

So what is cultural appropriation? It’s quite a highbrow insult that gets a lot of airing in wood-panelled lecture halls and contains in it a belief that it is wrong to take the icons of someone else’s culture, either for profit, or even, for fun or aesthetic value. So it’s wrong for young women at music festivals to wear feathered Indian headwear since they don’t understand its deeper spiritual, significance and it’s wrong for a fashion designer from Europe to make fashion items using blankets from Basotho culture. They are not yours. Leave them alone.

Woven within the subtext of cultural appropriation is a narrative about power, especially economic power. If I am from a culture or group of people that at some time in history has ridden roughshod over your people, and/or if I am from a group of people who is seen as more financially dominant in world economy scales, then I most definitely must not profit from your stuff. To do that just perpetuates the inequality and stops you being seen.

Haupt’s argument about #ZumaMustFall really irked me, and not just because I find cultural appropriation the most joyless concept on earth – what, no more fancy dress parties? no more pretending to be someone you’re not? – but because it struck me as a subtle form of prejudice that was trying to silence those with what he terms unearned privilege – ie. white people – from exercising their democratic right to protest. It seemed to suggest that the only legitimate and justified form of protest could come from those who feel marginalised by the current system. And it also pre-determines who is marginalised by that system, and on what grounds they are permitted to feel marginalised.

According to his analysis, the authentic marginalised voice is one that is, or sees itself, as outside the fruits of the economic system, fruits that were unfairly grown from an unjust past. If you have fruit but still feel angry, you should think again. You can’t be legitimately angry until you’ve properly understood how your fruity life is built on the fruitless lives of others, and until you’ve started to take their cause as your own.

And yes, it might sound rich coming from me, sitting at my MacBookAir, tapping away in my nice Melville garden cottage, but is that really all we are? Economic beings? The means of production? Is it not possible to feel marginalised if you don’t see yourself represented in, and even locked out of, the political establishment – as many white South Africans feel? Is it not justified to feel cheated and angry if the tax money you pay into the state every year is being corruptly misappropriated by your president? If we accept that in a democracy there is a multiplicity of beliefs, desires and needs, is it not possible to protest on the grounds that your particular needs are not being met?

To his credit, at the nub of Haupt’s argument was a call for #ZumaMustFall protestors to more deeply engage with the “black burdens” (his words) that are fuelling the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests. If we are ever to truly create the groundswell of power needed to topple the political fat cats, the haves need to understand and get behind the have-nots. They can’t just cry their own tears.

But really, using cultural appropriation as a means of encouraging dialogue? It’s like knocking someone on the back of the head with a copy of The Communist Manifesto, and shouting “Think again!”

Why then did I take down the piece I had written? Well, because I kept on writing to a place where white people so often go when they feel that their points of view are not being understood – I went on to a place of fear.

It’s a habit in us. Whenever we feel that we are being taken to task or held to account by black South Afrians, we don’t just argue back, we get angry back, and quickly on its tail comes fear. So my argument went that Haupt’s economic reductive analysis is a limited version of humanity (still agree with myself), and that it’s a subtle form of prejudice and we must remember that prejudice can be as deadly as racism (and although I agree with myself here, I’m not sure it was necessary to go here). Look what happened to the Jews I argued. They did not have structural power in Germany, but they had economic power. So does this mean that the Holocaust was racist, or was it prejudiced?


How did I get from university students calling for change to the Holocaust? This is what we – white South Africans – do. First we disagree, then we become fearful and start warning people.

It is time that we began to reflect on this habit, because it is a habit, an old one, engineered in us by our apartheid past when we were fed on a diet of ‘swart gevaar’. Little has been done to undo that conditioning, and if anything, the violent crime that the country has experienced post-apartheid has actually deepened many of those fears.

And yet there is a big difference between a criminal and a protestor. Between someone with a different viewpoint to ours, and someone who actually wants to harm us. If we want to live a truly fruitful life in South Africa – a life that is not just economically fruitful – we need to start interrogating these old fears.

After all, as one black writer I know once said to me: “When has a black man ever invaded a white man’s country?”

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

How to kill a watchman


Just over a year ago, Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird , was published. I remember the furore with which it hit the world. Newspaper headlines were thick with the tale of how this old manuscript had been found in a safe by Harper Lee’s lawyer, how Lee was now frail and unsound of mind and the lawyer had published against Lee’s will. On and on it went, with speculation, gossip and hearsay.

The story of the book trumped the story in the book.

At the time I didn’t ask myself why. I’m not a big fiction reader, preferring non-fiction, and so a year went by before I got around to reading it. I read it this weekend in one sitting and as I read I felt a fury well up in me, not at the content of the book, but at the fact that the real story of this book had been so blatantly ignored by the media who had devoted pages and page to covering its release.

So what is the book about?

The Guardian believed that “instead of clattering towards virgin territory, [the book] carries us, bewitchingly, deep into the past.”

The Wall Street Journal commented that “For the millions who hold [Mockingbird] dear, Go Set a Watchman will be a test of their tolerance and capacity for forgiveness. At the peak of her outrage, Scout tells her father, ‘You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible. I don’t doubt that many who read this novel are going to feel the same way,” sneers the journalist.

The Telegraph, the bastion of British conservative newspaperdom, didn’t even bother to find out, publishing a piece headlined “Why I Won’t be Reading Go Set a Watchman”, arguing that “what [readers] discover will make many of them sad”.

Business Insider, another UK publication, also dedicated a whole article to the musings of a journalist who refused to read the book: “I don’t want to see one of American literature’s greatest heroes turned into a racist,” she wrote, adding that ‘Gregory Peck is a total babe in the 1962 film adaption as a socially conscious lawyer, complete with three-piece suit and glasses. Racism just wouldn’t become him’.”

So for those of you who may not remember, To Kill a Mockingbird is about a white laywer in Alabama who comes to the defence of a black man who has been unfairly charged with rape. It’s about the white hero, taking on the system, and winning.

Go Set a Watchman is set about 20 years later when the white hero has become old, arthritic, and when his daughter – who had always put him on a pedastal – comes face to face with the fact that her liberal dad actually thinks that black people are less educated, that they don’t have the same values, that yes, they should have equal rights, but… in moderation.

 Says Atticus Finch to his daughter Scout:
“Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ‘em? Do you want this town run by – now wait a minute – Willoughby’s a crook, we know that, but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby. Zeebo’d probably be Mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re outnumbered you know.”

Atticus Finch, you see, doesn’t have a problem with black people, as long as they are not running the country and holding the purse strings. Sound familiar?

Go Set A Watchman is a radical book not because it turns a white saviour into a racist – but because it reveals that he always was. That underlying Atticus Finch’s belief in the rule of law and equal rights is a deep-seated, unexamined bigotry with which he is content, and which he believes to be right and true and justified. In the grand scheme of things Atticus Finch is still a liberal, he’s just an awkwardly familiar liberal: the one you see in the mirror.

As I reflected on Finch and the media establishment’s ploy to protect the moral legacy of this old white hero by refusing to engage with the content of this book,  I found myself thinking about one of my Benoni High School teachers who, as a teen, I had regarded as a liberal. Two years ago, I interviewed her for my book, Lost Where I Belong, in which I examine the legacy of apartheid on our hearts and the difficulty of transformation.

I asked what she had thought about apartheid during my school days, and she had replied: “We were good little products of our government, but we weren’t racist. Black people just weren’t a part of our lives. People may have become racist by events that happened after, rather than before. Before we didn’t have anything to be racist about.”

It made me reflect on how hard it is for humans to live with other humans. We can have high ideals and low ideals and fail on them both every day. And we’re certain to fail, over and over, unless we’re prepared to have difficult conversations, and unless our media is prepared to get involved in some of these gritty discussions, instead of polarising us or assuming a moral high ground, so out of reach from so many of us.

Interestingly, the newspaper that published the most decoy hype about Go Set A Watchman was the British newspaper The Guardian – the so-called bible of the liberals. Perhaps it’s not surprising. Perhaps they did just what Scout did when she realised the truth about her father. She vomited and tried to run away.

She didn’t get very far though, and to its abiding credit, in its last scene, Go Set A Watchman challenges Scout to confront her own high-minded, “turnip-sized” bigotry:
“You have a tendency not to give anybody elbow room in your mind for their ideas. You better take time for ‘em honey, otherwise you’ll never grow.”

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The cold white shoulder


On Youth Day weekend, thirteen South Africans gathered at a retreat centre in the Underberg to experiment with Insight Dialogue as a way of dealing with the pain and anger caused by the racism and prejudice that is thick in our country.

We were one Indian woman, 6 black people (all women), 6 white people (including two men), and a cat. People had travelled from all over the country. Everyone had come of their own free will.

Insight dialogue is a technique that draws on the skills of meditation – concentration, breathwork and mindfulness – to guide deeper conversations about difficult issues. Working in pairs, every dialogue has a pre-set topic. Every time you notice a “me too” narrative or you starting thinking up a reply, the instruction is to notice, pause, breathe, relax, and come back to what the other person is saying. The belief is that the more deeply we listen, the more we are able to connect with the truth of others – and our own truth.

In the first race dialogue of the retreat I found myself paired with a white man. I could sense his disappointment. Often at Consciousness Café we notice white people aren’t interested in connecting with other white people. Their urge is to bridge the divide and hear something new. Sometimes there is an added desire to distance themselves from the other ‘guilty ones’ – a wish to not be sullied by association.

In this moment, I found myself relieved. Some of the black women had already shared how hurtful and offensive white people’s views can be, and I wondered if, so early in the weekend, it was better that a white woman be a buffer for a white man’s views. Little did I realise that what was about to happen would bring me to tears – and impact the whole room.

The topic for the first dialogue was: describe your culture to the other person. We are both English-speaking white South Africans. Same culture. The person closest to the door was instructed to speak first. In our pairing that was the white man. He shook his head and admitted that he had drawn a blank. He had three minutes to speak. He ran out of words. “White English-speaking people don’t have a culture,” he concluded.

My turn.

“We do have a culture. Ours is a culture that equates your worth as a person with whatever it is you do for a living, and what you have achieved. It’s a culture that values good schools, nice houses, productivity. It’s a culture that ranks rationality and logic over emotions. It likes order, which it calls fairness, and it regards justice as when things are ‘just so’, everything in its right place. It is a culture that believes its way of doing things is the right way – and that everyone could take a leaf from our tree. Our culture might seem invisible to you, but that is because our culture is also patriarchal and as a white man, it gives you preference, and because it’s the dominant culture in this country. The reason you can’t see our culture is because you are it. We can’t see the woods for the trees.”

As I spoke, I saw his eyes widen in recognition and realisation. But he was not permitted to speak.

In the second round of dialogue we were instructed to speak about what it was like to listen to the other. We were to repeat some of the key things they said, not paraphrasing, nor interpreting. I repeated to my partner what he had said, about how he had drawn a blank, how he didn’t think we had a culture, and he used my language to describe white, English patriarchal culture to me.

As he spoke, I felt my body soften, a sense of deep relief in my gut, like the door had opened and soft light had fallen into the room.

In the third round of dialogue we were instructed to speak about what it was like to speak about this topic – effectively to talk about our emotions. My partner spoke about he had been so certain of his view about our lack of culture, and how he now felt embarrassed at his ignorance, and felt an enormous desire to reflect further.

At my turn to speak, my voice cracked, and tears I did not expect, came to my eyes:
“It was so strange because this never happens. You never listen. Whenever I try to speak to white men about how I feel about this country, you either get defensive or angry, or shut me down. Ag man, just light the braai. Leave it alone.
I am supposedly one of your women, part of your tribe. You are these big, strong, caring guys, you see yourselves as our protectors, but because I question and probe and think deeply about what we did, how our behaviour and attitudes continue to affect our fellow South Africans, you mock me, you isolate me and you push me out.  Do you know how lonely I feel? It’s like I have no people. Like I don’t belong.”

He told me after that, while listening to me speak, he wanted to reach out, squeeze my hand, make it better, but he couldn’t, all he could do was sit there, in silence, breathing, relaxing, listening deeply.

A few minutes later we were asked to share what happened with the whole group. I told them honestly about how unfamiliar it felt to be properly listened to by a white South African man. I had long thought that my sense of feeling lost in post-apartheid South Africa was because of my sometimes successful, sometimes failed attempts to connect with other cultures. Now I realised that the deeper loss was from feeling rejected by my own so-called people.

My words landed heavily in the room. Especially among the black women.

One black woman put the feeling into words:
“When I saw two white people put together to dialogue, I thought, what’s the point of that? They’re all the same. I always saw you as one white mass. But now I’m thinking… there is so much we just don’t get.”

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Take to the streets

Last week, on the streets of Joburg, I approached three young women and asked if I could read them a chapter of my book, Lost Where We Belong.

Lehlogonolo, Mpho and Gracious are all students at a business school in Braamfontein. We had never met before.

I explained that I had written a book in which I confront the legacy of our racist history, and the difficulty of transformation of the human soul. I told them that the book was struggling to find a publisher because the publishing industry – both in South Africa, and internationally – doesn’t believe there is a big enough market for a book that confronts issues of racism, prejudice, fear and ignorance from a white point of view because the topic is “too upsetting”. I told them I was done with being silenced and had decided to read the book out loud on the streets.

I read them Chapter 1, Another White Girl in Africa. See the video above.

When I had finished I asked Lehlogonolo what she thought.

“It’s good to listen to this. I was born in 1995. I don’t really know what happened because no one will talk to me about the past. What I do know is that it is still on everyone’s mind, they are still stuck on it.  We need to hear this so they can finally let go and we can all be free.”

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Shame man


Thanks to Consciousness Café I have developed a close relationship with a black woman in her 50s.

One evening, over a glass of wine she told me: “Every time a white person apologies to me for apartheid, I feel like I heal a little bit more. It’s like a balm being rubbed into my soul.”

I nearly dropped my wine glass. At first I didn’t say anything. I mulled it over.

Later in the conversation I asked: “Say if that apology comes from someone like me, someone younger than you who was a child during apartheid, who didn’t really do anything to create that system, does it still make you feel better?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who it comes from. When someone says sorry, the way it lands in my heart, is that they actually get it. They get how hard it was for me, how I had to virtually crawl on my hands and knees through a system that told me I didn’t belong. It makes me feel like my struggle as a black woman has been seen and acknowledged.”

I was stunned. Over the next few weeks I ran the story past my close white friends.

“How do you think older black people would feel if you apologised to them for apartheid?” I asked.

“I think they would think it was a bit of a cheek,” said one friend.

“I think they would think: ‘I don’t need your apology white girl. Get over yourself’,” said another.

I nodded. That’s exactly what I had thought. I thought an apology would be seen as a kind of arrogance. We have a black majority government, be quiet. Your apology is as irrelevant as a leaf in the wind.

How is it that we’ve got it so, so wrong?

Not long after, I tripped in the car park at the Spar.

“Sorry,” said the car guard.

“Why are you saying sorry? It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything,” I said, in a mixture of embarrassment and irritation.

He looked at my silently, and in that moment, something shifted in my head. Of course.

Every time you trip over, or drop something, or admit you are stressed, the typical response from a black South African to these small misfortunes is to say “Sorry”.

They will personally have had nothing to do with your misfortune – they will merely be bystanders and observers – but the immediate response is “Sorry”.

For too long, I had mistakenly though that black people said sorry because they were acting out an old role of being subservient to the white madam’s pain. But that is not it, is it?

Rather it is a sorry that translates as “I have noticed you and your misfortune, I empathise with you because I see it caused you a little bit of pain, distress, annoyance, embarrassment, and I know what that feels like. I am sorry that happened to you.”

And it’s funny, because white South Africans empathise in a similar way, but we use a different expression – we say: “Ag Shame” or “Shame man”.

I’m cold. Ag shame.

I tripped. Ag shame.

I’m so stressed. Shame man.

Shame is such a uniquely white South African expression which is used to show compassion, though by its dictionary definition, shame is something else. The real meaning of shame is a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong.

Sorry and shame. We have got them confused. Perhaps not surprising given our history.

At a recent Consciousness Café I publicly said sorry to Keke and Anisha for the pain and struggles that they continue to experience – especially Keke – because of the colour of her skin in our society.

As I said those words out loud in a room of people, I didn’t feel contrition, or shame, or guilt, rather I just felt a deep channel open between us, and a sense that our ability to stand side by side against the injust system which continues to divide us, grew stronger and more resilient.

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