‘White Privilege’ is not up to the task


Common as Muck

When Granddad Jack died I inherited two pairs of socks. A pair of woolly green hiking socks and a pair of long beige socks that he had bought when he had come to visit us in South Africa. The latter were part of the standard dress of the Boers – the Afrikaner farmers – usually twinned with khaki shorts, a khaki shirt and a comb tucked beside the knee. Granddad Jack had no need for a comb though. He had been bald since he was 21. When Granddad Smith died five years later, my mother reached into his cupboard and handed me his tweed flat cap – the typical accoutrement of a Yorkshire man – and a blue woolly jumper with the price tag still on. This was the sum of my inheritance.

“We’re common we are,” Granddad Jack once told me, as we sat across from each other in a pub in Bridlington, a seaside town in the north of England, eating fish and chips.

At the table next to us sat a working class family: mum, dad and two kids, dad’s arms thick with tattoos.

“We’re just like them, we are,” he said, tapping his fingers on the table. “There’s nowt wrong wi’ being common.”

It was an unsolicited thought. By then Granddad Jack had dementia and you never knew what would come out of this mouth. More often his stories were repeats, usually replayed within minutes of the last telling, but this he said to me only once and I remember it because it didn’t sit well.

The uncomfortable truth was that, unlike Jack, I had grown up in South Africa where, by virtue of my skin colour, I had been catapulted to the front of the queue. My dad worked in a beer bottle factory, my mum in a timber shop, and if I had grown up in England my thick northern accent and our working class status would have fixed me firmly in the lower rungs. But in 1980s South Africa, my skin trumped their jobs, and my white-girl accent and suburban life were a supposed zenith that everyone was marching towards. So when Jack said I was common I squirmed in my seat because it was both true and not true, and because I had begun to espouse politics that wanted it to be true for no one, while still hoping that I was a little bit special.

On the day Jack and I ate fish and chips I was on my way to Scotland to move in with a wrangly ex-foreign correspondent whom I had met through my work as a journalist, and whom I lusted after not just for his high cheekbones and pouty lips, but because he had been among the first reporters to interview Nelson Mandela after he left Robben Island. On that day in 1990 when the foreign press corps had given Mandela a standing ovation, I was at high school, close to a gold mine dump, in the east of Johannesburg, ignorant of the political wheels that had been gaining momentum and were about to turn the country of my childhood on its head. The stories my roving reporter told me later in the north of the world began to plug my teenage ignorance and make me realise how cut off I was, past and present, from the country I called home.

After a few years in Scotland, during which my ignorance blistered into a sense of personal shame, I became wracked with yearning for a country that was no longer there. The Welsh have a word that describes a melancholic longing for a place that never was, or that no longer exists. Hiraeth, they say. The Portuguese call it saudade. What was it that I was feeling? Nostalgia? A craving for a racist past?

Then fate intervened. In 2010, supported by Time magazine, I was awarded a journalism fellowship from the philanthropic Open Society Foundation to return South Africa and write about what democracy had brought to the rural Xhosa tribal lands where Mandela had grown up. I harboured a hope that it would patch the holes in my head and heart, but as the day for my departure grew nearer, a deep gurning in my belly that wouldn’t go away, no matter how much I tried to reason with it, forced me to confront that there was something else lurking, something darker and more shadowy – something that I had never wanted to admit to myself.

White liberal media would have us believe the world is divided into nasty racists and the never-been-racist. And unless one is a signed-up member of the KKK, most of us pat ourselves on the back and feel smug that the racist is somebody else, definitely not us. The truth is less simple.

I had not been taught to hate black men, but by the way our society was structured, I was taught to fear them. Black men were not permitted in the house. Black men must drink from separate cups. Black men could not ride inside the car. And although I had gone to a mixed race university during Mandela’s presidency, lived with black and Indian friends and was sure that I had shrugged off the mantle of social conditioning, the increase in violent crime in the post-apartheid era – more often, though not always, committed by black men – had hardened that fear, and my so-called liberal consciousness had pushed it underground.

The three-month reporter’s journey that began in Mandela’s homeland of the old Transkei became a five-year journey into the darkness in my own heart, into contemplation of the nature of racism, and why it has such a powerful hold over us, even when we wish it didn’t. I came to see that my ignorance was a product of fear, and my fear was a product of racial prejudice, and I came to understand how prejudice can have little to do with hate, and a lot to do with protectionism and the myth of white supremacy, and how that myth had cast a spell over me.

It is not easy to write about a Damascene conversion. It seems it is even harder to read about it. I documented this journey in a book, Lost Where We Belong: Trying to Escape Apartheid’s Shadows, which although has the backing of a respected London literary agent, has been turned down for publication by major publishing houses because, as one editor put it: “The book has a moral weight to it that is inescapable and very affecting…[though]… the very honest truth is that I think it would simply be very hard to persuade a large enough audience to engage with it, even though I’m sure that those who did so would find it very powerful.”

It might not be en vogue to be a racist, but nor is it profitable, fashionable or palatable to publicly undo these knots in your white self.

Which is where this story really begins.

The Wozobona Cultural Centre is on Phiela Street in Orlando East in Soweto. The main building is a takeaway shop that sells snacks and cold drinks. Out back is a shaded eating area and a pretend bedroom where tourists on a township tour can poke their head into a “real” township bedroom, without actually having to go into anyone’s real bedroom. It is owned by Mr and Mrs Dlamini, parents of Busi, an articulate feminist and racial justice activist who, having grown up in apartheid South Africa, not only has first-hand experience of racism, but has the enviable ability to lob phrases like “internalised oppression” and “cultural appropriation” at people’s heads and make them understand what they mean and why they are worth thinking about.

I had met Busi through Keke Motseke and Anisha Panchia, two women who had started a pop-up dialogue café called Consciousness Café. After my five years of solo soul searching, I too had had the idea of setting up an “apartheid café” in which South Africans could come together to heal emotional scars, and Keke and Anisha – black and Indian respectively – had welcomed me as the white face of the Consciousness Café.

We began collaborating in 2015 when dark clouds were visibly gathering over the Rainbow Nation. For the first 21 years of our democracy we had attempted to do as Tata Mandela instructed: forgive, smile, dance. We collectively pretended that we had not been scarred by the shadows of apartheid. We boasted and lamented that the Born Frees – those born after 1994 – were not even interested in politics. And then, in March 2015, just over a year after Mandela’s death, the youth woke up. With the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student protests – protests that demanded the removal of colonial icons and that the government come good on its promise of free tertiary education – a new era was ushered in. It was like when a family patriarch dies and the quarrelling over inheritance can begin and the dark secrets finally come out.

In the case of South Africa, the family inheritance was land. Land that the 1913 Land Act had forbidden black people from owning, land that was taken during the urban Forced Removals that took place in the Fifties and Sixties, land that had been won in wars and bartered in shady deals with tribal chiefs. The black middle class may now outnumber the white, but for the majority of black South Africans – at least in economic terms – little has changed. Half of black households earn an average of R35,000 per annum (£2000), skilled mine workers are still underpaid relative to the value of the commodities they are extracting from the earth, and university education is still a high-price tag that most black families can ill afford. In the eyes of the students, the black majority government has not done enough to end the structural racism that favours foreign capital and continues to make second-class citizens of black South Africans.

The dark family secret, thus, was anger. A fury was brewing in the belly of the country. A rage that the Rainbow Nation had not permitted to be expressed.

Busi and I had spent the entire journey to Soweto from the leafy suburbs – where Busi and I were both living – arguing about whether dressing up in Bollywood costume for a fancy dress party was, or was not, cultural appropriation.

Busi argued that for a white person to dress in a sari was to unfairly appropriate a culture that does not belong to you. I argued that since Bollywood is a cultural export and one of the biggest moneymaking industries in the world, it is for sale, and for a fan of this film genre to dress up in a sari and celebrate the craziness of Bollywood, is cultural appreciation, not appropriation.

Eventually Busi conceded, though she would not budge with Johnny Clegg, the white South African singer-songwriter who speaks fluent Zulu and has made all his music (and money) collaborating with black musicians.

According to Busi, Clegg’s unforgiveable mistake was the way he centred himself in the band.

“But he was the lead singer,” I argued. “It’s the nature of the frontman to be centred.”

Busi wasn’t having it. Clegg had done what the white man always does; steal your thing, make it their own, take it out into the world, and make themselves rich and famous.

I conceded that I understood where she was coming from, though I thought Clegg had also done something else that Busi did not value – he had built a bridge to black culture at a time when all the other bridges were burning and we were banned from engaging with each other at all. During the claustrophobic all-whiteness of 1980s South Africa, Clegg had been one of the few doorways into a multicultural, colourful Africa that had intrigued me from a distance. Clegg showed us we could be more than good little racists and that our country could be different to the one that stifled us with fear and prejudice.

It was Busi’s idea to hold a Consciousness Café in Soweto. Much of the public discourse around the post-apartheid, still-apartheid South Africa had been taking place in the liberal media and at the universities. Busi wanted to take that conversation to the township where she grew up, hoping to attract a less middle-class crowd to the discussion. She agreed to co-facilitate with Keke, while Anisha and I would be participants. As the room filled up, we soon realised that aside from the Rasta man, the rest of those gathered – four whites, one Indian, one mixed-race American and fourteen black faces – were firmly middle-class. There was even a Zulu princess.

Every Consciousness Café begins with the participants suggesting and voting on a topic. That afternoon the chosen topic was: “Why is there no space for black anger?”

The family secret.

To kick off a dialogue, participants are asked to flip the topic on its head and dream of a world where that topic isn’t a problem. The group were asked to imagine a South African where that anger wasn’t necessary.

People became immediately angry.

“Why am I not allowed to be angry about what white people did to my parents? Why must I forgive and forget when no one has even apologised?”

“I’m sick of my history being framed by the white man’s story,” said a historian. “Our history is framed by the wars of the white man. His attempt to conquer our country and how we lost. We need to reclaim the stories of the past outside of the white man’s memory, so we can reclaim our dignity.”

A young black woman who works for a German company operating in South Africa was soon close to tears.

“I will never make it to management in that company because they only employ German managers, and when I think that my grandmother had to wash white women’s panties and I still can’t make it to the top in my own country, it makes me want to burn it down. If I can’t have it, then why should someone else?”

The dialogue had begun.

Fifteen minutes in, I asked if I could say something. Busi nodded.

“Isn’t it that it’s difficult to find a space to channel black anger because the anger is towards a system that no longer “officially” exists? Usually when we express anger we express it towards someone who has treated us unfairly. But in this post-apartheid society, black people are no longer officially excluded, so how do you direct the anger? You can possibly direct it at a racist boss, but that’s probably not wise for your career, and because your boss is the system, he probably won’t hear it, so the anger has no place to go.”

And to explain what I meant, I tried to give my own example of how I had noticed how difficult it is to express frustration to someone who doesn’t want to hear it.

Ever since the student protests, a new narrative of “white privilege” had emerged. Black intellectuals had been writing articles in the liberal press and on Facebook forums demanding that white people “own their privilege”.

It was a new definition of privilege that included ‘not being automatically thought of as a thief/corrupt when you drive a luxury car’ and ‘not being paid less based on the colour of your skin’.

Prior to this, my definition of privilege had been private schools, yachts, overseas holidays, horse riding lessons and weekly trips to buy new clothes, none of which I – or many others – had experienced during our apartheid childhoods.

The white population of South Africa is a mishmash of religious and economic migrants, including Huguenots who fled Catholic ire, Jews who fled pogroms, Brits who fled the implosion of heavy industry in the north (my family), Lebanese and Cypriots who fled war, Czechs who fled the collapse of the Soviet Union and Portuguese who had fled the poorest country in Europe.

Over the past months I had noticed that whenever a white person tries to explain this through their lens, they get shot down. I wanted to make the point that we live in a country of multiple, complex truths that struggle to be heard, but my point drowned in a sea of anger. Around the room, eyes narrowed.

“How dare you talk about not being privileged!” a young black woman exclaimed. “You know nothing about what it was like growing up black! Your father might not have had money at the end of the week, but if he had gone into the bank, the manager would have given him a loan because he was white and considered good for it. But my black father could never get a loan, because he was black. And you might have been the first person in your family to go to university, and your dad might not have been easily able to afford it, but when he worked 16 hours a day to pay for it, it was because he had a job that paid enough to do that and when he was too tired to work those long shifts anymore and he remortgaged your house to pay for the rest, it’s because you had a house that could be remortgaged, while my father was not allowed to own a house or land.”

She was right. There was no way I could understand the indignity of growing up black in a country that skewed everything away from your favour. But from where I was standing, what she was talking about was oppression, not privilege. And if the intention of this new narrative was to get white South Africans to face up to the injustices of this land, then the word ‘privilege’ wasn’t up to the task. It was like being ordered to ‘count your blessings’. Okay, so now what?

But although I may have thought the word ‘oppression’ was the better descriptor, to be oppressed positions you as the victim and these middle-class black South Africans were done with being victims. They were taking back power and doing it the way humans do best: to deny the truth of someone else’s story. Edified and emboldened by the writings of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, the black voice had awoken and a new battle was beginning: the battle for the narrative.

Across the room, the historian crossed his legs, leaned forward, and jabbed his finger in the direction of my face.

“You’ve got some work to do,” he said.

My own eyes narrowed and I could hear my heart pumping in my ears.

There was only one other person who stuck his finger in my face and told me that my thoughts were not permitted: my oft drunk, fury-fuelled father.

The personal triggered the political and a deep rage boiled over.

I leant forward and jabbed my own finger into the space.

“How dare you presume from my skin colour that I haven’t been doing my work?” I sneered through gritted teeth. “That I haven’t been trying to undo the apartheid shit in me? You know nothing about me. Nothing.”

Busi interjected.

“Isn’t it interesting how when the black person shows anger, the white person starts to fear?” she said.

My anger went from simmer to nuclear.

Busi was supposed to be the facilitator, which meant she was supposed to be neutral. It was entirely legitimate for her to name a feeling she noticed in me, but it was her job to check that really was how I was feeling, and not label my feelings for me. She had also been triggered and was now turning on me.

“Afraid? No, no no,” I stammered. “I am not afraid. I am angry. I’m angry that you can’t hear me. You say you hate racism because it treated all black people the same, but you are doing exactly the same thing. You refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the white experience. All you see is my skin and it makes you deaf to my words.”

“I’m sorry,” said the historian.

I glanced at him and nodded an acceptance of his apology.

“I’m sorry I ever expected a white person to be any different,” he continued. “I am sorry I came here. I am sorry I put myself in the way of yet another conversation where a white person doesn’t get it and makes it all about themselves.”

I felt the blood drain out of my body.

My fury was gone, and in its place was hatred. Hatred of this moment. Hatred of being pinned to the wall. Hatred of not being heard because I am white. Hatred of this whole fucked-up, intractable country.

Over the years of trying to untangle the apartheid mess in me, again and again I had faced the most frustrating truth of all: our identities are not our own. Apartheid was like an old fashioned folk dance, everybody had a part, everybody knew their steps, and although new music was playing, few knew how to dance any other way. As a white person this means you were constantly cast in one of two roles:

  1. The powerful, capable white knight who is unrealistically expected to change the life of the person in your path. The white supremacy myth.
  2. The one who is hated, rejected and mistrusted with a glance. Guilty before proven innocent. The same way the racist white treats black.

Try to protest the first role and you were dismissed as mean, try to protest the second and you were derided with a new phrase: “white tears”.

Recently at Joburg airport, I had overheard a young white woman crying because someone told her she couldn’t call herself South African.

“I was born here. No one has the right to tell me what I can call myself,” she sobbed.

But in the face of continued land dispossession, black South Africans were taking back the one thing they owned outright: an African identity.

And mocking the tears.

Apartheid had dehumanised black people and denied them of their identity, and revenge was turning out to be the same dish, served cold, 21 years later.

Outside on the streets of Soweto, it was growing dark and every muscle in my body was urging me to stand up, walk through the door, stride out into the street and not look back. I wanted to be away from them, from their judgements, from their labelling, from this prison. Being white in South Africa was not a life, it was a life sentence.

Just like being black.

At last we were equals.

I sat in silence as the dialogue continued.

There was anger at apartheid’s land policy that had turned black men into migrant workers, disconnecting people from their fathers, families and selves.

“I never knew my father. I don’t even know who I am.”

There was surprise from the Zulu princess who could trace her lineage back into the history of the Nguni migrations and who admitted that only now was she beginning to understand the alienation that plagued other black South Africans.

And then, finally, as the darkness was solidifying outside, a quiet voice steered the conversation back to my outburst. Gigi is a mixed-race American: Amish mother, Puerto Rican father, who had grown up in a black neighbourhood in Los Angeles and married a Zulu. She is oft heard saying, “I ain’t never been white a day in my life ’til I came to live in South Africa.”

Gigi’s experience of becoming white overnight has given her an insight into the burden of the white skin, without the emotional connection.

“Girl, it’s hard, but you need to accept that for some people, you will always represent whiteness, and there is nothing you can do about it. You have to learn to separate the truth inside you, from the truth that is inside other people. When they throw anger at you, you need to learn that it’s not about you, but about the history your body represents. Try to take yourself out of it and see the oppression that they are angry with is the same oppression that you are angry with. And no one can run away from it. Not you. Not them.”

Her words were soothing, the wisdom of a mediator who can sit in the space between conflicting pain, but they also seemed to demand the impossible. How would I ever grow big enough shoulders to be able to carry the burden of whiteness without being crushed by it? It felt like a final task for the white supremacy myth: Think you’re special? Then deal with this. The problem was, as Grandad Jack knew all too well: “We’re common we are and there’s nowt wrong wi’ that.”

Unless you’re a white in South Africa.

This essay was longlisted for the Notting Hill Editions 2017 Essay Prize.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb


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.

Follow Consciousness Café on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/consciousnesscafe.co.za

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb



“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.

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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.

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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