Fuck white people?


How do you react when you attend a public lecture in which an intellectual, journalist and influencer argues that the slogan ‘Fuck White People’ is an artistically beautiful form of protest? Do you clap? Offer a standing ovation? Roll your eyes? Mutter ‘fuck black intellectuals’ under your breath?

It is something I’ve contemplated over the past week, since attending the Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University, where Lwandile Fikeni, freelance arts journalist and Ruth First fellow, presented his case for why the slogan ‘Fuck White People’ is a “highly aestheticized form of critiquing South Africa’s social ordering”.

Fikeni looks back over the year and a half since the student protests began in March 2015 with the flinging of human shit at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in Cape Town. Rhodes was the arch British imperialist, who in the late 1800s, turned much of the land of South Africa into a Company to be exploited for profit. His statue has become a symbol of white supremacy.

Fikeni argues that because the majority of black South Africans still live outside the political, social and economic life of the country to which they are supposed to belong and because the Rainbow Nation is a myth that benefits only a privileged minority; grotesque acts of rage are an inevitable, justified and necessary means to attack the symbols of white supremacy.

Hear hear, I say. Throw the shit.

Fikeni then goes on to argue that there is something else worth lobbing – the phrase ‘Fuck White People’.

He quotes the African-American writer, dramatist, filmmaker and critic, Frank Wilderson, who says: “There’s no vocabulary, no language to articulate black suffering. That means white people have screwed us to a point that is beyond discourse, that’s beyond political language, that’s beyond respectful, understandable, engagement; so fuck you.”

Over the past year, ‘Fuck White People’ has appeared on walls and T-shirts. According to Fikeni’s reading, these words are not an incitement to harm nor an attempt to start a race war, but rather a grotesque necessity deployed to capture the discourse. So ‘Fuck white people’ is an expression of fury, an incitement to introspection, and a poetic lob of shit at the status quo.

And again I get his point.

If everyone is asleep, you need to make a loud bang to wake them up. And to date, no white people have been physically – or materially – harmed in the making of these protests.

But will ‘Fuck White People’ make white people “woke”? Or is it just another layer of oppression?

The analysis used by Fikeni and The Fallists (the self-appointed label of the student protesters) to critique the post-apartheid state is rooted in economics. They argue, correctly, that the shift to democracy did not do enough to transfer economic power and opportunity to the majority black population and thus has done little to redress the inequalities established by the apartheid state. I wrote about this in my book, Lost Where We Belong, in which I report on frustration (mine and others) with the continued disregard of the black majority by the elites – an elite which includes many within the ANC government.

But there is another value system that matters to humans, and which is overlooked by these critics: moral goodness. As humans, we don’t only value ourselves according to how financially secure we are, but also on who we think is the good guy and who we think is the shitbag. You can be poor and still be respected for being good. And to many of us, being thought to be the good guy matters more than being wealthy.

So where do white people fit into the South African moral hierarchy? For the past 20+ years, we’ve woken up daily on the wrong side of goodness. We pour shame on our cornflakes, and sprinkle it with guilt, and try not to choke on it. We are the archetypal shitbags of the world. White South Africans have been tolerated for their economic contribution to the country, while being morally looked down upon for our part, be it active or passive, in the apartheid state.

A black friend told me about a black guy she briefly met who steals phones from revellers at nightclubs popular with white South Africans in Pretoria.

“How can you do that?” she asked.

“It’s no big deal. It’s not like I steal them from people,” he replied.

In his view, white people are not people.

Recently, online forums have been thick with debates about who can and cannot be racist. According to the current consensus, black people cannot be racist. Why? Because racism is not just prejudice, it is a form of oppression, and only those with economic power can oppress.

But where this argument trips up is that it uses only one value system to measure our power and our worth: money. The same value system that many black South Africans (including The Fallists) say is an abomination and not truly African.

So what happens if we acknowledge the importance of moral goodness in our human hierarchies? If moral goodness matters, and black South Africans have the moral upper hand, then it is possible for black people to use their moral power to oppress whites. Which is kind of how “Fuck White People’ feels.

It might sounds aesthetically pleasing to Fikeni and people who look like him. But from where I am sitting in my white skin, tanned by the African sun, it feels like racism and hate speech, which flouts any recognition of the efforts of redress – however big or small – that white South Africans have made during the 22 years of ANC rule, often with our hands tied because, as individuals (I’ll leave the corporations out of this), we have had very little political power.

So yes.

Fuck white supremacy.

Fuck white elitism.

Fuck white patriarchy.

Fuck white corporations.

Fuck the ANC.

But Fuck white people? No. Go fuck yourself*

(*All in the spirit of debate, Lwandile Fikeni)

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Is culture just a polite word for power?


Last week, while having breakfast with a French friend at her home in France, I filled a croissant with scrambled eggs and ham, and tucked into it, sandwich style. My friend looked at me as if I had just bit into a baby.

“That’s not done,” she said.

“Well I am doing it, so it can be done,” I replied.

“Well yes, but we don’t do it. It’s not French.”

A little story. Une forte mentalité. For the past 15 years I have quietly rubbed up against the French, learning their language and often visiting the country. My frisson began with admiration. France seemed a much more cosmopolitan reality than the one I had been born into – a working class Yorkshire girl who had been chucked out of England and into apartheid South Africa by Margaret Thatcher’s iron fist. Who were these sophisticated, exotic creatures who treasured food and style? I wanted what they were having.

But as the years went by, and my fascination with cheese dwindled, something else began to grate. The French have a favourite expression.

“C’est normal,” they say. It’s normal.

They use it to describe why some things are difficult (convoluted French bureaucracy), why some things are fabulous (an entire supermarket aisle dedicated to cheese) and why some things are just not worth commenting on (another glorious day of sunshine).

“C’est normal” is the punctuation mark used to put a stop to any conversation that raises an eyebrow at French culture. And to a person who came of age with the end of apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall, “C’est normal” is like a red flag to a bull. My only normal is change and more change. Which is perhaps why France was so attractive for a while. The lure of a solid, sure-of-itself culture.

Last week then, as I munched on my croissant, and my friend dropped into the conversation that hers was one of the bon families of France – and by bon, she meant wealthy, respected and influential – I found myself wondering: is culture just a polite word for power? A pretentious way of saying, I’m in, you’re out?

I started a dialogue with myself in my head. What does culture give you when you embrace it? A shortcut to who you are. (This is how I eat a croissant). A sense of belonging. (This is how we eat croissants). A shortcut to who others are. (They are just like me, look how they eat croissants)

And there’s no doubt that us humans like shortcuts. In his brilliant book, Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who was co-awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 2002 for his work on psychology of judgement and decision making) explores in detail how the brain doesn’t like to do any more work than it has to, always setting up easy-to-access short-cuts to help us navigate the world and thus survive.

And then I wondered: what does culture take from you when it stares you in the eye and declares: “hey you, you are not one of us”?

Can culture take from you the same thing it gives: robbing you of your sense of self, sense of belonging, a sense of feeling connected to others?

It’s unpopular to say this now, but at the outset apartheid was envisioned as a way to create a society where different cultures could flourish side by side. Where it got it horribly, drastically wrong, was in the way Afrikaner culture treated those outside its culture – with disrespect, hostility, brutality, inhumanity.

Confucius wrote: “Behave to every man as one receiving a great guest.”

What kind of country would South Africa be, if we treated those who are not of our culture, with grace, interest and respect? If culture was not used as a means to wield power and exclusion?

And one wonders the same about France. Right now the country is in a State of Emergency. It has become a prime target for IS-inspired killers, and to date, nearly all of these men with guns are French nationals.

Why are these men attacking the country that raised them? Is there something within the culture of the country that they have grown up in that has undermined their sense of self, of belonging, of feeling connected to a wider community?

This is not an essay on the value of homogeneity. In nature beauty exists in diversity. The most beautiful forests are those in which different trees grow side-by-side and small flowers flourish in their dappled light. But rather I find myself pondering, how do we shape a world where not only do we aim to treat each other as guests of honour – but where it is possible to act with such grace?

I held this question in my head on a train from Marseille to Paris at the end of my French holiday. I waited for my next train in a café outside Gare du Nord, where Romany gypsy girls spend the day begging. Dressed in flowery skirts and headscarves, they thrust their cupped hands at everyone passing by, stabbing their palms expectantly with their finger. Between begging stints they laugh and chat aimlessly, like young women between customers in a clothing store.

Watching them beg, it struck me that the crisis between cultures often comes when one culture demands or expects something of the other. When one is no longer content with being treated as a favoured guest, but begins to set an agenda.

I mentioned this to my husband and he told me a story he had heard about a Bedouin tribe. In the desert in the days of old, a traveller was welcomed into a camp and could have anything he wanted for three days. The wife included. At the end of those three days, the host could kill him. It was the caveat that made sure that no one ever abused the hospitality of another.

I thought back to my visit to my French friend. Her older sister had railed against those Muslims who abuse the French social welfare state by not working, having many wives, expecting the French system to support them and their families. Her big brushstroke views had made me squirm with liberal discomfort, but whatever the truth or falsity of the accusations she was making, her voice was unmistakable: a voice of anger and resentment. The host whose hospitality had been abused. She was on day three and ready to attack.

For a long time the liberal left have kept clear of talking about what happens when cultures collide – that was reserved for the right-wing racists. But as Europe (and many places throughout the world) finds themselves on a knife-edge, perhaps its time we all posed ourselves these two questions:

Am I being a good host?

Am I being a good guest?

After all, we’re all just passing through.

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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?”

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Fear and self-loathing in Hillbrow

Last week I took to the streets of Hillbrow to read from my book, Lost Where We Belong. In this video I’m sitting on a pillar, reading a chapter about white fear to a guy from Nkandla (not Jacob Zuma) who was standing on the street corner chatting with a friend.

Afterward the reading I asked him what it was like to hear a white woman speak honestly and openly about her fear of black male strangers.

“Did it make you feel angry or hurt or sad?” I asked.

“All of those things,” he said, clutching his arms across his chest

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to upset you. I wrote this book so we can talk about what is there.  We all know these things are there, but we don’t want to talk about them out loud. We’ve been so busy focusing on the Rainbow Nation, it feels like we’ve been sweeping the truth under the carpet. I feel that if we can start being more honest with each other, the past will have less of a hold over us.”

“It’s good,” he says. “Difficult to hear, but good you are doing this.”

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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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The Good White Myth


I started writing about race relations in 2010, long before people – and by that I mostly mean black people – started insisting that I confront my privilege and my white centrist view of the world. These were the carefree days before anyone had shouted at me in anger and frustration, before anyone openly showed their contempt for me because of what my skin represents to them. These things have since happened.

When I first started writing I felt isolated and alone. At the time my fellow white skins were still living under the illusion of the rainbow nation, the belief that if we all just kept smiling and shaking hands, the past would eventually vanish, that Mandela had done the hard work, and we didn’t have to. No one I spoke to wanted to share this interrogation with me. Close friends rejected the project.

“I don’t need to go there.”

“Ag man, light the braai.”

Subject closed.

So I sat alone in a shed at the bottom of my garden tapping on my computer, trying to make sense of why I felt so lost and confused in the place where my green identity documents say I belong, and simultaneously trying to bat away the hissing, doubting, chastising voice in my head: “Who are you to write about this? You are nobody. You were not a struggle leader. You were not there. You will never understand.”

Silenced by the weight of history. Silenced by my tribe. But I did not stop tapping. I was trying to write myself back into South Africa’s story.

There was something else that was fuelling this quest. Something I only realized earlier this year. I was trying to become a Good White.

I thought that if I could make sense of everything around me, and fix something in me, then good whiteness would make its mark on me in such a way that it would be noticeable from the outside and I would be forever free of the racist stain of history. I was trying to write myself clean. I had no idea how fraught that idea was – and how it was a further barrier to the healing of this country.

Last year, I became part of Consciousness Café. We are three women – Keke Motseke, Anisha Panchia and myself – who create spaces for South Africans to come together to have deep, honest, transformative conversations about race, identity, injustice and all the other gnarly topics that affect our lives. A TRC for Everyman. Last November we were invited to host a café in Soweto. Because Keke is black, she was the host and Anisha and I were among the participants.

At every café the participants choose the topic, and on that day the topic that came up was: “Why is there no space for black anger?” Why is it that whenever black people try to express their hurt and fury with the past, and with how those injustices continue to bear down on the present, white people cannot listen. Instead, we always try and prove how we are different, that we are not racists, that we are the Good Whites. The story becomes about us, trying to show that we are better, different, purer that the other really awful whites.

That day, in that space, my “me too” dialogue was shot down and shut down. I was forced to listen, and to realize something that I could hardly bear to hear. That no matter how much I wrote, how many Consciousness Cafés I hosted, how many black friends I made, how good my Zulu gets, we are all threads of this age-old tale and the actions of one person – me – cannot free me from the collective burden of history.

To black people on the street, black people who have never met me, black people who meet for the first time, my white skin will always appear as an enviable safety net that greases my path through the world. I’ll always be guilty before proven innocent.

And what’s more, my desperate attempt to prove myself a Good White is a category error. Whiteness in this country is steeped in a long and sad history of power abuse. Whiteness in this country doesn’t automatically go with good.

Now that’s an awful thing to have to face up to. Everybody on earth wants to be seen as good. Even ISIS thinks they are the good guys. That’s how we work. So to contemplate that in South Africa, my skin colour precludes me from ever been the good guy at first glance, that’s a heavy truth to bear.

That day in Soweto, I realized that I had to grow very big shoulders. That to be whole in this country was not to seek the moral highground, it was to be brave enough to sit with the sadness, the anger, the complexity and the uncomfortable truths. I could never become a Good White, but by slowing down and listening, I had a chance of becoming a good person. Though nobody may notice.

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