How can we use privilege to influence change?

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After a year and half of being the white facilitator in Consciousness Café, a pop-up dialogue café in which people of all races, nations and cultures, come together to examine their own feelings – and consequently actions – on the topics of racism, privilege and injustice in South Africa, I started to wonder if an additional conversation was needed.

I had noticed a growing call from black South Africans for white people to “do their own work”, “cry their white tears somewhere else” and “to stop asking black people for the solution”, and so when someone called and asked if I would host a dialogue, in Cape Town, for white South Africans, I agreed. I titled it “An Uncomfortable Conversation” and invited people to email to request an invitation.

We met this past Saturday afternoon in central Cape Town. The keys to the venue we normally use had not been left in their hidey-hole, so we began the dialogue in the lobby of a nearby hotel, ten white people, sitting in throne-like chairs, the gold curtains drawn against the glare of the afternoon sun. The irony was not lost on us.

We had just agreed on the topic: “What do we need to give up in order to have a more equitable society?” when someone arrived with the key to The Bookery and we decamped to worn chairs in the room where people work tirelessly towards to correct the unjust educational legacy of the past by building libraries in schools. Poetic justice.

I used the same format of transformational dialogue that we use for Consciousness Café, a method developed by the South African NGO, the No-Name-Initiative. As with every café, we began by flipping the topic, and began to dream what a truly equitable society would look like.

“I would no longer cut the price tags off my new clothes so that my domestic worker wouldn’t see how much I spent,” said someone with brutal honesty. The kind of thing a white person would never say out loud in a mixed space.

“Land and resources would be distributed fairly.”

“Our appearance would just be information and a subject of curiosity, not equated to our value.”

“Suffering would be a tool for personal growth, not everyday survival.”

South Africa’s inequalities were not lost on anyone in the room. They saw them daily with wide-open eyes, but until now the only emotional response they had was guilt and shame, shame and guilt. Plugged, blocked and stuck, shame and guilt were fuels that ran out early and took no one anywhere.

And so we probed deeper. How else would this equal society be?

“It would be a gentler world.”

“I would no longer be disconnected, from myself, my body, the earth, humanity.”

And what would it feel like to connect? Why is it not happening?

“If I connected my life as I know it would end.”

“All of South Africa would come flooding in and I couldn’t bear to feel it.”

“If I connected I would feel my powerlessness in the face of South Africa.”

“If I connected I would become unsafe.”

“If let go of that belief that I am in some way better, then I have to face up to the fact that it’s not fair that someone lives in a shack and I don’t. There by the Grace of God go I.”

“I don’t want to live in a shack. I can’t live in a shack.”

“I am scared. I am scared.”

One man in the room told us how he had radically tried to connect. He had given away all of his material possessions and moved into a township. So desperate for an authentic connection where money was no divider, he had left his safety net and tried to throw off his privilege.

And what had he discovered?

That he could not shed his white skin and that which others associated with that skin.

He could not shed his family who, despite finding him an uncomfortable presence, still have him over for Christmas, and who would throw him a safety net if he needed it.

That as soon as those he tried to get closer to, realised he had no resources, many of them turned their backs.

On the wall of The Bookery is a poster that reads: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You don’t have to make them all yourself.”

Realisations were budding. Privilege wasn’t something to be thrown away. Someone with fresh water doesn’t pour it into the sea because others are thirsty. That is where death lies. Privilege is a resource, something within us as well as without, and for a more equitable society, we need to share privilege, not destroy it.

The insights were poignant because they echoed realisations that I had heard earlier in the week at the Consciousness Café we held at Constitution Hill on Human Rights Day. Then, 65 people of all races, cultures, nations had come together to discuss the topic:
“How do we use privilege to influence change?”

On that day in Joburg, the group began to interrogate our narrow definition of privilege.

Privilege did not just describe economic resources, it described everything of value, they said.

And what else has value?

Culture has value. People have value. Networks have value. Insight has value. Throughout the afternoon, the wisdom of the group revealed that there is more value and power in each and every one of us that we are admitting to. And if we just see privilege as “establishment power”, and then expected it to fix things, then we are just re-empowering old power structures, and that was not what we want.

So what do we want?

We want a better society where everyone matters.

We want a better country where everyone can recognise their value.

We want a society in where privilege isn’t an elite and exclusive good, but a network of value that can be tapped into by everyone.

A week later, in Cape Town, similar realisations arrived like the first rain. For a more equitable society, it is not that we have to give up our safety nets, rather we have to extend them, widen them, share them. We have to stop hoarding them for ourselves.

Every conversation ends with the partcipants choosing a personal action, something that they would like to do differently, based on the discussion. These are some of the actions from these two separate, but related cafés:

“I am going to build our organisation of young urban women, and let the Born Frees understand the weight of African knowledge.”

“I am going to listen to myself.”

“I am going to make a podcast that talks about these things.”

“I am going to take this discussion into my school.”

“I am going to urge my peers in the Indian community to think about their privilege, and I am going to write about it.”

“I will start a project in my community for young girls to realise their power and use that to better themselves.”

“I am going to develop my name so it will be an inheritance and privilege for the generations to come.”

“I am going to continue to support black business and grow black money.”

“I am rewriting and investigating my family history.”

“I will never employ anyone again without a contract, and will pay the best I can – everyone deserves security.”

“I am going to going to get my Masters in Law so I can continue to fight for others for equal pay for work of equal value.”

“I will give up my privilege of only using and knowing English and Afrikaans. Even if I only do it quietly and for myself – ie. not for the affirmation of being a ‘good kind of white’. I will make sure I can understand and speak isiXhosa on an intermediate level.

“I will ask my domestic worker if I can visit her in her home, which I helped her to purchase but have never seen.”

“I need to discuss with my spouse and engage with what we can do as a family to bring other people into access to opportunities. I will sit in the discomfort of this country openly.”

What could you do?

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Where were the white people?


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

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

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

Where were you?

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

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

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

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

And for once, the government is right.

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

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

They want you to listen to them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop hiding behind the Internet.

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

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

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Meaning Fall


Last week at Wits Art Museum (WAM) I met Anthony Nsofor, an artist from Nigeria who is in Joburg for a month to be inspired and make art. We were both there to see the Black Modernisms show. I filled him in on the tension that had brewed around the show.

The show had been curated from WAM’s archives by Wits Professor Emeritus Anitra Nettleton, a white art historian, and included pieces that had been created by black artists during the period 1940-80, a period that slots into that which European art historians define as Modernist.

A furious debate broke out on social media and in the press when black Wits research associates, Dr Same Mdluli and Bongani Mahlangu, who had been billed as co-curators of the exhibition, distanced themselves, saying that they had very little say its conception and curation, that they had been used as black tokens to give the exhibition validity, and that not only did the exhibition omit key black artists from that period, it made the mistake of continuing to use a European label in which to frame black expression.

“Modernism concerns the avant-garde and a period marked by departure in Europe from royalties to republics made possible by the cross-Atlantic slave trade. Advancement for Europe saw the oppression of blacks. We have to ask what makes art by black artists modern,” argued Khwezi Gule, chief curator of the Soweto museums.

“One would expect a university to be at the forefront of creating new knowledge in a post-colonial society,” says Nontobeko Ntombela, a member of Black Mark: Collective Critical Thought (BMCCT) which convened a public forum to discuss the matter. “Why would we want to continue to situate art as colonial, nativist tropes? By doing that the black body remains the problem.”

This failure to interrogate the dominant art paradigms was put at the white feet of Nettleton who was accused of presiding over a white women network which continues to wields institutional power through its social network, to have a paternalistic view towards black artists, thus “perpetuating the myth that white power brokers are still needed and relevant.”

The debate had deepened when Nettleton hit back by labelling the criticisms as a personal attack.

I explained this Tony over a coffee in the WAM café.

“We’re at a point when the narrative is shifting, new voices are emerging and strengthening, and as a white person, you are questioning your relevance. It’s fascinating and unnerving,” I admit.

We continued together out onto the streets of Braamfontein, stopping in at the Stevenson gallery, where there was a show made up mostly of neon colours and abstract shapes.

“What did you think? “ asked Tony as we left the gallery.

“I didn’t really get it, so I didn’t like it,” I replied.

“But why do you need to get something from it?” he asked.

I think for a moment.

“Aren’t we all trying to make sense of ourselves in this world? When you see art that seems to represent what you’ve been thinking about, it makes you feel less alone,” I say.

We walk round the corner. Tony spots a pink rose petal lying on the pavement. He picks it up.

“See this rose petal. When I see it, I do not ask why it’s there. I just pick it up and admire its delicate skin, its pale pink edges. I do not ask why. We permit nature to perform without asking why. We can love this petal when it falls on the floor without it having a reason for being there, so why can we not permit the same from human beings when they make art? Why must it always have meaning?”

I nod. “It’s a good point. Why do we expect different from humans? Maybe because we are always trying to explain each other to each other. Often misunderstanding each other. Maybe when you see art that reflects something you have been thinking back at you, you feel like you’ve been understood,” I say.

“But that’s so self-centred. Why must it always be about you?” he asks.

I laugh. “Fair point. Maybe it’s a South African thing. Maybe we are so desperately seeking meaning, we are always bringing it back to ourselves.”

We carry on walking up to Constitution Hill. I want to show him our Constitutional Court, an architectural masterpiece built with bricks from the old holding cells. A building thick with meaning. On the way, we stop in at the old Women’s Gaol, where female political prisoners were once held. I greet the security guard in Zulu. She shakes her head. The building is closed. My shoulders fall a little. We step back outside.

There is something in the tone of that exchange that moves him. He stops. He looks at me.

“I think I get it. I think I understand now how lonely it must be. You do belong here, but everyone is always questioning you.”

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Looking for love


Written September 2014

I met Lerato at the Benoni Museum, in the room dedicated to the history of my hometown, Benoni. Benoni is a Hebrew word which means Son of my Sorrows. I was standing in front of a board that boasted about the building of Daveyton, the township next to Benoni, describing it as a “a model township”. The words are lifted from a book published during apartheid.

“Can you believe this is still up?” I ask the young guy standing next to me.

He reads, his arms folded, his hand on his mouth, and nods.

“I live in Daveyton. It is a nice place,” he says.

“But, but… don’t you get it. It is old apartheid propaganda. It is trying to justify that it was okay for black people to be put into separate areas.”

He shrugs his shoulders.

“I grew up in Attridgeville. Daveyton is a much better place.”

He introduces himself as Lerato, a 22-year-old student at Benoni Technical College. Lerato tells me that he moved to Daveyton to escape gang crime in Attridgeville. His friends had all joined gangs and he wanted more from his life, and so he left his grandmother to live with his mother and her husband.

“And is Daveyton much safer?” I say.

“No, nowhere is safe,” he says, shaking his head. “Not being able to walk around with your belongings. That’s not life. The other day I saw a woman being robbed in front of me, and there was nothing I could do. They say it’s a free and democratic country, but you don’t enjoy your freedom. Every day a child is dead. You cannot call that freedom.”

A week later Lerato invites me to visit him in his kasi (neighbourhood). At 10am on a Saturday morning I find myself in the Daveyton mall, looking for Love. That’s what Lerato means, love.

Love is stuck in a queue though, trying to help a friend wire money to Zimbabwe, and so I go shopping. In one of the cheap fashion chains, I spot a white T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “You can’t sit with us”.

I consider buying it and wearing it around Daveyton. Definitely a Chinese import.

At last Love is ready.

We drive back to Barcelona, his kasi.

“I can’t believe it,” his mum, Victoria Ralefeta, says, welcoming to her home with an enveloping hug. “Lerato said he had a white friend and I told him he must be fucking dreaming.”

I’ve never heard a black mamma swear before. I snort with laughter as she squeezes me.

Victoria invites us into the front room of her home, and offers us a seat on the lounge suite, in front of a TV switched on to Soweto TV. On the walls are 3D pictures of elephants, waterfalls and Jacob Zuma. If you shift to the right, the picture of Zuma morphs into Mandela. He wishes.

Victoria treats us to a bottle of Coca Cola, and tells us about her younger life, working as a domestic worker.

“How did you come to terms with apartheid during those years?” I ask. “What did you tell yourself to make it bearable in your own head?”

“I told myself it was a bad spirit,” Victoria says. “There are two people controlling our lives – god and devil. And devil is more powerful than god, if you allow him. Apartheid was nothing, just a bad spirit.”

Lerato takes us on a stroll through the neighbourhood. A woman is braaiing chicken feet on a corner. A barber is cutting hair in a converted portakabin. Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier is playing through an open front door. As we walk past the spaza shop, an amapanstula comes out.

“Umlungu!” White person! he shouts, dropping his peanuts to the floor and starting to dance.

Lerato is delighted.

“Everyone is going to be talking about this. I’m going to be the guy, who brought the white girl to the kasi.”

We make to turn left.

“Err, no, we can’t go that way,” Lerato says. “Too dangerous.”

“Oh right,” I say, a flash of fear grabbing my belly.

Lerato laughs. “No, not dangerous for you. You could walk anywhere here. No one would touch you. They’d be too busy staring.”

Back at the house we gnaw on chicken feet and drink Coke.

“You know life is a boomerang,” says Victoria. “I can tell you I don’t even have fifty cents in my house now, but I’ve got food. So why do I want money? Money for what? Money can’t change my life. As long as I can eat with my children, it’s fine. When suffering comes, the white people cannot handle it. We, us black people, we can handle it. The white people can’t take suffering, because the money is controlling them.”

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Jozi: a poem


Written June 2016


Sundown behind glass towers

The old prison overlooks

Revellers contemplate pleasure

Against the fading of the past

Fires on the ramparts

Telkom blue

Transnet red and green

Ponte unseen

White light of mosque

Bruising sky

Chiselled on change

This city, my city

Pulsing, fluxing, revolting, becoming

An addiction, a habit, a comfort

A home


Untold stories.1

Written March 2014

The South African headlines are dominated by crime and corruption, protests and fear. But while those truths happen, so do other, unreported truths. Here is one of the other stories… 

Remo Bartels has been a farmer all his life. As a young man he farmed pigs, cattle and crops in Bergville in Kwazulu Natal and later moved on to biochemistry, selling chemicals and micro-organisms to improve soil health. Nowadays, he is helping to grow something even more valuable: the next generation of African farmers.

“Grain SA are hiring the white farmers who don’t farm any more and making them into mentors,” he explains.

Through the year Remo travels into the rural villages in the former homelands teaching farm skills. In the week that I met him, he had been in Njwezeni, a village outside of Mthatha teaching a group of young black farmers how to do on-farm repairs.

“I was one of those who said ‘fucking kaffirs, they are so stupid’, but doing this, I’ve realised: how can they have known when they didn’t have the knowledge? We weren’t willing to share our knowledge, so how could they know?” he says.

“Are all the white farmers backing this?” I ask.

“You get some of those who still have the old regime in them, but they themselves haven’t twigged on to the truth that knowledge is power and that there’s a bridge that needs to be built and then everything is going to actually come right. We have to put our pride in our pocket for a while. The future is in our hands. It’s what we do with it right now.”

There is fiery passion in his voice. He leans forward and his eyes glint as he speaks.

“Are you welcome in the villages?” I ask.

He nods. “I think coming to where they are in the villages, cuts out a lot of fear. It shows them that I don’t want to be a dictator. At the end of the week we give out a questionnaire and 90% of them say this is what we need. This is how we will get over the hatred of the past.”

He tells me his favourite story. It is about an old man at one of his first training courses who said: ‘you can’t teach me anything’. Remo encouraged him to give him a chance. That week Remo was teaching the business of farming, how to make your land more profitable. He demonstrated that if you have 3 hectares, and plant only maize, selling that maize for R3,000/ton, you can only ever earn R9,000.

“You can’t live on that,” he says.

But if you plant one hectare of maize and keep 2,000 chickens on the other two hectares, using the maize to feed the chickens, you can sell each chicken for R20, making a total of R40,000.

“The old man knocked on my door at the end of the week with his daughter’s laptop. He wanted my spread sheets so he could put together a business plan,” Remo says with a huge grin.

“How far is Njwezeni?” I ask.

“About half an hour from here,” he says.

I follow Remo’s Mobile Training Unit through the crowded streets of Mthatha, tapping my fingers on the steering wheel as the thumping tunes of the taxis pump through my open window. It is Friday morning, and the city is already filling up with busy shoppers buzzing in from the rural areas. We leave the city on the Port St Johns Road, and head into the rounded, green hills to the south of the city, taking one last dirt road down into a valley, over a river and then up to Njwezani, a quiet village spread across the crest of a hill. Six young farmers, aged between 22 and 30, are waiting for us at the kraal of Leonard Nondogna, a local farmer who has opened his home and his garden for the course. Lying in the yard is a rusty old Massey Ferguson tractor, in pieces. This week Remo has been teaching welding, workshop skills and farm equipment repairs. The tractor, which has not worked for five years, has been one of their projects. They have welded it and rebuilt the bonnet. Yesterday the farmers clubbed together and gave Remo money to buy spray paint. Today Remo is going to show them how to use the compressor.

Remo changes into his paint-splatted overalls and introduces me to the farmers. They are all shy and speak only a few words of English. They all push 27-year-old Sithembile Vava to talk.

“I like farming,” he says. “Life is not easy. You need to work and produce something. I encourage young people to co-operate so they must know themselves how to deal with life.”

“Will this course change things for you?” I ask.

He is sure. “From today, there will be no crime around here. These guys promise that they will go out and teach the other guys. We will benefit a lot from this.”

Nosiseko Margaret Nondonga, Leonard’s elderly wife comes out to greet us. She is also delighted about the course.

“This is giving them hope and opportunity. They are learning to work with their hands, repair things that were broken without spending money,” she says with a wide smile.

Mrs Nondonga and I sit down on an old wooden bench in the shade of a green rondawel. Her granddaughters, six-year-old Esinako and five-year-old Mihlali clamber onto our laps.

Remo switches on the compressor and the young farmers frown in concentration, listening to his instructions, taking it all in.

He makes a few slow, careful lines with the spray paint, and then hands the spray gun over to Sithembile and stands back.

Sithembile takes over, moving slowly, deliberately, with concentration.

Before our eyes the tractor is being reborn. Its grubby, dirty exterior is being transformed into a cheery, cherry red. The granddaughters clap their hands and giggle with delight. Mrs Nondonga laughs.

I laugh too at this amazing sight: an old Afrikaner helping a young black farmer paint over the past.