The reality of white privilege in SA

Posted on May 13, 2018


The nonsense being spewed forth in various media ever since Democratic Party leader Mmusi Maimane made his perfectly logical comment about the continued existence of white privilege in South Africa is stunning in its sheer blinkered arrogance. Most comments come from within the smug — “we and our families never voted for the [pro-apartheid National Party] Nats” — ranks of the “traditional Democratic Party”, but also from the more extreme ethnic nationalists clinging to the coattails of white liberals.

To deny that those individuals and families classified “white” under apartheid were privileged is so obviously ridiculous that it should require no response. Merely look to the plethora of discriminatory apartheid laws, let alone a history over more than 300 years.

And to imagine that centuries of discrimination against “natives” in favour of “Europeans” that morphed, in its final phase, into the rigid social engineering of apartheid has left no legacy is severely delusional. The decades of apartheid set out deliberately to cripple, academically, intellectually and financially the bulk of the “non-white” population.

The privileged position of those classified “white” — especially following the dominance of Afrikaner Nationalism in 1948 — gave every single individual, so classified, a massive advantage over their fellow citizens in the various “non-white” categories. This applied as much to those called Afrikaners as to the so-called “English” .

I was born into this system, the son of a railway worker, an English speaker in an almost exclusively Afrikaans neighbourhood. But while the legacy of the Anglo-Boer war continued to be fought out among ourselves as children, we shared common privileges: subsidised, 3-bedroom housing, a “free pass” on the rail network for annual holidays and schools that were generally well equipped and staffed.

We paid almost no school fees and, at primary level — apparently just in case our parents were remiss — were given free milk in the mornings to ensure healthy growth. Books and writing materials were also free and, for the few families who, despite all the advantages, still had difficulty coping, there were safety nets in school and church groups to supply any shortfalls.

At the same time every house, however humble, had its maid, usually a woman who lived in the “khaya” a room in the backyard without water and, often without electricity, who cooked, cleaned and cared for the employing family. Her own family, even if she had young children, were “looked after elsewhere”.

Among those “looked after” children would almost certainly have been the parents of the children who finally rose up in 1976. They argued that their parents had for too long acquiesced in their subjugation.

What it boiled down to was that, from birth to death, the child classified “white” would be privileged, granted extraordinary advantages to progress, academically, intellectually and financially. Many did. Most enjoyed a lifestyle they and their families would never have achieved in a generally non-racial society.

What these “white” families accumulated was physical, academic and intellectual wealth. It was then, with obvious exceptions, passed down through the generations. And there always existed, certainly under apartheid, a “bottom level” beyond which no white family could fall. So to claim now that “my son/daughter was born after 1994 and was therefore not privileged” is clearly nonsense. White privilege is a reality that continues as a legacy of apartheid and the discriminatory centuries that preceded it.

That I chose, at the age of 18, not to take full advantage of such privilege and to challenge the system instead, does not make my background any less privileged. The lifestyle I led, even the police and prison cells that I briefly inhabited at different times, reflected that privilege: two felt mats on the floor for whites, a single coir map for “others”.

My background — not so much the schooling I received — also prepared me for a career that I could pursue even in exile. As in all such cases, it is the advantages of the parents that accrue to the children and to the children of those children. Nothing much changes unless there is a major restructuring and reorganisation of society.

It never happened here: the “rainbow transition” merely perpetuated the residential and economic realities of the past. The geography — the spatial reality — of apartheid persists as the most glaring physical example.

Just because some, perhaps naive or even hypocritical, politicians and commentators declared that post 1994 meant that an “even playing field” had been created didn’t make it so. Far from it. But this myth suited the privileged as, for example, they moved their children to ever more expensive private schools and perhaps plotted packing for Perth.

Better perhaps, that they should deal with reality and use the advantages they have both had and inherited, to join others in an attempt to construct a genuinely democratic and anti-racist society.

Posted in: Commentary