Voluntary & direct

Aug 28, 11 Voluntary & direct

Generally, I hate the white privilege debate in South Africa. Not because I feel it is unwarranted – god knows it exists, is immense, and increasingly needs addressing. I hate the debate because, for the most part, I wholly distrust the motivations of behind many of the most strident voices arguing in the arena. Whether it’s the de Klerk foundation arguing that “the law says I don’t have to give up my privilege so I won’t” or the equally unsubtle targeting of white privilege as a means of deflecting attention from their own fledgling plutocracy that the ANC deals in.

But exist it does, and unfair it is. Beyond that, the debate rapidly becomes fraught.

As a white folk. And one who tries to think hard about fundamentals like this, I am going to advance a position of my own as to what the appropriate response to redressing white privilege is. Then we can test out the comment filters and see if we can produce a discussion in the comments that does not resemble the Mail and Guardian online after an ANCYL story.

First off, I am assuming that you agree that as a white person in South Africa you were born into privilege inherited from the structure of Apartheid. I don’t mean that your  parents literally left you a golden teaspoon, but that you had certain starting advantages denied to other countrymen. You went to a better school than the majority. You probably went to university. You speak English and can take full advantage of a modern, globalised and urban culture with little effort. If you wonder what that means, imagine moving to London. It’s less hard for you than it would be for a person who grew up in the former Ciskei.

You have a support network of friends and family who are also middle class, and through whom you essentially have a safety net that protects you from the worst of the world’s tests. If you are a twenty something who owns a car partially or wholly paid for by mom and dad. Or if you still live with mom and dad so that you can save your money for Friday nights and video games, this is what I mean.

If you disagree that this life constitutes an inherited privilege not shared by the majority of your fellow South Africans, then go read something else. Like Ayn Rand. There is no hope for you.

Assuming you accept this privilege, I assume too that you feel some sort of moral responsibility to make this inequality ‘right’ in some sense. To repair the divide between the haves – whose side you sit on – and the have nots. Who may come in to do your laundry on Mondays. Or who you drive past on your way to an office job or university lecture.

This legacy of economic division is more than simply an unfair distribution of wealth. It is an unfair distribution of opportunity, and – as Tutu so aptly describes it – a kind of psychological brokenness in the kind of relationships that we as South Africans have with each other. Or the fact that, if you are comfortably-off and white, the fact that you have barely any relationship at all with those who do not share your world.

Here, the debate on whiteness in South Africa comes to break down on trying to construct a consensus as to what it is that should be done about this. Some people want a national sorry day. Others, like Tutu apparently, want a compulsory tax on white folk. I’m going to argue for a different path.

To start off, I want to make clear that this project of bridging the gulf is actually a project in two parts. In the first instance, there is the blunt matter of economic equality. The fact that others need to have opportunities similar to ours, and the prospect of living a life of equal dignity and material circumstances to ours. An RDP house is not the same as a suburban home. A manual job on a government works project is not the same as a career. A white response to privilege needs to work to narrow these gaps.

The second half of the equality project involves the kinds of relationships that white South Africans have with their disadvantaged countrymen. Not the relationships you have with black people per se, but the relationships you have with those who do not share in the riches of lives like yours. Those who live in the settlements, attend the terrible schools and have no health insurance. For the most part, white South Africans either have no meaningful relationships with such people, or have ones characterized by fear. Many white folk are still terrified of setting foot in a suburb, and we hail as groundbreaking – more than a decade after the death of Apartheid – a journey by some white sports fans into Soweto to watch a landmark game.

Our relationships are broken.

A white response to privilege needs to create these relationships where they don’t exist, and nurture them where they are starting. So that we begin to see the poor other not as an object of fear, but as a person like ourselves.

I believe that an appropriate response by privileged whites should honour both these projects. Trying to achieve either without its twin still leaves our postapartheid society fundamentally broken.

So let’s get to it then. I believe that a correct white response should have two qualities. That it should be voluntarily participated in, and that it should occur between the privileged and the non-privilieged directly, rather than via a formal structure of redistribution.

If you are feeling tense at this point in your reading, take a deep breath and persevere. This is a debate. A journey to an answer of a kind. I – as do many other South Africans – need a starting point in seeking ways of responding to the challenge of privilege. We won’t get it right first time. We won’t nail the subtle details. But we can honestly state our views at a moment in time, and take it forward as the first step in a journey to something that might resonate as something we recognise as good in the end.

So to the first criterion. Addressing inequality must be voluntary. To mandate a redistribution of white wealth would achieve only part of the first aim. Tutu’s white tax would transfer additional money to designated nonwhites (in a process whose detail I pity the person tasked with formulating), but it would undermine both of the principles I have outlined as important above.

In the first instance, narrowing economic inequality is about more than simply transferring money. It’s about giving equal access to opportunity. To the networks that make your life as privileged as it is even when you are a child, a student, someone without much capital at your fingertips. Legislating a transfer of wealth does not correlate to a transfer of opportunity. To widening the circle of the privileged to include those left out. This is something we see in South Africa when we see the proportion of new black wealth that is generated in the country from relationships with government versus how much arises organically from genuine partnerships in broader society across race lines.

Proper economic integration is about more than giving people equal income. It’s about connecting their networks of opportunity and learning. Those deeper interconnections cannot be demanded of white South Africans. They must be given, cannot be taken.

Secondly, it seems likely that a demanded contribution by white South Africans would serve only to strengthen the hand of those arguing that South African whites are being targeted to fund the development of black South Africans. It’s the difference between justice and reconciliation. Wealth simply taken and handed over leaves resentment on the part of the giver towards the receivers. Wealth (and networks and other opportunities) given willingly has no such side effect, as the giver cannot construe themselves as a victim. This is an important consideration since it implies that a legislated redistribution, in exchange for a limited economic transfer, would serve to scupper the project of relationship-building between the groups.

The second criterion of a response to white privilege is that it should be performed directly between South Africans who have and those who do not. It should not be done via the state, or via some organised structure to which funds and opportunities can simply be made available. Such a model, even if it could arguably work to satisfy economic redistribution (I have doubts), does little to foster the building of relationships between the rich and the poor. Time and money spent directly, in cooperation with actual, real people in disadvantaged South Africa would serve to foster relationships. Rich white folk would meet poor black folk. In so doing we learn a little more about each others’ lives and challenges.

Most importantly, fostering direct engagement and the relationships it provides means that continuing to maintain a fear of a dangerous poor, black other becomes harder to maintain. Our social worlds as South Africans start to properly cross the psychological and cultural boundaries that apartheid so effectively put in place to keep us apart, even after we had a democratic state.

Direct engagement serves the purpose of not only advancing the project of equality in material terms, but of gradually breaking down the psychology of cultural, racial and economic isolation that Apartheid left us with. Tutu was completely correct in pointing to the psychological and societal frameworks that continue to make us a broken nation. His offhand solution is inappropriate to tackling the full scope of the non-economic barriers that we have inherited between ourselves.

So there. That’s my present position. It could be longer. I could give more detail, but then it’s likely that you might not have opted to read this far.

There are questions – of course – about the practicality of this solution. When many whites deny their privilege, or the responsibilities it creates, asking for voluntary and deeply personal engagement is perhaps a little naive. Actually, it’s probably a lot naive. But if you think that the process of creating equality is one of sharing economic privilege in the richer, more-than-money sense, and if you believe that it includes rehabilitating our relationships, then there really is no alternative. In practice, it’s a mammoth thing to ask. But the right thing being difficult should not be an excuse to fall back on inappropriate and politically convenient solutions of forced contributions of money.


Image by Chantal Beam Photography

  • Simeon Miteff

    Privileges are special rights, not opportunities. Many (not all) white South Africans still have greater opportunities, but black South Africans currently enjoy special rights (BEE, AA) that whites don’t, so they’re privileged by comparison.

    • Anonymous

      (Frist off – sorry for the late reply here!). That would actually make for a very interesting discussion – to compare the relative advantages of whiteness vs formal, special rights afforded to nonwhites in post-1994 South Africa,

      I am not sure I would agree that the special rights match up to (nevermind exceed) the level of advantage that whiteness confers. The blunt comparison of the economic advantage that each confers seems too simple (regardless of whether BEE etc confer more economic advantages). 

      On the one hand, even with special rights, wealthy South Africa remains a deeply white space in its rules, norms and expectations, and these cannot be legislated away using special rights or any other tools of law. Beyond that, whiteness extends to advantages in your social networks/relationships/social capital/expectations of you that white skin affords. By concentrating on narrow issues of access to incomes via BEE, etc, these underlying social frames are ignored and allowed to persist. It’s the difference between economic equality (however impossible that project alone may be) and finally harmonising our relationships with each other across racial and cultural boundaries.

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