It came down on the 9th of April 2015. A wrought, red iron crane wrapped around its arrogant body and lifted it from its mantelpiece. The singing crowd elevated as phones were lifted to capture the moment, blurred by the shoulders of fellow students. Amateur footage, real. A plastic bottle flies over the crowd and hits the dislodged statue with force, ricocheting into the distance as a group climb the fence, board the truck, and further deface it’s smugness with paint as it is driven away. Paint is better than faeces I thought. On second reflection, throwing faeces provokes talking and feeling. Today, shit palpably shifted the dominance of my history.
I shuffle on the spot, easily seen as one of few White faces in the crowd by the drone buzzing overhead. Sweat oozing out my pores and quickly humidifying my face and shirt. That familiar South African sensation; facing an unknown future. We South Africans, we are divided by many things but share some common feelings. Feelings of fear that visit so often, they are like a friend afraid of being forgotten. A new history was being born, and how can I be part of it? The crowd remains unmoved and my mind wanders.
With an English name, a first language English education at a private school, Chris senses that for the first time, in this crowd, he is a minority and he feels his minority-ness. It’s a sensation hard to describe except for uncomfortable. If Whites were just Whites and Blacks were just Blacks; and Indians were just Indians, and Coloureds were just Coloureds why then does he feel uncomfortable? He was taught from an early age, likely from his well-intentioned White teachers that good White people in post-apartheid South Africa are color blind. We do not see race. Tsepho, his fourth grade Black friend was “not Black; he was the same as everybody else” (everybody else at Chris’s school was White).
I logged onto Facebook to see people’s comments because unless the world hears about it online or sees it through a selfie it never actually happened. Even though I am here, I better check to confirm that the statue was removed. Relief. My friends” status updates verify the event. The distinction by race was obvious. Many of the White status updates read something like this: “Well done, you all took down the big bad scarey White statue and beat it up, how heroic! How about you fuss about Nkandla/crime/current racism instead?” and “The whole notion of White privilege and Black consciousness exists in the figment of your imagination. the real difference are not in inferiority or superiority but it in ethics”. Students of color, their expressions were jubilant, a Black woman noted: “Those who do not see the removal of the Rhodes statue as an act that symbolizes a need for active transformation in society, simply CHOOSE not to. (Which is why institutionalized affirmative action at all levels of society and business is still important)” and a Coloured women exclaimed: “They don’t understand and they never will! After three hundred years, I feel I can finally cry for ALL the injustice my ancestors have faced. I will wake up tomorrow and start the fight again, but for now, ek huil met verligting!” [I cry with relief!]
Chapter 2: Manoel – Emmanuel Josias Sithole
Nomusa turns twelve today, 18th April, 2015. She arrives home in Kelvin, Johannesburg after school, greeted by a beautiful birthday cake. Three concentric circles, stacked. White inviting icing which shines in the glistening of the brightly lit dining room. Pink icing dances on the edges. “NOMUSA”, skillfully written on top of the cake with twelve candles strategically placed so as not to block her beautiful Zulu name which means “with grace and kindness”. Her elder sister Mpumelelo begins lighting the candles as father Mandla and mother Thandi begin the new tradition of reaching for their phones to take a picture. Mpumelelo hurries herself so as to get in line, reaching for her phone slipped in her back pocket as it vibrates, letting her know that she still exists. The family stands back, films and photographs.
Not more than two kilometers away, two South African journalists unpack their equipment from the car and head into Alexandra Township to document the rising attacks against African foreign nationals living there. Days earlier, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini had called for foreigners to pack their bags and go! The president’s son had also mentioned something along these lines. And now, regardless of what they meant, foreign nationals are in danger here in Alexandra and elsewhere in the country, particularly KwaZulu-Natal. The job of journalists is to document events. They are mandated by their bosses who are at the mercy of their shareholders. Newspapers, like any form of media sells when it sells a version of the truth. Repeated long enough, no other truth can enter the discourse. Pictures, tweets, videos, social media, and outrageous headlines drive the South African psyche. Shareholders indirectly drive the news cycle; the news cycle drives the South African truth. Who the shareholders are is only a minor worry to journalists anxious to capture a story. Why follow the money anyway?
One of the journalists, a White man holds a camera, while the other, a Coloured man his phone for notes, the two journalists walk briskly along the main road leading through the township. Journalistic instincts on high alert, sniffing for the source of their next big break. It comes. A man is beaten over the head with a wrench in front of them, while two others descend on the victim. The journalists inch closer. The victim’s Portuguese begging reveals his Mozambican origins. They stab him several times before moving off, taking nothing. Like trained journalists, the pair draws close enough to capture the perfect moment. Click, quick edit, upload. They will fill in the story later, for now, let the media machine do its work. The man picks himself from the ground, blood pouring from him, the wound in his chest soaking his shirt as he begs for help on the stoep of the closest spaza shop. The photographer continues snapping away, cold to the agony of a dying human being. You don’t win awards for saving dying people in this business. Soon, humanity prevails as the pair gets Manoel into a car and drives him to the hospital. The waiting area is littered with our injured African brothers and sisters as well as South African heroes who tried to protect them. All are unable to receive help because the only doctor, a Malawian, is too afraid to come to work. Manoel died of his wounds. The president later said that he died not because of xenophobia, but at the hands of robbers.
Nomusa, checking her newsfeed that night sees the story and clicks the video. She may not be old enough to understand it, but deep inside her a little subconscious voice whispers: “African lives do not matter in South Africa”.
Chapter 3: Making sense?
I closed Paulo Freire’s book, folding the top corner of the page and briefly taking a glance at the title (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) before getting ready to rest. His words stuck with me, even after I closed my eyes to sleep following a busy day of sense-making: what was April 2015 all about? Freire’s words echo even as I turn over, covering my ears and pulling the blanket over my head despite the rising temperature. “No one can be authentically human, while they prevent others from doing so.” Deconstructing the fall of Rhodes and the xenophobic attacks in our country this month I became curious. What do we find when we break an event down; scrutinizing how each component combines to create reality? And, how can we use these findings to build our country? To you reading this, I feel it necessary to enter the story at this juncture and introduce myself. I am a White, twenty six year old South African male and a committed ally in the struggle against all forms of dehumanization. I am writing this with the aim of strengthening unity in our country by unmasking normalized oppressive systems. With the deepest humility and acknowledgement of my own privilege and how it operates, I write this so as to participate meaningfully in building a truly inclusive South Africa. Dumela. Bingelela. Thina, masixoxa. [Hello, I warmly greet you, let us engage in conversation]
Chapter 4: How did we get here?
South Africa is a recent phenomenon. Before 1994, its borders were ill defined and it housed “quasi-countries” in the form of homelands. Before 1652, its wealth lay in many forms including cattle, agriculture, and ivory. But, colonialism changed this. Colonialism was more than foreigners “setting up shop.” It involved imposing political, social and economic norms on other people. It began with guns and war and proceeded with enslavement. Then, the simultaneous imposition of education systems to socialize the children of the enslaved, court systems to imprison “offenders”, and taxation to force men off the land and into the colonial factories, farms, and women into the colonial homes. Greed ensured a systematic process of dehumanization first controlling the body then how people view themselves.
Colonizers positioned themselves as the standard for humanity. From this process a system of privilege emerged. This privilege created the false illusion that White people built South Africa. The truth is that, it was built on the exploitation of Black, Indian, Coloured, Chinese and Malay people who worked the sugarcane fields, mined the gold, worked in the factories and picked the crops from the White “owned” farms. The White man, holding the whip, signed the laws, and amassed wealth utilizing various forms of social, physical, emotional and cultural practices to maintain this system of White domination. My ancestors, Cecil John Rhodes and others suspended their own humanity by dehumanizing, killing, and destroying others for their own gain. Their system became normalized by those who benefited from it through apartheid.
Under segregation, White supremacy was clear. But in post-apartheid integration, it became a hybrid of overt and covert practices. While obvious to people of color, White South Africans are taught not to see it. As a hybrid, post-apartheid colonization has everything and nothing to do with individuals. Racism has everything to do with people who unquestioningly perpetuate the demands of a system designed to advantage them while systematically disadvantaging others. At the same time, racism can operate subconsciously through White privilege. Peggy Macintosh describes White privilege as unearned advantages one gets because they are White. It operates uniquely for each individual White person in racially constructed societies, but operates for and within all White people nonetheless. Most White South Africans are good people, but that does not prevent us from perpetuating individual and institutionalized racism.
White privilege demonstrates itself in various ways especially when it is at risk of being unmasked. Privilege is the power to name the world and assert the truth. It positions White people as fully human with the authority over the marginalized. A person with White privilege generally responds to others feelings of racism by denying, deflecting, or diminishing their experience. When we revisit the removal of the Rhodes statue, we begin by noting how few White faces are in the crowd. Part of having privilege is choosing when to participate in promoting justice. As Whites we are able to acknowledge apartheid was bad, but in reality we can choose to do nothing to address its legacy because in fact, we still benefit from it. Note the different responses from the crowd. The myth that race is only about melanin, the cells that give our hair, skin, and eyes color dissipates. In an ideal world, race would not matter. But, because of our history, race is about power. Being White means talking about race is uncomfortable because it unmasks how we benefit from things like having our Black friends treated like a person without a culture. But perhaps most strikingly, White privilege operated through denial, deflection and diminishment in the contrasting Facebook status updates.
Denying someone’s experiences of racism is often a function of White privilege. “The whole notion of White privilege and Black consciousness exists in the figment of your imagination. the real difference are not in inferiority or superiority but it in ethics.” Racism attacks people in all forms. Because White privilege is the power to exert racism on another person, we as White people have no idea how people experience our oppression of them. Instead of acknowledging this, we often use our privilege to assert that racism does not exist, that it is a figment of their imagination. If the responses did not deny, they deflected from the issue of importance. Regarding the Cecil John Rhodes statue, part of the issue was how students of color felt about the prominent position of his statue on a campus apparently promoting inclusiveness. When the White user argued, “How about you fuss about Nkandla/crime/current racism instead?” he used his privilege to deflect criticism of the statue towards some other end, in this case Nkandla, the president’s home or crime. In doing so, the White user asserts that what is actually valid and should actually be spoken about, are these issues and not how the Black person feels. Diminishing people of color’s experience with racism was epitomized by sarcasm (“how heroic!”). Sarcasm diminishes a person’s feelings and their humanity. When people are diminished long enough, they can begin to feel guilty for feeling oppressed and may become silenced. The White person then reinforces their dominance of the space and behavior of people in it. The White racial frame is reinforced.
Putting these pieces together reveals a pattern: person posts about an experience of racism/xenophobia, if they are a South African of colour the experience is denied, diminished or deflected. If they are White, they will be told they are self-haters. Then the discussion will morph into something unrelated. Finally, it will end with a feeling of dismay because nobody actually listened and everyone feels right. We then all wait for the next incident to start all over again.
Chapter 5: What about Xenophobia?
That two South Africans can stand by, camera in hand, while another three murder a foreign national uncovers the structure of post-apartheid South African society. Because of the deep White racial frame in our country (which includes both racism and xenophobia), Black lives only matter to newspapers or the public at large when they are dead. When they are alive, their response to indignity, marginalization, and domination at the hands of racial/ethnic oppression are merely seen as complaints. The highest structures of our society, including our political leadership promote ethnophobia against foreign nationals through their action and inaction. Politicians understand that undocumented people cannot vote, cannot meaningfully participate in our society, and truly are the oppressed under-layer in our post-apartheid society. Foreign African nationals are blamed for our violence against them; they are silenced by our inability to hear them. We organize soccer games against xenophobia but would feel it insensitive for such a suggestion in the face of racism. Because we as South Africans are uncomfortable with our own privilege, be it White South Africans who benefit from the exploitation of Black labor, or Black South Africans who exploit the vulnerability of foreign nationals for their own ends; we cannot seek to transform our country into an inclusive society until we confront these truths. Just as we as White South Africans need to learn to listen to how we participate in the system of racism, so do South Africans of all races need to listen to fears, experiences and marginality of foreign nationals. We cannot simply continue with the “get over it” approach to racial/ethnic injustice.
Chapter 6: Because we all love our country
I logout of Facebook and reflect. Students continue to sing and cheer. A vuvuzela vibrates in the distance, Ke nako. Questions flood my mind. Is the current model working? The negotiated status quo epitomized by the pattern of circular pain which drives me apart from my fellow brother and sister. If not the status quo then do we add new history to the dominant narrative by putting new statues with old ones or writing plaques with carefully chosen words? Can we decolonize in this way, or would this simply reinforce the structure of domination which places the history of Black people as an additive, a guest on the stage of the White show? This road meshes domination with resistance. Or do we destroy it and build a new? If we take that road, whose image will replace it, and whose history then becomes the new truth? These questions are numerous, complex, and unanswerable all at once.
We can only answer of each of them, in their own context through face to face dialogue that seeks to rebuild a truly reflective South African society. We will not come to the answers to these hard questions by only removing statues without recognizing the underlying dominations. To my White South African brothers and sisters, if we truly want to be part of building this nation into an inclusive society we need to commit ourselves to learning, to listening, and to recognizing how we get in the way of reconciliation in our country. We can begin by ceasing to participate in the pattern of racial silencing, refusing to use our privilege to marginalize others, and actively fighting against domination in all forms.
South Africans who love our country, each one of us; the road we take and how we get there is up to us.
Dedicated to Thabo Owen Mzobe, Ayanda Dlamini, Petros Dlamini, Marcus Natas, Dava Sebaastio, Shaofic Shaof Ul Alam and Emmanuel Josias Sithole.