Our biggest problem may be calling each other the problem

I should probably stay off social media. The drivel-to-gems ratio is around 25 to 1, at best. The recent upsurge in agitated conversations/rants about so-called “transformation” has unfortunately worsened that ratio, forcing those videos of 10-year-olds on America’s Got Talent across the hazy continuum from ‘adorable time-waster’ to ‘highlight of the morning’.

The clincher this week was a ridiculous article entitled Get Real White South Africa. Apparently ‘white south Africa’ is a single, unified entity, clueless and bullish, a product of ‘the white supremacy that has never conceded its creation or the imbalanced South Africa of yesterday and today.’

This gem:

The greatest problem we face as a nation is not our neo-liberal imperialist economy that favours US and British capitalist endeavours. It’s not that the police criminalise and sometimes kill people for being poor or that miners, farmworkers and domestic workers are still grossly underpaid. It’s not that we have an inadequate education system, which mimics the structures of colonial conquerors or that we are importing instead of producing basic foods. Our biggest problem is not even crime, South Africa.

Our biggest problem is the unwillingness and inability to address the common denominator between these problems: the white supremacy that has never conceded its creation or the imbalanced South Africa of yesterday and today.

The system that created these problems has never been put on trial, nor were its architects. While we all live in a better country by many accounts, our reinvented nation simply wore a radiant new dress, one that was unfortunately covering an enormous white elephant.

Okaaaayyy. So in other words, let’s imagine for a second it was possible to overhaul our economy, clean up the police force, bring in equitable pay for miners, farmworkers and domestic workers and fix up the education system. Magic wand, fairy godmother stuff – we’re suddenly cool on all of those issues. I’m not sure about basic foods: as far as I know, we produce local maize, fruit, vegetables, beans, dairy produce and meat. So leaving food aside for a second, we also magically fix the crime problem. The line of argument above is that we would still face an EVEN BIGGER problem – that of so-called white supremacy. Really??? Really??? You really think black and white people would still be grating on each other’s victim/guilt complexes if there were a flood of decent jobs, decently skilled people to fill them, equitable pay and no anxieties about hijackings, rapes and disembowelings?

So, instead of addressing these issues – the ones that are based in policy, governance and fiscal flows, let’s rather have little blamefests. Yes, perhaps we should concentrate on targeting and intellectually flagellating race groups, rather than overhauling the education system and stimulating the economy? How is that going to help anyone??

A failed system from 20 years ago – you want to ‘put on trial’ – how, exactly? Who would you like to blame and punish, and to what end?

I dunno so much. I don’t see any white supremacy bouncing around this place. I know a lot of white people. Some of my best friends are white. What I see (and feel) a lot of white privilege, a lot of white guilt and a lot of white blaming and shaming. And a lot of white-blame fatigue. Fatigue from people who fly high and earn high, but also pay 40c out of every rand they earn to tax. Who have spent 20 years watching that money get squandered on bullshit deals and kickbacks and cronyism. Who have started to see individual efforts at charity or ‘transformation’ as something about as effective as using a medicine dropper to drop distilled water onto an oil slick in the hope of saving some severely fucked penguins.

Our writer goes on to tell us:

A true miracle in the autumn of 1994, the true service that Mandela Day asks of us, would have been white South Africans getting together to think of effective ways to divide their wealth, compassionately conceding social and economic power in the name of equality and leaping at the myriad opportunities there are to break down structural racial inequality.

As long as the recipients of charity for Mandela Day and other such initiatives are poor, needy and black it means the white elephant is at large.

I have no idea what she is proposing here. The stereotypes abound. White people are wealthy. (Are they? All?) White people have the power to break down structural racial inequality. (Do they? Which ones in particular? Do I have that power? Where did I leave it? Why has no one shown me what to do with it?) Does employing black people count? – is that proliferating structural racial inequalities (bad!) or creating employment (good!) Does charity count? Is it continuing a narrative of white people as Having, Providing and Active and black people as Needing, Taking and Passive? Or is it Giving Back and Integrating? I don’t think it would be easy to find a white person who hasn’t, at one time or another, paid for their (yes, probably black) domestic worker’s school fees/rent/debt/phone bill/medicines/unforeseen funeral expenses. They mutter and worry about it, not because they mind covering those expenses, but because they feel so ill-equipped to do anything more empowering to help that person escape that situation in future. It will come up again and again and again, because, actually, there are NOT myriad opportunities to break down structural inequality. My employees have no desire to befriend me or integrate with me, and the times when I’ve attempted to cultivate a more humane, sociable relationship than employer-employee, it’s gone down like a ton of bricks.

Should I embarrass – and probably eternally alienate – my middle-class black friends (they’re mostly attorneys and earn a lot more than I do, and don’t talk much about race issues), by quietly taking them aside and asking whether they’d like a contribution (cash installments? EFT?) towards my personal privilege-atonement project.

If you want to talk about structural inequality, you need to look at the tribal divisions and class hierarchies in this country, the political stuctures that are holding it back. You need to look more broadly at the divide between rich and poor. By the definitions in this article, black folks on the rich n’ creamy consumerist side of the SA experience are no more “black” than white folks on the breadline.

It is not structural or racial ANY MORE. Historically, certainly, white supremacy played a devastating role in creating the problems we inherited in 1994. So, yes, there are patterns. (And I’m not saying anyone should silence the discussions about that heritage.) But white-bashing doesn’t change it, and nor does it facilitate integration. If anything, it simply contributes to an ongoing dynamic of angry people getting angrier and more distanced from each other.

As a solution, it also seems a bit …. futile. A bit like bitching about patriarchy. Yes, we know men get more positions of power, better pay, and advantages that are deeply structurally encoded into our social and economic systems. But no one is asking men to get together and divide their wealth. What should they do? Make up party packs with golf clubs and thirteenth cheques and golden handshakes and club memberships? Should they package up the time their female counterparts have spent on childbearing and caring, and hand it over in time capsules? Or EFTs? Ain’t gonna happen, baby. Some of this shit you’ve just got to suck up and move along with.

I was so mystified by the massive leaps of illogic and sweeping assumptions in this article that I looked up the writer, who turned out to be one entirely delightful Milusuthando Bongela. Turns out she’s a super-edgy and trendy presence on social media. Her funky Twitter account (@missmillib – replete with personally branded online profile, seamlessly integrated into blog and various professional connections) bills her as “writer /blogger /consultant /member of feminist stokvel / making a doccie about the history, evolution and politics of african hair”.

You can check out missmillib.co.za, where you can read Miss Milli’s musings about fashion, beauty, art, film, literature, gender and politics. She’s very endearing, frank, impassioned, creative, very Jozi, very streetfashionsavvy. She offers a number of services, which are listed as writing stories, targeted trend consulting, personal styling, creative employment placement, and being a member of something (creative and edgy) called The Group. She appears to spell mostly impeccably, and gets gritty with social issues, and has cute, familiar, urbane freakouts about cool things happening in her life. She’s a poster girl for the new South Africa, in its 1994 incarnation.

Oddly, her article begins by telling us that ‘Our newest outfit, the dress from our historic Autumn/Winter 1994 collection, is now 21 years old, and evidently in tatters.’ I say oddly because, flicking/clicking through Ms Milli’s blog, it looks she’s not a helluva lot older than that, and her own piece from that collection is vivid and funky, kinda Stoned Cherrie meets New York meets Jozi in HDR.

I’m really glad Ms Milli’s article riled me, with its nutty stack of non sequiturs. I’m really glad it led me to her blog, where I discovered a) where the writers of Mzansi’s Generation Y are plying their trade (on digital and social media); b) what they’re charging (R3 a word – no wonder we’re getting tabloid sensationalist crap; she must’ve run this out quickly before heading out for something artisanal at one of Jozi’s latest microbrewery outlets); and c) the fascinatingly sophisticated, privileged, connected position that these views come from. I’m thrilled that South Africa has a community of Ms Millis, who have opinions and knockout vocabularies and stellar careers that include New York Fashion Week and meeting Spike Lee. (I was thrilled and delighted to find Ms Milli’s whole milieu dazzling.) What I’m saying is that I’m glad I got a glimpse of the person behind the words.

I’m still a little weirded out that Ms Milli thinks that something called “white people” exists any more uniformly than something called “black people”, but hey, I’m neither hip nor happening nor particularly well plugged in. Ms Milli, if you’re out there, ping me on Twitter or something, sweetie. I’m sure you can fix that. We could be BFFs, and forge a whole new way forward for the big bad B/W divide. Or at very least, you could sort out my maternity wardrobe as I gestate yet another post-millenial, whose generation will, with any luck, transcend all this.

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About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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3 Responses to Our biggest problem may be calling each other the problem

  1. Lara says:

    That’s the thing: “with any luck”. I think it’s going to take a lot more than luck for people to transcend this. I see people doing a lot of hard work, but the trouble not being overcome. I wonder if there are lessons from history that we’re overlooking. Or perhaps, this being a highly visible, highly vocal, and social media mediated era, we’re in uncharted territory altogether. One interesting thing I read during the Rhodes Must Fall debate was that the best thing for white voices to do during that debate was silence themselves, and listen. I have tried being silent, and have had silent reproach assumed. Listening is not a visible activity. But I wanted to tell you that I have listened to you, and what you’ve written above. I’m still here, listening.

  2. Lisa says:

    I have also heard the ‘listen and be silent’ argument. Unfortunately I think silencing cancels any possibility of dialogue, and with it any possibility of conflict resolution. But your comment rings eerily into the silence: many people have silently read this blog post, and chosen not to comment. That silencing effect is very powerful, very isolating and very alienating. I don’t think it’s leading us to any better place.

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