South Africa’s ‘miracle transition’ has not put an end to white privilege

posted in: Africa

Photo: Entrance of the Apartheid Museum © Global Brief

The Guardian’s Azad Essa

In his final address to the African National Congress (ANC) in 1997, Nelson Mandela stunned the western world by attacking white privilege – that enduring postcolonial swear word that lays bare the legacy of white entitlement.

It was surprising to many observers, ordinarily accustomed to an affable, reconciliatory Mandela who appeared intent on banishing race-based politics to the past. But the former South African president was direct when he described the ANC as being weighed down by those “committed to the maintenance of white privilege”, and that Afrikaners were “imprisoned by notions of white supremacy and of supposed Afrikaner interests that are separate and opposed to the interests of the rest of the population”.

Fast forward 16 years and little appears to have changed.

Just last week, a new working-class, black consciousness party was launched on the pretext of ending of white economic domination. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), steered by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, seeks to inveigle the working-class vote away from the ANC, pointing out that the ruling party has fallen short of fulfilling its promises to the poor.

And yet the EFF’s founding ideologies are contested. Just three days ahead of the launch of the party a small group of Afrikaners took to the streets under the banner of the “Red October” campaign to complain of economic marginalisation and persecution of Afrikaans-speaking white people in South Africa.

While advocates of the Red October campaign speak of “reverse discrimination” instituted by the ANC, the EFF speaks of the need for a radical transformation of the South African economy where white people need to “share the wealth” and “give back stolen land”. Red October, however, is based on a fraudulent premise.

Research that delves past the excitable rants of a fringe minority show that white Afrikaners are not being singled out for persecution, economic or otherwise. But there is something more disturbing about this campaign. The organisers purposefully prey on an archaic, racist fear of the black majority – incidentally, the original basis of apartheid.

Yes, many white South Africans, liberal, rational and generous, were quick to distance themselves from the flawed campaign and concede their “embarrassment” at the claims of “white genocide” and “persecution”.

But even these condemnations of Red October neglect to sufficiently interrogate the sophisticated and popular perceptions of the juggernaut of “white privilege”.

White South Africans also suffer class distinctions, which are often overlooked. There is no complexity expressed in the feverish discussions of white privilege that periodically grips South Africa’s chattering class.

Worse still, commentators, in all their benevolence, have been even less forthcoming about how their wealth should actually be divided. Of course, white liberals would be ill-disposed to give up their “hard-won” comforts.

The twin launches of Malema’s EFF and the Red October campaign then are serendipitous in the larger story of the ignored history of post-apartheid South Africa.

For the majority of black people who have lived under colonial rule for the best part of almost 400 years, five decades of which were under the guise of institutionalised racism, or apartheid, white privilege is still the barbed wire fence they must scale. Today, South Africa has the world’s highest level of income inequality. And it is the black majority that still teeters precariously, at the bottom end of the scale. Ten per cent of the population controls 80% of the land.

The farce of South Africa’s “miracle transition” is fast unravelling. The ANC is no longer the vanguard of the revolution; the beloved party has been caught on the frontline of the protection of white interests. And yes, despite the cold, hard facts of socioeconomic inequality, South Africa is subject to conflicting narratives. A non-racial South Africa simply cannot exist if 9% of one racial group earn six times more than the majority.

Even if there are select black people and people of Indian descent within the much-feted new middle class, it is white South Africans who must now stop pretending to be interested in transforming the economy towards a more equitable and sustainable distribution of wealth. The time of hiding behind the parochial economic policies of the ANC – once designed, in part, not to scare off white people – has long passed.