I read a really interesting article in The Weekender (published by Business Day) titled “Towards a White Consciousness Movement?” by Scott Burnett. It has become a cliché that when a group of white South Africans gather in a social setting the conversation almost always shifts over to the crime rate (high and increasingly dangerous), impact on black economic empowerment on the local job market (an economic death sentence for white South Africans) and cultural differences that we see every day. Rather than attribute this phenomenon to the existence of a real set of threats (which may or may not exist as envisaged), Burnett suggests that this phenomenon is as a result of the flip side of decades of white rule and preference in South Africa:
White people need to get real about the divisions in their minds. Changing the physical appearance of the cabinet, the presidency and their municipalities has done very little to break down internal dichotomies. White people feel threatened, and excluded from nation-building.
They retreat into enclaves where, as author Eric Miyeni has pointed out, they invite a black person to their dinner party to keep the rest of them in the proverbial kitchen. They need to realise that the fundamentally antisocial and exclusionist behaviour they exhibit is not about culture, nor is it about language.
It is part of a psychosis that has been programmed into their minds. It is the legacy with which they have to engage.
The collective South African white ego has been hit hard by the success of the liberation struggle. One knee-jerk reaction is to champion de-collectivisation: we’re all individuals here, don’t call me white! Another is to move into fantasy race struggle-mode a la Dan Roodt: stop the reverse-discrimination! Neither is satisfactory.
The first tries to deracialise a deeply racialised society with convenient yet impracticable aphorisms, while the second leaves us in the quagmire of mistrust and retaliatory policy-making. The only way to address the position of the white African is to start with the fundamental problem from whence all others flow: the lack of a “white” consciousness.
In the rush to address the negative impact of Apartheid and its highly discriminatory measures on non-white South Africans, we have neglected the impact of the culture of fear and hatred that was cultivated in white South African society all those decades. We, white South Africans, were taught to fear the “swart gevaar” (the “black danger”, for lack of a better translation) as the majority of our population fought for recognition of their basic human rights against an increasingly dangerous government. Those years did benefit white South Africans, no doubt, but the price was and remains high. I was born in the 1970s and only became conscious of the policies of the government toward the end of its dominance in South African society and yet I can’t help but feel some of the fear that was ingrained in me by my indoctrinated parents.
It makes sense that there be an effort to address these psychological effects of the previous regime as an important part of our journey towards a non-racial society built on respect for each other’s fundamental rights and basic humanity. As Burnett puts it:
A white consciousness movement would have to start by examining the damage that has been done by the oppressor. It would have to accept that the psychosis of superiority is still rampant among its members and that the process of healing is not facilitated by ignoring the sickness.
Its main tool would be dialogue: in the media, in Parliament, in families. Its outcomes would be to create an environment of new hope and belonging for white people, to wrench them from the musty cells of their suburbs and private schools and allow them the benefits of not having to hide in their broekie-laced comfort zone.
Becoming meaningful contributors to the South African revival means having to deal with its central paradox: creating a society free from racial group-think requires the thinking of racial groups.