I have always been optimistic about the future of South Africa (sometimes boldly, sometimes more cautiously) and this optimism has consistently been buoyed by my admiration for my fellow South Africans. We are a resilient bunch, to say the least; we have been through the historical ringer over the last 200 years and the changes wrought in my own lifetime have been incredible to witness. As a young country we have also not yet lost that patriotic fervour which is often replaced with cynicism in more established first world countries, made all the more precious by the fact that we can celebrate it under one flag regardless of our colour or community. Particularly, I have been impressed by the younger generation; their openness, their ambitions for our country and their colour-blindness has given me great hope for the future. The last few weeks, however, have been the first time in a while that my faith has been, while certainly not derailed, shaken. This spirit of nationhood to which I refer is part and parcel of the Rainbow Nation concept, which, has of late, increasingly been denigrated by a vocal minority as a myth or, worse, a ruse of the white establishment to keep people of colour in bondage.
The ongoing statue debates have been increasingly framed in explicitly racial terms and I feel unwelcome, as a white person, to comment on it. The whole idea, contextualised within a form of black consciousness, has become racially exclusivist by definition. I have heard a number of statements amounting to, “this is not about you, stay out of it.”
I respectfully decline the kind offer to keep my mouth shut while I am accused of being a participant in a grand racial conspiracy, even though it may earn me a few of the tautological cultural slurs and accusations of white supremacist motivations that are becoming so familiar in this debate.
Even white people sympathetic to the goals of the movement have their intentions questioned – the concept of the “white liberal” has come in for a great deal of criticism from the movement of late. SRC President, Ramabina Mahapa, in a statement saturated with racially divisive rhetoric (but containing little to nothing in the way of practical solutions to addressing the ongoing challenges we face in South Africa) said of white liberals that “subconsciously they share the same set of values and desire to protect their privileges” or worse “Whites have not even begun to see blacks as equals and as being capable of thinking for themselves”. If someone accuses me of not seeing black people as equals, all I can really say in my defence is “actually that’s not true” which, if my motives are in question by virtue (or in this case, inherent villainy) of my skin colour, can simply be dismissed as the deviousness to be expected from a member of the intrinsically untrustworthy white community. This is just another example of unfalsifiable racial rhetoric that silences even the most well-meaning sentiments of the white community and breeds suspicion and hatred.
As a white person I acknowledge that there is a lot of work still to be done, that the economic injustices of Apartheid do not simply go away overnight. I have no desire to live in a heavily-armed laager or a fortress walled by hedges of bitter almond as the first settlers once did. I am a human being first and a South African second and I may be white but I am and always will be an African, and no amount of unpleasant cultural invective about “whiteness” is going to change that. I decline to be told that I am a foreigner in my own country.
It is very positive to see young people in this country rallying behind a cause but disheartening to see it descend into racial identity politics – a self-evidently sinister road to go down. Aside from the unpleasant Zanu PF-esque connotations, it misses so much of the big picture. It is unsurprising to see this movement emerging from the campus of a university. Having spent four years on a university campus myself I know all too well how living in a world of theory can separate people from real-world cause and effect. I have heard next to nothing in the way of real practical ideas to address the problems of our country but plenty of vague post-structuralist theoretical clutter about consciousness-raising and symbolism, and a blame game attributing every problem in this country today to structures of white supremacy, from government corruption to the recent xenophobic violence in KwaMashu and Umlazi, following King Goodwill Zwelithini’s statement that foreigners must “pack their bags and go home”.
The Rainbow Nation is not a “myth” and it would be foolish in the extreme to throw away a jewel richer than all our crown. The idea of the Rainbow Nation as an end point after which everything will be easy, the rolling credits at the end of Invictus – that is the myth. In reality it is a guiding principle to keep us united as we struggle to make this country as great as it can be and the work is never done. This is the call for eternal vigilance echoed in Nelson Mandela’s choice of autobiography title – that “Long Walk” is far from over but we will trip and stumble unless we can walk it together.
Featured Image Credit: The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) by Pieter Brugel the Elder. Source: Wiki Art