Saturday, November 17, 2012

'I Benefited from Apartheid' T-shirt Sparks South African Race Row

The Guardian (UK)
David Smith
November 16, 2012.

T-shirt by film-maker Roger Young polarises online commenters, with some praising gesture and others defending colonialism

The 'I benefited from apartheid' T-shirts have sharply divided opinion in South Africa, where black workers earn six times less than their white counterparts.

A throwaway remark, a four-word statement and 40 T-shirts. That was all it took to trigger a vicious debate about guilt, responsibility and race that has revealed South Africans at their best – and their worst.

It came about when Roger Young, a film-maker and writer, was discussing a recent controversy about a supermarket with job vacancies that targeted black recruits, prompting a white outcry. "I said to a friend: "I'm going to get all these people a T-shirt saying, 'I benefited from apartheid', because they simply don't understand," he recalled.

The friend took him at his word and together they printed 10 such T-shirts and displayed them in an art exhibition under a sign which said: "Free T-shirts, whites only." They were gone in five minutes, so 30 more were produced and sold not for profit.

Some praised the gesture as honest and courageous in a country that, despite its official aspiration to non-racialism, is still steeped in the legacy of apartheid 18 years on – recent census figures showed that black workers earn six times less than their white counterparts. Others, however, unleashed a tirade of inflammatory criticism and personal abuse that suggested attitudes no less stagnant.

"I tell you who benefited from apartheid, it was blacks," wrote Facebook user Margarita Barnard. "I wish blacks would give whites apartheid. And I will tell you why I say this. Whites came to a country where there was nothing, just some black tribes living in mud huts killing each other. No roads no infrastructure no South Africa even. Blacks were always dying from famines when there were droughts, from tsetse fly [sleeping sickness], from yellow fever, malaria, name it they died in droves."

She continued: "They had no doctors, no writing, no schools no hospitals no roads, and worst of all and something which probably cause more deaths than the rest, no sewage system. Whites came and provided all those at the expense of whites, white know how gave blacks everything they take for granted today. Like clothes, pens, computers, everything of a billion things it needs to create a civilization. BUT whites couldn't civilise them, so apartheid was necessary to keep whites alive."

Another objector, Francois DeWet, posted: "Get me a dictionary or something that shows me how black Africans could be taught in their own languages subjects like maths, science and biology. Simple, you cannot teach in a language that does not have the terminology to do so. We didn't place restrictions on the development of their languages and simply had to find another way to give them a start in live. So, alternative mediums were introduced to accommodate the lack of terminology, and they went apeshit!!"

Alan Marsden wrote: "Is there a punchline to this joke? The fact that like all colonial powers we found a race entrenched in the iron age and lifted them out of it with technology, medicine and education does not count? ... No, I don't feel guilty. In fact I am well annoyed that what we built has gone to wrack and ruin in incapable hands (allegedly the fault of apartheid, even though most of Africa STILL live in the iron age, and apparently like it)."

Such was the hostility on one website that Young's collaborator, Leonard Shapiro, was moved to comment: "It is very seldom that I come across a chat room with so many people full of bitterness and fear."

Young, 40, has also been dismayed by the backlash that has included hate mail, mostly from South African migrants in Britain or Australia. "It's been quite rough," he said. "There was a guy in the UK saying 'You don't know what you're talking about and all the people are going to die.' I got conspiracies on Facebook saying the government is collaborating with China to carry out a white genocide.

"The comments have said the time for white guilt is over. I don't think guilt is helpful but it's really not what this is about. For me it's an economic issue."

He refuses to believe, however, that his spontaneous campaign has exposed something ugly in a generic white psyche. "I think it's a small but vocal minority. You've got people up against the wall who don't understand what's happening."

But he warned: "There are people who say, 'I lived under apartheid but I didn't support it.' I think we are looking in some communities at a form of denialism down the road. Denialism is a big danger in the future."

White identity in post-apartheid South Africa is the subject of books, public debates and cartoons such as Jonathan Shapiro's Whites who never benefitted from apartheid – a blank space. The political satirist, who works under the name Zapiro, said: "It evoked many vindictive and nasty responses from white people. I think it scratched a wound that is still open. There are some white people who still don't quite understand how brutal a transition we could have had, and how brutal a transition other countries have had."

Zapiro welcomed the T-shirt initiative. "Every white person, no matter how committed to the anti-apartheid struggle, benefited from apartheid," he said. "Anything that shows some people are aware of how much we benefited would be good."

Comment: If you read just about any forum where white South Africans comment on race and racism you are likely to find views that are truly despicable to the extent that they are steeped in racist denial and just plain ignorance.

I think the nonsense that whites are made to feel guilty by any discussion of what apartheid was and what its legacy today is a result of the character of the transition from white to majority rule.

Mandela and company are in large part to be blamed for the nature of the transition from apartheid.  Twenty-five or so years ago the movement toward abandoning apartheid carried with it the manufactured sense that confronting the past had to be a political process.

It is out of this myopic view that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set aside to find a truth about the past inside of a manifest pathway toward reconcilement.

In effect the TRC was a manner of asserting a state-centric logic about the past and its future implications. State succession was the primary reason for avoiding a larger confrontation - in other words the transition was driven by political expediency.

What came out of the TRC was an uneven and incomplete confrontation. A few small players here and there were implicated for apartheid atrocities and in keeping with the United Nations position, the TRC defined apartheid as a crime against humanity.

All good and well but why are we still stuck here.

We are stuck here because there needs to be a larger confrontation and one that must be framed in the national life of what it means to be a South African.

As much as this is a question of what makes up the character of a South African it is also a question aimed to hold all South Africans responsible for knowing where we come from.

The vast majority of whites - and the same is true for better off coloureds and Indians - are in denial about what apartheid means to the masses of impoverished black Africans.

For these folks it is more convenient to trot out all the wrongdoings of the ANC government and to blame the President and his cabinet for the structural inequities that persist.

Though there is ample reason to hold the current government responsible for service delivery issues, corruption, and infrustructural decay, the truth about South Africa's precarious condition is largely defined by hundreds of years of racist subjugation.

Its further precariousness is characterized by its marginality in the global scheme of power (both economic and political), but this is not a unique position that can be conveniently uncoupled from the racial character of global capitalism anyway.

In these terms it is necessary for all South Africans to think about what it means to be South African; our privileges and responsibilities.

This T-shirt row is but momentary theater. But it does point to a larger ill in the nation's psyche - if we can even be called a nation.

And this is my point overall, there really is nothing else that binds South Africans together other than our oppressive past.

We are South African because of colonialism and we are a post-apartheid state because of apartheid.

Apartheid continues under a different guise and it is necessary for a fuller confrontation that also takes into consideration the socio-psychological impairment, or disfigurement, of racism

Inside of that continuum whites of all generations have a need, and a pressing one, to confront their past and to ask tough structural questions about what the substance of whiteness means in the post nation.

The same is true for varying reasons for other populations groups.

This confrontation cannot happen inside the halls of the state but it must be promoted as an ongoing process of nation building nonetheless.

As of this writing any conversation about whites benefiting from apartheid boils down to accusations about black incompetence and thievery and it gets plain ugly and absolutely racist (particularly online where a large number of white expats troll South African news forums and offer racist comments of the character of blackness and the failure of the post-apartheid state).

Take a look at the comments underneath this coverage of the T-shirt saga at South Africa's own Mail & Guardian ("Get apartheid on your chest", November 16).  If you thought we have moved ahead - be prepared to be dismayed.

Leonard Shapiro and Roger Young printed the T-Shirts (Credit)
Though white South Africans cannot be uniformly lumped together just by what appears in the comments section anywhere, my gut feeling is that the negativity portrayed there is not too far from where the majority stand on taking responsibility for their apartheid derived privileges.

It is also fair to note that there are comments from white South Africans that understand the need to take responsibility for the apartheid past if even just to resist from making denigrating statements about blacks.

And we are not free.


No comments: