As a blogger, I know when I cannot do a topic justice and what’s been happening in South Africa probably defies any skill I may have with words. Still, we ought to talk.
A lot of Facebook commenters have proposed very “reasonable” alternatives to student protesting. Many have pointed out that when they were in varsity, they worked hard to pay for tuition and in some cases are still working to pay off student debt.
And of course, they’ve said that all it would take to resolve all of this is for the black voting majority to vote for a party better than the ANC. I share that sentiment because if we had a better ruling party, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Which leads me to my next question: wouldn’t it be great if black South Africans had the choice of a party better than the ANC?
On many fronts, the ANC’s track record of uplifting black people’s lives sucks, hard. But depending on what you’re looking for as a voter, it could very well be the best party there is. So you vote ANC because as selfish and cowardly as many of its once-courageous leaders have become, they share something with black people that members of, say, the DA, have been tone-deaf to.
[And the fact that someone once worked three jobs to pay for his tuition doesn’t take away the possibility that his tuition fees could have been that high because of corporate greed or factors that he’d been sheltered from and neglected to question and stand up against. That some people assent to slavery doesn’t make slavery right; on the contrary, it causes me to question the value of the education they received — but that’s a whole different show.]
The ANC understands what these students are doing and why they’re doing it better than anyone else does. Struggle stalwarts know what it’s like to be misunderstood and have nothing to resort to other than spectacular disruption. Everyone who proposes a “reasonable” alternative to disruption was not in the room when every other option was taken away: therefore, voting for another party is not one of those alternatives. The people voting or advocating for those parties have no idea what they’re talking about. They weren’t in the room.
Most white people don’t know this room exists, by the way. Or if they know about it, their knowledge is academic, just as a straight person’s knowledge of homophobia can only be academic or second-hand. And that’s not enough. Privileged and nonprivileged can only see each other as human when they swap experiences, and that takes every fiber of our humanity. Everyone wants to be heard from the heart, and part of hearing is participating. In a piece she titled, Dipping In And Out, Tracey Lomax observed that
“Firstly, there was the CEO sleep-out, an event where wealthy businessmen slept out, one night, in sponsored sleeping bags, safe environments, with access to hot soup and manly companionship, in order to draw attention to the plight of the homeless. Millions of rands were collected, and many corporations drew tremendous positive publicity from the event. What struck me, however, was that it took the wealthy, largely white, largely male voices to drive this movement. Why was this? Why is the subject of poverty, of homelessness, unworthy of attention when it is spoken in voices whose accents are less Sandton, less private school? Less white.
Secondly, there was Jack Bloom’s book, 30 Days in a shack, which is also lauded as having exposed the dire consequences of poverty in South Africa. Because we couldn’t possibly have known about it, unless a white man told us.
White people have the privilege to be able to dip in and out of the reality of life for the majority of our country’s poor. We have the privilege to escape from the consequences of the society which, let’s face it, our forefathers created, with years of colonialism, followed by Apartheid. We have the privilege of either leaving, or of blocking it from our reality and refusing to see it, unless one of our own, like the aforesaid CEOs and Bloom, speak about it, and then we can make ourselves feel better by retweeting it, tut-tutting about it at book club, and donating part of the housekeeping to it.
We still define the narrative. We still determine the manner in which it will be spoken, and whether it will be regarded as serious, or as not worthy of attention. We need to address that, we need to ensure that our voices don’t drown out the voices of those who are directly affected by this, because, surely, their voices should be heard first?”
Lomax then points out the irony of using her voice as a white person to shout out about white people not using their voices to drown out other voices, but for me the fundamental point is that she gets it. Whether she’s been in the room or not, she’s listened and observed long enough and hard enough to gather that it’s very real.
Another reason many white people don’t know about the room is that they know it shouldn’t exist, and so assume that no evil in the world could have brought it into existence. That’s where they’re wrong. The NP sustained itself on the two pillars of white votes and black subjugation, so they should know. While many did make it their moral duty to find out and confront it, white people never had to know about that room.
The voices of a party is its constituency on the ground, and right now the DA as opposition party is being spoken for not by its leaders and spokesperson (and even if they are speaking, the only people listening to them are, well, people who’d listen to them! That’s their voters) but by people who vote for the DA. DA voters are the voice of the DA to everyone who doesn’t vote DA, and when the DA itself tries to speak to non-DA voters, it comes across as protecting the apartheid-borne interests and privileges of DA voters who’ve spoken for it on the ground already. The DA cannot help being perceived as avoiding the gut of the issue pointed out by black people. Black voters cannot distinguish between the racism of DA voters and the speeches of the DA; add to this that the speeches are prepared with a political end in sight and are “tone deaf,” and you’ll how it says something of black people’s profound interpersonal instinct that they’ve called bullshit. I learned this when the DA called Kohler-Barnard in for a disciplinary for her Facebook share but made Maimane party leader after his gay referendum gaffe.
So regardless of what the DA says, its voters are saying really patronizing things about the students and their protests. They delegitimize and trivialize black people’s struggle for equality, then wonder why black people aren’t convinced that they’d be taken seriously by their DA. So again, the DA is seen as protecting its voters’ right to delegitimize black people’s voices. When the DA says, “We don’t believe in racism and we wouldn’t bring back apartheid” what black people hear is, “We’ll protect and empower our voters’ on-going racism by pretending that apartheid is over when it’s still there in spirit. That way, you won’t have a word to describe and label the oppression as it happens.”
The leaders of the ANC have been in that room. They and their political demand for equality have been disrespected. They’ve stood where those protesting students and many black people have stood. ANC leaders probably know more about my experiences of being the butt of white people’s dehumanizing jokes about race than DA leaders do even if those leaders are black. Way I see it, some of those black DA leaders fit into the DA because they’re black. But they didn’t pull out because their Model-C accents and backgrounds have led to their being more sheltered than most black people. It’s black kids living in white privilege and taking everything the DA says at face value, and on some level it must cut them to the core that they agree so deeply with DA principles but are betrayed by the DA’s tone-deafness towards the exact nature of less privileged black people’s suffering.
That’s why so many black voters keep voting for the ANC. People who have not been in that room, have not had their access to “reasonable” and “proper” spaces, methods and paths systematically closed off — those people have no idea that the room even exists. So they can’t help pathologizing black pain and speaking down to black people. “Now children, if you just focus on your books and study hard…if you just vote for a different party…if you follow the correct channels…this will all go away.” And it would. But it won’t.
The discourse of non-racialism, these “reasonable” alternatives to protesting, have this in common: they arise from unconscious attempts of those who benefited from and were privileged by inequality, to shield their consciences from acknowledging that the systems that served them have in the past been aggressively unjust, violent and evil. The police shooting black students now are not behaving differently from police who shot black protesters in order to protect the white nirvana apartheid South Africa was meant to be. In the unconsciousness of our police force, black people are still vermin to be rid of, and white people are still people to be served and protected. That’s what those white kids were exposing when they formed a circle of protection around black protesters. White privilege is real, and those students were not afraid to face it. Unlike the real DA spokespersons, that is, most white people that non-DA voters come into contact with.
That so many people vote for the ANC is proof of this, for if there existed a party with members better acquainted with these black experiential truths, ANC voters would have most likely voted for that party. Who else is there? Would you like to see EFF in power? Is COPE coping? What has Agang built of itself? There is no one else, and DA voters are so busy telling black ANC voters how stupid they are that black ANC voters are only hearing the same thing they were told during apartheid. They see a vote for the DA as the legitimization of all these voices still going on about how stupid/emotional etc. black “sheeple” are. Those voices are much, much louder and heart-felt than DA rhetoric about nonracism and equality. The DA leaders’ words come off a script. The DA voters’ insults come from the heart. Guess who’s more believable?
The ANC’s best election campaigners are DA voters. The ANC doesn’t have to lift a finger to fix anything in order to win elections. All that has to happen is the majority of DA voters to keep talking to and about black people the way they’re doing, then add insult to injury by saying, “I’m not a racist.”
At the end of the day, what’s going to scatter the ANC’s voter base is white people responding thusly to black people’s pain: “We hear you.”
Then maybe, just maybe, more and more black people will be ready to leave that horrible room.
Siya Khumalo blogs about religion, politics and sex
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