Wikipedia says Federal headship “refers to the representation of a group united under a federation or covenant. For example, a country’s president may be seen as the federal head of their nation, representing and speaking on its behalf before the rest of the world.”
If the leader of country A goes to war with the leader of country B, the countries’ respective citizens are technically at war against one another. Not everyone in those countries will agree, but their individual actions, treasons, sacrifices and sentiments do not quash the framework in which they’re acting.
For centuries, various black tribes had been merging and warring on this southern tip of Africa. Their descendants are still vaguely implicated in those scuffles today. Why do I say, “vaguely”? Because in the 1600s, something came along next to which all those tribal battles paled into insignificance.
The groups of white people coming to this piece of land had wildly different reasons for doing so, many of them quite harmless. Later, Indian, Malay and other people would also appear. But one narrative gradually and overwhelmingly dominated this coming-and-going: it was decided by European colonialists that white people were better than everyone else; that God had created this part of the continent for them.
Some white people agreed, some didn’t, but the “government” had the resources to enforce this paradigm on behalf of all white people, including those who bucked the trend or eschewed the benefits. Enough white people agreed that this idea was enforceable to override those who didn’t.
Their primary explanation for white success (as and when it appeared) wouldn’t be “systemic oppression and exploitation of others” but “we work hard, we’re Christian and we give back,” which is only half the story. The colonialists and the architects of apartheid took this second motif and used it to justify the brutal war they had declared on black people.
When white people increasingly became aware of what was wrong with the system, the tide turned against the government. With that, the explanations for white success shattered into a thousand different stories because nobody wanted to be complicit in what the government had been doing. These new stories were, “My dad worked hard and nobody gave him anything” but nobody understood that Dad was able to get the job he did because of the colour of his skin. In fact, Dad was able to build his own business from scratch because the government would not confiscate the land or other resources from him. Because skin colour.
“I stayed up nights and worked for my degree, took out a loan and started a business that didn’t show profits until 10 years later; I hung on in there.” “We planned well. We made smart decisions, a few dumb ones. We delayed gratification.” These are the stories we hear. But to the extent that they minimise the role of the old government or its effect on black people, they’re partial stories.
Now we have a problem: the apartheid state did not support anyone. Many white people deny that it put them at a grossly unfair advantage that would take years to address. Many black people say it did nothing for them unless it anticipated a return on its investment in the form of exploitable subservient labour for white voters, who’d then perpetuate of the status quo. It also did just enough to keep black people alive to scare white people (“swart gevaar”) so that enough of those white people would vote for the same party. A lot like what today’s government does. So talk of, “But such-and-such services worked in townships under apartheid” ignore the purpose for which the State kept those things working in black townships. And, the State literally worked around the clock to undermine black people’s efforts to empower themselves and systemically taught black people – especially fathers and men – to destroy themselves and those who depended on them by psychologically breaking them. So the number of people who admit benefiting from this government remains so small it is as though apartheid never was.
The ANC discovered that as long as the explanation for inequality and white wealth had more elements of “we worked for it and are entitled to it” than elements of “we’re benefitting from a system our ancestors implicated us in,” they’d never have serious political competition. The people on the ground could never unite to form one big enough.
If nobody ever benefitted that much under apartheid, then the explanations for inequality cannot be consolidated. This is because most white people are so busy going on with their lives they cannot stop to make the connection between everything they have and their implication in a racial war that was declared centuries before they were born. They did not figure that Eurocentric colonialism could not be compared to, and wholly eclipsed, any other minor tribal scuffle that had been happening in those colonies or among white people-groups.
They do not see how that life just goes on for many white people is a stunning blow to many black people.
As a black man, I have gained nothing from black-on-black pre-colonial battles except the genes in my blood. Everything my family has, it earned under colonial governments and apartheid by being useful to the systems set up by those regimes. The alternative was dying. And that’s how millions of black people have stayed alive to this day. Most white people acknowledge stories about their individual ancestors’ honest work without acknowledging that it was off the back of their governments’ systemic undermining of black people.
Conrad Koch writes, “Racial categories may be false, but their impact on people’s lives is not – kind of like the Kardashians: fake, but powerful.” Any plan for helping society advance has to pass through the filter of the past and take into account the impact of old, fake-but-powerful categorisations nobody asked to be lumped into but nonetheless was affected by. “This is not to say white South Africans are evil or to blame, merely that the Rainbow Nation narrative often helped cover up inequality, in some ways pro-longing socio-political breakdown rather then fixing it. To put it simply, just because you didn’t order the apartheid pizza, doesn’t mean you didn’t eat. Our legacy didn’t vanish.”
That’s why most black people merely hate the ANC but truly abhor the DA. The ANC implemented BEE to help put black people on a sound platform much like the previous government had been doing for white people, but it didn’t ensure that this actually benefitted people on the ground. It didn’t have to.
For as long as some white people kept rubbing the, “we worked but you ask for handouts and free things and special treatment just after abolishing the fake-but-powerful racial categories” rhetoric in black people’s faces, calling affirmative action “reverse apartheid” as though real apartheid had been that mild, all black people could hear was mostly, well, racism.
This, because few white people openly identified with the previous regime and admitted they’d benefitted from its wrongs. If the admission of the wrongs is minimised and life just goes on, and the charge that black people are asking for handouts is not balanced by the admission that the previous government took from them before to give to black people, then it is just…racism.
What happened within Europe among European nations, or here among white peoples, has not impacted the structures we all live in at the scale, depth and for the duration that systemic white-on-others oppression has. Their Federal Heads – history’s Rhodes, Verwoerds and European empires – made it so. Everything else almost pales into insignificance. Today, some appeal to their individual non-racism in the same breath they urge black people to rise above their victim mentality, or try to put other examples of oppression and expansion at the same level. They cannot grasp how the scale and pervasiveness of this oppression surpasses every other expression of oppression it could have been compared to because to grasp it, they’d have to see how its implications reach to and benefit them now, right now, as life goes on, in ways that the other historic battles don’t.
With the citizens this divided, members of the ruling party can enrich themselves by using white people’s inability to come to terms with how they benefitted from the previous party as impetus for black people to seek ideological solutions instead of practical ones. To whatever extent the explanation for inequality is distanced from the violence of the previous government and colonialism, and more closely aligned to “fair” factors like “hard work,” the explanation for inequality can only sound like white supremacy and not history. That’s an ideological explanation and will keep us all trapped in at ideological catch-22s.
As long as white people couple the self-sufficient “logic” of working for everything they have with their distancing themselves from the violence perpetrated by the colonialism and apartheid on their behalf, for black people, agreeing with their logic would be denying that former oppression played the role it played in enriching them and impoverishing black people. The two feed off of each other.
The only remaining explanation is that white people are inherently better. For black people to accept that “simple hard work will get you there, no excuses” is for them to deny that the playing field has been skewed for those who are now giving them pep talks.
This is why ANC apologists can boldly say that the punishment we’re getting from the “neoliberal markets” for our terrible economic decisions is simply another expression of Afro-pessimism, racism and the denial of former exploitation.
When s**t hits the fan, the ANC will crescendo its ideological explanation for its terrible decision-making into a flat-out accusation that white people never came to the table with reconciliation in good faith in the first place. Black people will take one look at the online comments’ section and believe the government.
Supremacy. Denial. Entitlement. White people cannot passively hate these expressions of racism but must fight them like their lives depend on it. Because one of these days they may find that the “right to have an opinion” comes at a cost because it is the right to rewrite and recast history while getting away with the spoils of another version of it, the very version that is being minimised or denied.
The sudden appearance of “non-racialism” feeds many white people the lie that because they hate injustice, they’re not implicated in what happened before 1994. “Do not assume you know what’s happening inside me,” many have told me. Others ask, “How do we move forward?” Some say, “Let’s leave the past in the past.” But what’s happening inside people is not as relevant as we would like it to be, we can’t move forward because black people were left behind while white people were being put forward for 350 years, and white people can’t and won’t leave the gains of the past, both tangible and intangible, in the past.
It wouldn’t take rocket science to save our country. But no conceivable solution will take root and work until white supremacy is acknowledged and dealt with. I have defined white supremacy as the remaining explanation for white success once past violence and black oppression are minimised and life just goes on today.
This is something I believe only white people can lead one another on.
If they don’t, and no solution saves South Africa, I imagine that many black people will clear white supremacy away for them.
Siya Khumalo blogs about religion, politics and sex; he has also written a book (#TheUnveiledFacesProject coming soon).
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