By Zusipe Batyi
White people’s, via the power of whiteness, implicitly racist attitude towards black people, that we’re less human and therefore deserving to be treated as things, mere objects to be disdained, did not end in 1994. Instead, the dawn of democracy, on reflection, was a sugar coating transition exercise in our understanding of how whiteness pervades. The negotiated settlement focused on peace, which was needed, but initial attempts at socioeconomic justice weren’t sustained. And the link between our society’s need for racism through the power of whiteness and how it protects unequal wealth has never been effectively addressed.
Although South Africa’s negotiated settlement remains a major achievement of South Africa’s transition, and is validly still heralded by many, what has become more and more urgent and apparent is how 1994 was but only one step toward a more just society for all. A right to vote with a right to a dignified quality of life.
Yet because of the wealth inequality and wealth concentration landscape, the power of the economy remains largely white. And any restorative or redistributive agenda, such as it is, is set by the power that whiteness holds over us. In doing so it, by default, will not address the structures and hierarchies of society that works for the status quo, that allows for wealth and income to be as skew and unjust as it is. It will address racism’s role in the vastly unequal landscape as much as a mob boss would be willing to be honest about fair betting.
This superiority mentality surfaces frequently, like in the recent video by Adam Catzavelos who, even while on holiday, took time out of his day to be overtly and actively racist and then still record himself shows the freedom, the unencumbered nature of his disposition on race. One could even argue that it doesn’t even surface, the superiority of whiteness is baked into the fabric of society, Catselvalos’s slur merely a very overt and violent manifestation of the superiority complex. As is the example of a white woman calling a black woman a monkey at Clicks store in Pretoria. And Vicky Momberg. And many more that go unnoticed in the larger purview, felt in the daily microagressions and assaults done in the name of whiteness and its immense privilege. The ongoing insults of black people by white people – and non-black persons of colour – in South Africa highlights deeply rooted racism.
What has given life to this arrogance and impudence by whiteness is their position in the socio-economic pyramid in relation to black people. Their generational fallacy of black people being subordinates and insignificant is the result of where white people have placed themselves through colonialism and Apartheid. Therefore, as self-proclaimed ‘masters’ they feel entitled to say and do whatever to their ‘servants’ without being held accountable. Notwithstanding the progressive court case of Vicki Momberg when she was sentenced to three years for her racist tirade, rooting out racism cannot be the responsibility of the courts alone. Racism is a socio-economic-political problem and must be tackled as such because it stems from power dynamics and power structures, it stems from the foundations of our society
Having said this, my problem is not solely with the arrogance of white people. My concern is the environment in which this has been allowed to breathe and exist. In this regard, the current black led government has not done enough to end the treatment of black people as sub-humans. Black people continue to be criminalised and treated with indignity. The Marikana massacre is just one example of many. The killing of the miners was about the protection of a capitalist system that continues to exploit black people. Black people in particular, in the mining sector work under poor conditions while mine owners -black and white – continue to maximise profits. The struggle for human dignity is not only against white supremacy and whiteness but also against the current government’s failure of policy and credible governance. The government’s failure to fast-track the process of redistribution of wealth in the country preserves white supremacy and the comfort of white people at our expense. Now that political power rests in the hand of the black majority, and has done so far many years, why are we as a nation still comfortable with black people dying in poverty, of black learners drowning in pit latrines, of black women earning significantly less than not only their male counterparts but also their white female peers?
For meaningful change to occur it is necessary that white supremacy and comfort is disrupted, and then to be dismantled. White people today certainly didn’t draw up the grand plans of colonialism and apartheid. But they are its direct inheritors. And as with any inheritance, there is a sizable gift that comes with it. To address white supremacy and then dismantle it, we can create a South Africa based on real equality, human dignity and equal opportunities. Not a faux freedom scenario where the majority of black people – thus the majority of South Africans – sit outside looking in, too hungry, too poor, too far outside the gates of privilege, through no fault of their own. Along whiteness’s insidious power, the current government must stop tip toeing around symptoms and go directly to the root of racism. And also take a deep look at itself in what it has allowed to transpire in the shape of corruption under their watch. The country cannot continue to preach reconciliation while black people remain humiliated and treated as objects of labour. Expecting reconciliation to precede justice is a way to incentivise injustice. Until real justice is won, we will be talking about the likes of Adam Catzavelos in the next 20 years.
Zusipe Batyi is the communications assistant at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. He has a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Journalism and Media Studies from Rhodes University.