(Re)defining our terms

Every now and then my sons come home from school with a new word. Usually it is a word I know but they are clearly using it in a new way. Sometimes I pick up the meaning from the context but often I have to ask (clearly I am getting old)! Most times the explanations are quite amusing!

South Africans are also (re)developing language to help us negotiate the process of becoming a new and beautiful nation. New words are being coined and old words are being retooled to help us engage around serious issues. Whether it is the hair and language policies at schools (think San Souci), the protests at our Universities (think #feesmustfall), or the discriminatory language and comments on social media (think Penny Sparrow et al), we all need to know how to engage constructively with each other. We need to understand what others are saying.

In this article I try not to take a position on the words (issues) themselves. I hope this article will help to prepare us for meaningful engagement when the issues are raised.

Four important terms
1. Rainbowism
Archbishop Desmond Tutu christened us “the Rainbow Nation”. We were lauded for a non-violent transition into democracy and Nelson Mandela became an icon of peace and reconciliation. The dream was glorious: a united nation made up of many different races and languages despite our torrid past. In 1994 we were full of hope.

A quarter of a century on the once-hoped-for racial utopia is still a dream. Over time people have become jaded, disappointed, frustrated and angry. The government has worked hard (and had much success) in overcoming the backlog of housing, service delivery, and quality education that they inherited. But the promise of “a better life for all” is not the daily experience of many people.

Rainbowism is the thin (and sometimes non-existent) veneer covering the reality of the slow progress towards breaking down the legacy of apartheid. It is a pair of glasses, still rose-tinted with the 1994 dream of the rainbow nation. The TRC and a 1995 Rugby World Cup win were never going to be enough to heal a nation! Rainbowism is the candy-coated myth that we are all equal, that racial reconciliation has happened, and that South Africa is truly united.

In reality the long shadow of apartheid still looms over South Africa.

2. The decolonisation project
Back in 1652 Jan van Riebeek parked the Dromedaris in view of Table Mountain. From 1652-1662 he took charge of developing and supplying a way-station for ships on their way to India. It was only a matter of time before the self-proclaimed (Dutch) colonial authority started allocating land to the settlers.

It was not just that van Riebeek and his fellow Hollanders (followed by the British 150 year later) took land – which they did. But they also imposed their customs, institutions, languages and cultures on those they found in deepest darkest Africa.

“So, when black people speak of decolonisation, they mean far more than the democratic freedom they won in 1994. Decolonisation in our context means ridding South Africa of its institutional whiteness, the remaining effect of the colonisation that ended officially in 1961. Because, when South Africa attained its independence from Britain, it was a hollow victory for black South Africans who still had to endure another 33 years of white rule in SA — and who knows how many more years of white economic power.”

Decolonisation is not about removing all colonial vestiges from African culture – that is impossible because they are too deeply intertwined. Colonialism allowed the “few” to have power over the “many”. These “few” had the power to determine the structure of society, the recorded historical narrative, the content of learning, the language of learning, and the distribution of land (for example). Decolonisation is about resisting and reforming and (where necessary) rewriting these realities by the “many”.

It is not just about removing the Cecil John Rhodes statue or changing a university curriculum. More foundationally it is about restoring the dignity, respect and self-worth of those who were robbed of these things by the stranglehold of apartheid. “It is… about establishing a new frame of reference, one that better reflects who we really are as a nation.” It is first a psychological project before is it a physical project. It is first the mind that needs to be decolonised!

3. White privilege
White privilege describes the benefits, advantages and pleasures that a white person enjoys because they were born with white skin in South Africa. This ‘privilege’ is contrasted with what is commonly experienced by people born with non-white skin in South Africa. Admittedly, the term makes a generalisation about the white race group, and clearly there are different degrees to which white people benefit, but all benefited in some ways.

Some white people are in denial about white privilege. The most powerful statement I know that can arrest a white person out of their denial is this: If all you know about black people is that you would not want to be one, then you know enough. Ponder this statement before you deny the existence of white privilege.

Verashni Pillay explains is well in her Mail and Guardian article, 6 things White people have that Black people don’t:
1. Generational wealth – property, money, business, cars that give a head start in life
2. Social capital – the resource of family and friends who can give you a leg up (it’s not what you know it’s who you know)
3. Early childhood development – quality of education, food, development resources
4. The benefit of the doubt – treated with suspicion for walking in a white area, not getting second class service at a restaurant, denies access to a swimming school cause of your surname, or not having people joke about the fact you can’t swim and you love chicken.
5. A financial head-start – not starting life with huge car and student loans repayments.
6. Self-sufficient parents – parents who have retirement funds so that you don’t have to support them completely.

Of course, not all these things are true of all white people. The point is not the things that don’t apply to a white person, but the things that do. Nor is the point that a white person “worked hard to get where I am”. The point is that a black person expending their best effort would never get to where a white person would get, having expended the same effort.

It is not that the people of South Africa do not want to “move on”, but it is all a pretence unless there is acknowledgement, conversations and different forms of restitution.

4. Structural Violence
“Structural” used in this sense is not necessarily a material thing. It is an observable and regular human social activity that has become firmly entrenched in a society (e.g. social relations, economic arrangements, or the practices of institutions). It can also have material manifestations in the form of roads, buildings, electricity and sewer systems etc. These structures are the outcome of long histories of political, social and economic struggle.

Putting “violence” after the word “structural” concentrates the term on the suffering, injustice, and threat to life caused by these structures. The same “structures” that render life pleasurable, convenient, and secure for one group may leave it insecure, hard and threatening for another.

Structural violence is subtle, often invisible, and frequently has no one specific person who can (or will) be held responsible (in contrast to behavioural violence) A few general examples in South Africa would be: infrastructure of and access to schools, infrastructure of and access to hospitals, distribution of and treatment by police, and access to and dependability of transportation systems.

A particular example would be the death of Sinoxolo Mafevuka in a leaking communal toilet earlier this year in Khayelitsha . Her death was directly related to the structural issue of the provision of sewage, and indirectly related to the structural issues of policing, housing, and gangsterism. The behavioural violence of one man killed her, but he alone is not responsible for her death! The structural violence in post apartheid South Africa killed her.

If you call South Africa your home (even if temporarily), you would do well to ponder these matters so that you are informed and able to engage constructively in conversation.

Categories: Blog