The debt white South Africans owe

THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN CITY PRESS  22 DECEMBER 2013

Answering Mondli: do whites owe a debt?

Mondli Makhanya (City Press 15 December) suggests that white South Africans owe a debt to Nelson Mandela, to be repaid by “embracing that for which he sacrificed his life”

I agree, and disagree.

I don’t like the idea of a debt. It suggests a payment that is forced, that benefits only the creditor, that will come to an end. An embrace is not a one-off. Once we choose to embrace freedom – I prefer that word to transformation – it will be for the rest of our lives. The beneficiaries will be ourselves.

Our 10 days of mourning showed the world a country forever changed.  More important than the world, it showed us who we are now, and who we can aspire to be. How do we whites join the tough process of making our 10-day country an everyday country?

I have to say I am reluctant to be addressed as, or speak on behalf of “whites”. White people are no more of a homogeneous group than black people, even in South Africa.

White diversity of thought is probably greater now than it ever has been. I remember when there were only 2 television channels, and everyone watched more or less the same thing until the National Anthem played, and the flag was lowered on TV screens across the country. When much of our reading matter was censored, and the government wrote Current Affairs, which we listened to on the radio every morning in the days before television, which only came to SA  in 1976.

Nevertheless, we are not just individuals. We are also a group, with some habits to lose, some to gain, some to keep. The first habit we could lose is that of contempt. Unfortunately this is hard-wired into Anglo-Saxon language and thought-patterns: you get more points for wit than for loyalty, every time. But language-arrogance is often experienced as race-arrogance. Not the English looking down on everyone, including other English-speakers, but the English looking down on black people. This is fuelled by the contemptuous tones in which we discuss everything from non-functioning robots to interpreters.

Language and respect are intertwined. Why do we English delight in an accent which is Irish, French, or Geordie, and look down on the many Englishes spoken in South Africa? This matters, because when we are contemptuous, we don’t listen. And we lose out.

If we listen respectfully, we might even do a better job of pronouncing people’s names. Too many black South Africans are still addressed, even known, only by their first names. We have to listen, try, get it wrong, laugh at our inept tongues, persevere. (Remember, there is research which shows that people who are multiple-language-fluent are less likely to suffer dementia.)

We also need to listen respectfully to other people’s heritage. Poppy Day is an important celebration for many English South Africans, even though those wars were over more than 50 years ago. Afrikaans South Africans still remember concentration camps from more than 100 years ago. Why should other people be expected to forget the dreadful things done to them, because a mere 20 years have passed?

Heritage is not only negative. I look at the world-famous South African queues, to vote or to pay respects to a corpse, and I smile a greeting to my English heritage of orderly queueing, which surely contributed to this. But then I also need to acknowledge Harry Smith and his men, shooting King Hintsa and defacing his corpse.

Could we develop a nuanced, respectful public discussion that acknowledged heritage in all its light and shadow? The art and civil order of the city-states that existed in SA before the whites arrived, as well as the economic, physical, judicial, political infrastructure which is what it is because of colonists who stayed?

If we embrace freedom, for ourselves and everyone else, we will embrace complexity. This we need to do for our language, history, present existence. We also need to do it for Nelson Mandela.

Here, Mondli Makhanya’s warning is well taken. An icon is two-dimensional. Whites who laid flowers will have to work hard to avoid trapping Nelson Mandela in a Father Christmas suit and leaving him on the mantlepiece. We need to acknowledge the Freedom Fighter, the man whose blood was surely green, black and gold. The headstrong individual who started the armed struggle against the wishes of his party, and stopped it against the wishes of his party. The elder who both supported and changed tradition. Then we have to live up to that complexity.

Dr Gillian Godsell teaches at the Wits Graduate School of Public and Development Management