To understand privilege, look at the way it has built up over centurie

21May 2020
The Guardian
To understand privilege, look at the way it has built up over centurie

John Steenhuisen, Helen Zille, Gareth Cliff, Dean Macpherson. These are among key figures in the last stand of white dominance and control in South Africa, and they have the South African Institute of Race Relations, and for the most-part, AfriForum, in their corner.

By Ismail Lagardien

I don’t say that lightly. Let me be clear: I do not advocate pogroms, rapine and the politics of revenge. I will never prevent people from speaking their mind, or place any limits on press freedom. Some arriviste journalists may well look at what we endured when fighting for a free press in the 1980s, while they were going to private or whites-only schools in Pinelands or Rosebank, in Johannesburg. But some things need to be said.

One of the things I avoid when writing commentary, opinion or analyses is getting personal with individuals – unless of course, they are windbag politicians. When I do criticise public intellectuals, I tend to focus on the substance of what individuals may say. One exception that comes to mind was a somewhat personal criticism of Peter Bruce I wrote four or five years ago. It was probably wrong, and I may have apologised to him (I haven’t seen Bruce in a number of years, but I’m sure he will forgive the Roy Keane-esque red mist that descended on me), but the issues of inequality, poverty and privilege are fairly central to what inspired me as a journalist, as well as my journeys in and out of academia.

One of the things I do in fact do when I write, is follow the age-old essayist method, where you weave your own or subjective stories in and out of the subject you are writing about. Even the most junior of reporters may be forgiven for doing it. For instance, a reporter can write that “there was a horrific crash on the corner of Fifth and Vermouth”. By inserting “horrific” the reporter is being subjective because the crash may not have been “horrific” to other people.

Anyway, purely by accident, while I was in New York City in December 1982, I was “allowed” into an apartment and dinner, and later a famous watering hole, with a group of writers who represented what was referred to as the New Journalism. This is one of those occasions when I will not tell you who was there, because you will not believe me. Looking back, I can barely believe it myself. I was terribly young, and working at two or three jobs while learning the basics of reporting. Nonetheless, I promised myself all those years ago that someday, I would write like Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Joseph Heller, Truman Capote, James Breslin, Norman Mailer…. Alas, it never came to be. I would grind away at journalism and photo-journalism for almost 15 years, and then went out into the world to keep a promise I made myself when I was 14 years old, living in Eldorado Park, and seeing grown men working as labourers, piece workers, or being unemployed and “unemployable”. Now let us fast forward to the present.

The horrors of race and identity politics notwithstanding…

Set aside everything I wrote above. It has to do with method. The politics of race, racial politics – especially identity politics – is difficult to avoid in South Africa. Into this has slipped concepts of privilege – especially white privilege. I tend to avoid writing directly about these things because it serves as kindling for a fire that can wreak untold destruction on society. We need to look, only, at Nazi Germany, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda or apartheid to get a sense of the degrees of horror that identity politics can cause.

I do, however, want to address three things in this essay. The first is the rubbish called “reverse racism”. Being called out for enjoying centuries of vertically segmented privilege is not racism, nor is it bullying. The following would be “reverse racism”: Africans go to Europe, destroy or supplant all indigenous cultures, on the basis that they are inferior, force Europeans to adopt African cultures, and create a sliding scale of savagery. Africans are at the top, they’re civilised, and as you go down the scale, Greeks, Italians, French and Germans etc are increasingly barbaric, savage, and need to be controlled for, say, 500 years. That would be “reverse racism”.

The second is “white privilege”. This is the privilege that the likes of Steenhuisen, Zille and fellow travellers of the alt-right don’t or won’t get. It is what may be described as vertically segmented privilege. Consider what scientists call an “ice core” drill. It drills into, say, an ice bed, and emerges as a cylinder that shows how snow, soil or volcanic ash (among others) is layered over time. Each layer accumulated over time provides chemical signatures, one on top of the other, and provides insight into how the Earth’s crust, or a glacier has built up over time.

I will refrain from using abstruse sociological terms, but if, for instance, you want to know how something, like a language, came to be at a given time, you would benefit from knowing how it built up over time. The “ice core” example is adequate as an analogy. So, the way I see it, the concern is not with Zille’s current forms of privilege, it is – as an “ice core” of South Africa society may show – the way that social changes, positions of dominance, control, destruction, building and rebuilding have occurred over time, and how privilege has been piled up, one layer after the other over hundreds of years. This may help explain what privilege looks like today.

Importantly, it is significantly different from the privilege that I have, today. After working for four decades, I saved enough to buy a piece of land in a secluded seaside village, and built a house. As far as I know, there are very few people (if any) in my immediate family who have achieved that. I also worked for 15 years to save money, got scholarships, and went to university. Again, nobody else in my family, going back 350 years, managed that. Remember, “non-whites” were restricted from going to university. I studied abroad. What we do have in our “ice core” is slavery, misery, poverty, forced removals, oppression, injustice apartheid, and now the ANC’s reproduction of apartheid’s racial preference scheme built up. That, in my mind, is what it means to be (deeply) under-privileged.

Sure, there are exceptions. Consider this example. A fair-skinned kid, his father is a multi-millionaire, and the boy gets to go to a good school, is sent to Oxbridge, he works hard, and emerges from it all a well-rounded fellow with a PhD. Now that, you may agree, dear reader, is privilege. The kid’s name is Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. (I am sure, that with a name like “Sizwe,” and with “Mpofu” in his name means he is not a second-class citizen like the rest of us coloureds). But as a general proposition, there is no evidence of embedded privilege in the “ice-core” of his father, Christopher Mpofu’s family. Right here, right now, we have to work damn hard to build up privilege over generations.

The third thing is something akin to a defence of John Steenhuisen. There is a vile attempt to smear Steenhuisen because he did not go to university. This is cheap and petty. Those who criticise Steenhuisen for his “lack of education” may want to visit the backbenches of the ANC, and look at the lack of education of people who earn about R1-million as members of Parliament, and maybe another R1-million for constituency work. Very many of those people have no university education, have never participated in debates or committee work, and you would be hard-pressed to find evidence of “constituency work”. But I guess that would be asking for honesty, integrity, and large measures of cogitation.

I conclude then, with the admission that “race” and “white privilege” are things I try not to discuss or write about. There are people who are better qualified at it. But there are some things that ought to be said. I just figured that I would raise my head above the parapet, and take the criticism – it can’t be worse than what we went through in the 1980s, when some of the most vocal types – from Gareth Cliff to his acolytes in the media – were reaping the benefits of three centuries of privilege stacked in layers, one upon the other, all of which can be seen in the analogue of the ice core of vertically segmented privilege. Did I mention that I hate the politics of race, rapine, and of revenge?

Agencies

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