A pandemic of whiteness

Andrew Donaldson says a terrible sickness has gripped our political and intellectual class

ARE you aware of this whiteness pandemic? It is on the march. Once it merely crept in a low sort of way, but now it is here, among us, its blanched head held high, full-blown and demanding recognition as an object of reproach. 

The whiteness should not be surprising: ours is not a nuanced world, but one destined, it seems, to be forever seen through a narrow racial prism. Whiteness, once relegated to the margins, is now back in the mainstream, a pox of our own making.

Those who paid attention to them would have noticed how, over time, politicians have recklessly flirted with whiteness. There has been grandstanding, and soapbox stuff about class, privilege, colonialism, European laws, being clever, even the very accents with which we spoke. And so the whiteness seemingly grew in insurmountability.

Even this week President Jacob Zuma was at it. In an interview with Bloomberg news agency, he admitted there was a “serious struggle” in trying to reduce unemployment and boost economic growth. This, naturally, was no fault of government’s. 

He declared the student protests were not an indication of any unhappiness with the ANC – God forbid – but rather part of demands to ensure that blacks gained equal access to an economy still dominated by whites.

Julius Malema, meanwhile, has been white-goating, too. First there came his oft-repeated accusation that the ANC was “in bed with white monopoly capital” and then the ultimatum to said white monopoly capital when the Economic Freedom Fighters dropped by the mostly white Johannesburg Stock Exchange. 

The JSE are reportedly working on a response to the EFF’s memorandum. It may take a while, for some of it is quite baffling: “Historically, businesses and corporations represented in the JSE played a role in the economic exclusion, suppression and subjugation of colonial and apartheid white supremacy.” This, arguably, is not often said of white capitalists.

Nowhere has the foregrounding of whiteness been as pronounced or as melodramatic as on our campuses, first with #RhodesMustFall and then #FeesMustFall. 

Regarding the former, readers will recall reports of University of Cape Town students not being able to breathe. This was not due to airborne human excrement but rather the “suffocating whiteness” of the place. So claimed associate professor Xolela Mangcu whose extreme misfortune it is to work in such an environment.

Fast-forward, then, to the invasion of the parliamentary precinct. There were two pivotal moments that day. One was Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s espression when he came out to address demonstrators with a non-viable megaphone. It said: “Dead man walking.” Little has changed. The tumbril waits.

More telling, however, was the call by black students for white students to form a human shield against what is commonly referred to as the public order police. This has thrown up much soul searching and navel gazing. 

For example, one Timothy Wolff-Piggott, a UCT master’s student, has revealed that he was in the vanguard of those breaching the precinct and has suggested that this was indeed a moment of some personal growth.

“As a white man living in South Africa,” he wrote in an online smug-burst, “I have no lived experience of racism. I have instead lived the constructed reality of white privilege, built on the back of black oppression. I no longer view my privilege as natural or benign. I am invested in seeing the reality of racial oppression and gross inequality as something that deeply implicates me and stunts my capacity for humanity.

“At the same time, I remain aware as far as I can of my situation within the construct of whiteness – inherently compromised by its material and psychological privilege – as well as how prone I am as a white person to act, unaware, in a way that plays out and perpetuates this privilege.”

Such suffering is by no means the preserve of white people. Recently political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi revealed that he, too, had it bad and was maybe close to death. 

“I am utterly exhausted and the end of my tether is nigh,” he wrote. “[Racism] has assumed a form and content that I have no doubt is making me sick physically, psychologically and emotionally. 

“On many occasions in the past two years, I have flirted quite aggressively with the idea of retiring from the race debate because it is no longer the racist who is the pariah. The pariahs are the ones who, like me, are supposedly race-obsessed when they try to show that colonial and apartheid racism has mutated into new, but by no means less virulent, strands of racism.”

Out there, in the wilderness, no more than a breath: “The whiteness! The whiteness!”

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.