Checking my white, white privilege

Andrew Donaldson writes on Panashe Chigumadzi's denunciation of unredeemed white minority


I HAVE been checking my privilege. Self-indulgent, perhaps, but it is a new year and some ubuntu-ward introspection may be in order. 

It has been a difficult process. “Privilege”, for those who’ve just landed on the planet, refers to the unearned advantages one enjoys as a member of a class or group that has more power than another class or group. 

The privileged, it is claimed, are very often unaware of their advantages but nevertheless strive to maintain their status. Take thin people. They don’t intentionally set out to oppress the alternatively bodied by being lithely out and about — and yet the very sight of them on the boulevards and in the malls can be offensive to those whose wardrobes are stuffed with stretchy pants. Such is the privilege of the slender. 

While the privileging of privilege, as it were, may then occur in an unconscious manner, there are those, the hard at woke, who rigorously draw attention to such insensitivity and follow through with well-intentioned remedial actions. Unfortunately, the self-righteous stridency and hectoring that comes with such behaviour can have a negative impact on the general mindfulness project.

And it is an enormous, wide-ranging project. Any “normative” behaviour or condition is of concern nowadays. Foolishly raise the matter of cervixes, for example, with the trans extremists and watch the faux fur fly. Summary cancellations are on the cards.  

In our neck of the woods, it is race or, more specifically, whiteness that is of concern. In my case, the advantage is certainly unearned, and the privilege, such as it is, indelible. 

Very, very few people are, in fact, whiter than me. I have, as mentioned, been checking up on this and the science suggests that I am the very personification of extreme whiteness. A splash about in my genetic soup throws up the dullest and most unfashionable of ancestries: 99.9 per cent Northwestern European, of which 98.7 per cent is of British and Irish descent, one per cent Scandinavian and 0.2 per cent broadly from the same vicinity, perhaps Denmark or even the Faroe Islands.

Which leaves a mere 0.1 per cent “unassigned”, meaning the experts have not yet been able to confidently match this teeny, one thousandth element of my DNA with any specific population group or area. 

But they are able to rule out with some certainty what isn’t there, and this includes all traces of anything French, German, Greek, Balkan, Eastern European, Ashkenazi Jewish, Italian, Sardinian, Spanish, Portuguese, Central and Eastern Asian, Mongolian, Japanese, Siberian, Northern and Southern Indian, Austronesian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Melanesian, indigenous American, and North and Sub-Saharan African.

Blanched then of all that is funky and exotic, it should come as no surprise that I am not a very good dancer and useless at basketball. I have instead relied on natural charm, intelligence and modesty to make my way and survive in this world.

But that is neither here nor there. The deeper we delve into our ancestry and origin as a species, the “simpler” our family tree becomes.

The paternal lines of all humankind — every single one of us — can be traced back more than 275 000 years to just one man. This common ancestor, evidence suggests, was one of thousands of men who lived in eastern Africa at the time. While his male-line descendants passed down their Y chromosomes generation after generation, the lineages from all other men died out.

It is the same with our maternal lines. If every one of us could trace our lineages back over thousands of generations, our lines would all meet at a single African woman who lived between 150 000 and 200 000 years ago. Though she was one of many thousands of women alive at the time, only the various branches of her particular haplogroup survive today.

Do not, however, make the mistake of regarding our common ancestry as grounds for peaceful co-existence or that we should strive to put our differences aside and get on with our lives in collegial harmony. We remain as fractious as ever.

I was reminded of this on New Year’s Eve when, in search of festive cheer and Goodwill-to-All-Mankind fluffiness in the pages of the Guardian, I learnt that, as a white South African, I’m not really a proper person at all — at least not in the eyes of author and journalist Panashe Chigumadzi. I apparently lack ubuntu.

Commenting on the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chigumadzi eschews the sopping warmth that otherwise characterised the reams of reminiscences about the Nobel laureate to dwell instead on our original sin — a condition that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Tutu chaired, failed to consider in its deliberations. 

“Dutch conquest of the Cape in 1652,” Chigumadzi boldly asserts, “is the genesis of genocide, slavery, indenture and land dispossession, yet the TRC had the limited mandate to hear allegations of human rights abuses between 1 March 1960, the month of the Sharpeville massacre, to 10 May 1994, the date of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration.”

Oh dear. Because he was not able to “right the historic conquest of land and people” at the TRC, Tutu found it impossible to “wield ubuntu” in the reconciliation of the “conflicting worlds” of the people with if I may, the unpeople. Consequently, we remain in a bit of a mess.

“Given white South Africa’s unjust historic land conquest and continuing relations of dispossession,” Chigumadzi writes, “it is unsurprising that Black people of the land, that is, we, do not consider white people to be Abantu. Instead, they are abelungu.”

It is difficult to imagine, though, how the TRC would have proceeded had its terms of reference been ratcheted back to the get-go. Would Lord Milner be finished with his testimony by now? And when do we hear from Bambatha?

It should be noted that Chigumadzi is a young Zimababwean, although not the sort of hapless young Zimbabwean now persecuted as an unwanted foreigner and criminal element by the Black people of the land. Raised in South Africa, she studied at Wits, where she ran with the fallists and race hysterics while grounding herself thoroughly in woo-woo. 

We should, accordingly, not be too alarmed when she declares that even “sincere, committed” white South Africans fail to understand the “ethical demands” of ubuntu necessary for “meaningful reconciliation” and a chance to once again become people.

What she has in mind is not cheap. The TRC, she says, recommended reparations for the victims and families who testified. Tutu also called for a wealth tax on all white South Africans. These were proposals the government ignored, for the simple reason that, where there were wealthy white South Africans, the government was going to tax the bejesus out of them anyway. Which they did. And then squandered everything.

Which leaves the land. Chigumadzi dusts off all the usual dodgy stuff about the 1913 Native Land Act and suggests handing over the farms could be the way to buy back our humanity. “For white South Africans to no longer be abelungu, settlers in Africa, and to become Abantu, people of Africa, they would have to restore that which made them settlers in the first place – the land.”

It is interesting that, as a chronicler of Zimbabwean history, much of Chigumadzi’s work is focused on the use of women’s spells and charms in forging a national identity rather than the basket-casing of the country through the land grabs. Quite why it should be any different south of the Limpopo is not explained. 

I do however take her point about the ubiquity of ubuntu. The term, she says, has flourished in post-apartheid discourse, “lending its name to software, businesses, books and philanthropic organisations” to the point that it is meaningless. However, where she laments that it has been “dispossessed of its deeply radical demands for ethical historical and social relations among people”, I would argue that this is a welcome development.

Consider, as a cynic, the definition of the philosophy that is most often offered to the privileged and bewildered: “A person is a person through other people,” or “I am because we are.” This seems rather Cartesian — but without the thinking bit. 

More charitably, ubuntu is seen as a quality that encompasses such essential human virtues, like compassion, humanity and generosity. I regard these attributes as universal. What is uniquely South African, however, is how ubuntu has been weaponised. Its use in the rhetoric of retribution is striking — but perhaps that is the privilege talking. 

The heart of the matter ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The ruling party’s 110th anniversary celebrations are now behind us and, like Christmas tree decorations, all the familiar, tired promises and the hollow, delusional rhetoric about the regeneration of the movement and the recommitment to “revolutionary discipline” have been packed away for another year. 

As the giddy caravan of charlatans and old frauds trundled out of the backwater that is Polokwane, Cyril Ramaphosa boldly played down the factionalism that is flourishing within the organisation: “The ANC is not corrupt,” he tweeted. “Certain members of the ANC have been implicated in acts of corruption. We must make this distinction. #ANC110

We must? Very well. Is it a mere 80 or 90 per cent of comrades who happen to be giving the rest of the party a bad name? I think we should be told. 

Jabbering away

It was good to see SA Medical Association chair Dr Angelique Coetzee giving the British a bit of a skelling for being so dismissive of evidence that omicron is far less severe than other forms of the coronavirus. And bully for her, too.

Shortly after its discovery in November, she told the BBC that the variant caused “very, very mild” symptoms compared with delta, and suggested it could, in fact, replace the more dangerous strain and, encouragingly, assist in attaining herd immunity at minimal cost to life. 

As we now all know, Britain then soiled its drawers and imposed a short-lived but nevertheless disastrous ban on travel to and from southern Africa. Chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty gravely told the UK: “There are several things we don’t know about omicron, but all the things we do know are bad.” 

Coetzee is “astonished” at this “panicked” position. She told the Sunday Telegraph last week:

“I don’t understand why it’s happening. It doesn’t make any sense to me. The fear that is being spread in Britain — why is that being done? South Africa has a younger population, but we should have seen far more disease because of the vaccination picture. We only have 44 per cent of people double-jabbed, and we only started the boosters last week.”

In the UK, 83 per cent of the population are double-jabbed and 61 per cent have had a booster.

“If you don’t know by now that the majority of people are going to have mild symptoms, then what other evidence are you waiting for?”

The newspaper reports that, due to its sophisticated genomic surveillance capability, South Africa was first to identify both the beta and omicron Covid variants — so the opinions of its experts “surely merit attention”. Yet Boris Johnson has claimed that “the idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus” is a notion that “we need to set to one side”. Whitty, meanwhile, has declared the evidence of a milder illness has been “over-interpreted”.

Coetzee was asked if she thought xenophobia had played a role here. She replied:

“No — but I think there was arrogance from the politicians in the UK. Also Boris Johnson was going through a bad time because of the criticism of his Christmas parties, so maybe there was a political reason for all this. People in the UK, including the ones advising the government, don’t seem to understand what the clinical picture is. The scientists are not sitting with patients in front of them. I am a GP and I’m looking at a list of 116 patients I saw, of whom only three were admitted to hospital, one of whom was not fully vaccinated and two of whom were high risk because of obesity, diabetes and so on.

“You have to empower people by telling them what is going on, but I get the feeling that some of the UK scientists don’t want to use the word ‘mild’, they only want to use the word ‘severe’.”

The newspaper quoted Laura Dodsworth, author A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic, as saying this “linguistic manipulation” was entirely deliberate. 

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), we would not be surprised if this is the case. People are more malleable when they’re scared. But we note Coetzee’s comments about underlying conditions such as diabetes and obesity and some regulars may be cutting back on the pasties and sausage rolls. For a while, at least.