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Can black people understand white people?

5 January 2014

Can black people understand white people? Why do I ask a question like that?

It was prompted by an article by Xolela Mancu in today’s City Press Where is the scholarship? – City Press:

But I could also not help noticing the different ways in which white and black South Africans appreciate Mandela – this is South Africa after all…

This also got me asking myself endless questions about whether Mandela might have served as a useful decoy for those white people who wanted to make the transition into the new world without losing face to family, friends, neighbours and even the domestic servant.

Could he have made it possible for white people to go through a loss of political power without a loss of social status and thus undergo change without pain or sacrifice?

The phrase that caught my attention was the one about white people going through a “loss of political power”.

I have a certain problem with that, because it implies that our transition to democracy in 1994 was a zero-sum game. In order for blacks to gain, whites had to lose. Blacks gained political power by being allowed to vote in a general election for the first time since 1960, when the few blacks who did have the right to vote then were deprived of it. And speaking of white people going though “a loss of political power” implies that whites simultaneously lost the right to vote. But they didn’t

According to my identity document, I’m white. I’ve voted in several elections in my life, a lot of them before 1994, but the 1994 electon was the first one in which I have ever voted in in which a party I voted for actually came to power and formed the government after the election. I really find it hard to see that as a “loss of political power”.

Yes, there are some white people who treat the transition to democracy as if it were a zero-sum game, and some even work quite hard to create that impression. There is a web site called Why we are white whingers refugees. No, I’m not going to provide a link to it, to give it publicity it doesn’t deserve. If you really want to see it, a search engine should help.

oppressedA good and concise comment on the attitudes of such people was recently posted by a friend of mine on Facebook, and, though it was originally intended for an American audience, I think it applies equally to such people here.

But I wonder if some of the differences in responses to Nelson Mandela’s death were not so much differences between black and white South Africans, but rather differences between South Africans and others.

This is just a rough impression, and it would need to be checked out by careful scholarship, but the impression I have is that the significant thing for Americans about Nelson Mandela, and possibly some in other countries as well, was that he was South Africa’s first black president.

But there seems to be an unspoken consensus among South Africans in the media and elsewhere, that the most significant thing about Mandela was that he was South Africa’s first democratically-elected president.

I suspect that this may have been because of a perception created by the Western media that South Africa was in the middle of a race war, and when it didn’t erupt into genocide according to expectations, suddenly Nelson Mandela became the great “reconciler”, at least in the view of the Western media. Even before the end of the first democratic elections in 1994 the dwindling number of cars outside SABC headquarters in Auckland Park spoke volumes — most of the journalists, perhaps disappointed at the lack of bloodshed, had pushed off to Rwanda, where something more interesting was taking place.

I’m not trying to knock Xolela Mancu here. I enjoy reading his columns in the paper and agree with a lot of what he says. And a minor nit-pick about one phrase shiould not detract from the main point of his article, which is that, though there have been pop biographies of Nelson Mandela, there has been a lack of scholarly treatment.

But the question I asked at the beginning seems to be answered by Nelson Mandela. He was a black man, and I think he understood white people. But he understood white people precisely because he did not see them primarily as white people, but as people to be seen in their own terms. And in that he personified the change he wanted. The National Party could only ever see people in groups. If there were to be human rights, they must be group rights.

Nelson Mandela broke this pattern, not just in rhetoric, but in reality.

Our bishop, Archbishop Damakinos of the Orthodox Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria, requested all parishes in the diocese to hold requiem services for Nelson Mandela on the Sunday following his death. It is rare for Orthodox Church to hold such memorial services for someone who was not a member of the church, and the archbishop, who is not given to making political statements, said that this was because Nelson Mandela did not merely talk about a free and democratic South Africa, but he worked hard to bring it into being. Many such leaders talk about liberation before they come to power, but after they come to power they change their tune, and their words are empty. Nelson Mandela not only had a vision of the kind of society he wanted, but he worked to implement the vision.

I think most South Africans see Nelson Mandela not primarily as a “reconciler”, but as a liberator. He was the architect of our freedom, and he laid the foundations of our freedom. It’s up to us to build on it, and my fear is that we will abandon it and go and build a pondokkie somewhere else.

These ramblings are not the kind of scholarly treatment that Xolela Mangcu is calling for, of course. But it’s up to the scholars to evaluate such statements, not just from me, but from millions of people, and try to show us the real Nelson Mandela, and what he really meant for South Africa, and not just the media “icon”.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Fred Kruger permalink
    9 February 2014 9:54 am

    This mistake gets made over and over again, and again. Its not whether one is black or white, its the institutions one adheres to that is important.

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