An im­por­tant book – with flaws

CityPress - - Voices - Khadija Pa­tel voices@city­press.co.za

There is no de­bate in South Africa more ur­gent than how the role of race af­fects a whole gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple in terms of how they po­si­tion them­selves and their fu­tures. Race lies at the cen­tre of our recorded his­to­ries, and the ways in which we strug­gle to ne­go­ti­ate the dis­ad­van­tages of not be­ing white.

The un­re­lent­ing jug­ger­naut of white­ness is ne­go­ti­ated in the ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ences of a pri­vate school-ed­u­cated, black stu­dent from North West at Wits Univer­sity, just as it is ne­go­ti­ated by an In­dian jour­nal­ist like me from a rel­a­tively mid­dle class back­ground who still strug­gles with the voice of the white man as the fi­nal ar­biter of what is good, right and just in the uni­verse.

How­ever, there is a dis­junc­ture be­tween a slightly older gen­er­a­tion that recog­nises the struc­tural faults in our so­ci­ety, but dis­agrees with the ways in which young peo­ple, like stu­dents at Wits, ar­tic­u­late their strug­gles against the stub­born rem­nants of racial hege­mony. Fe­rial Haf­fa­jee is one such per­son.

In her book What If There Were No Whites In South Africa?, she claims that black as­pi­ra­tions are be­ing ham­pered by the idea of white supremacy. She agrees that trans­for­ma­tion is in­com­plete, but con­tends that the levers are firmly in black hands and white supremacy doesn’t have lever­age over that trans­for­ma­tion.

More­over, she ar­gues that the num­bers in the black and white mid­dle class have reached par­ity, nul­li­fy­ing what she feels is an un­war­ranted fix­a­tion with white priv­i­lege.

But the way in which this mid­dle class has been con­structed also bears scru­tiny be­cause it re­veals ex­actly how shaky its pros­per­ity is.

The growth of the new black mid­dle class is at­trib­uted as much to gov­ern­ment widen­ing the civil ser­vice as it is to new lines of credit. As Dr Deb­o­rah James from the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics re­cently said in her re­search, it is in­debt­ed­ness that im­per­ils en­tire fam­i­lies as this new mid­dle class in­creas­ingly strug­gles to make its re­pay­ments.

As many of Haf­fa­jee’s re­spon­dents point out in the book, “black tax” should force us to re­think how we de­fine this new mid­dle class be­cause they have be­come dis­trib­u­tors of their wealth rather than con­sumers.

How­ever, Haf­fa­jee’s ar­gu­ment, or process of un­der­stand­ing as it ul­ti­mately be­comes, feels hur­ried along with­out of­fer­ing a scep­tic much op­por­tu­nity to be per­suaded by her.

For ex­am­ple, I’m fas­ci­nated by her claim that young South Africans have been in­flu­enced by the sit­u­a­tions of African-Amer­i­cans, in ef­fect con­fus­ing them­selves about their own re­al­i­ties. Beyond an of­ten-dis­com­fit­ing ven­er­a­tion of Bey­oncé as the epit­ome of hu­man en­deav­our, I don’t see a di­rect in­flu­ence. Still, I would have liked to read more about how Haf­fa­jee has made this as­sess­ment.

There is great value, I think, in in­ter­gen­er­a­tional di­a­logue in South Africa. And this book is an at­tempt at just that kind of con­ver­sa­tion. But What If There Were No Whites does fall short of what it could be. Haf­fa­jee’s dis­cus­sion groups with peo­ple she feels are shap­ing the pop­u­lar dis­course on race sig­nif­i­cantly weaken the book. It does, in parts, feel like a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Haf­fa­jee and the Twit­terati.

I feel these dis­cus­sion groups should have been the be­gin­ning of a greater en­quiry into the thoughts, feel­ings and ex­pe­ri­ences of young peo­ple who aren’t writ­ing books.

And this is not so much the fault of the au­thor of the book, but the greater fail­ing of the pub­li­ca­tion of non­fic­tion in South Africa.

Rush­ing books into pro­duc­tion for the Christ­mas pe­riod with­out giv­ing writ­ers more room to re­flect and re­search, and more time to con­trib­ute writ­ing that pro­vides mean­ing­ful en­gage­ment with what has hap­pened and what is to come, is a dis­ser­vice to the in­sight, knowl­edge and acu­men of the writer.

Make no mis­take, this is an im­por­tant book that should be read and dis­cussed. But ul­ti­mately, I feel we can­not an­swer the ques­tion its ti­tle asks with­out pay­ing at­ten­tion to South Africa’s po­si­tion in a greater global scheme where po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and cul­tural power is still firmly en­trenched in the West. And this may go some way to­wards ex­plain­ing why a gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple who have all the ap­pear­ances of liv­ing their best lives are fix­ated with white priv­i­lege. It’s not about the pres­ence of white peo­ple, but a cul­ture that per­me­ates the uni­ver­sity, the work­place and many other places. White­ness ex­ists even with­out white peo­ple.

Pa­tel is an ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of The Daily Vox and a re­search as­so­ciate at the Wits In­sti­tute

for So­cial and Eco­nomic Re­search

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