The po­si­tion of white priv­i­lege

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The re­cent video show­ing a white man as­sault­ing an on­duty black traf­fic po­lice of­fi­cer is a clear il­lus­tra­tion of the po­si­tion­al­ity of white­ness in South Africa. True to the adage that a pic­ture is worth 1 000 words, the video graph­i­cally paints a pic­ture of the in­vin­ci­bil­ity of white priv­i­lege and the in­vis­i­bil­ity of the black body.

The piti­ful im­age of a po­lice of­fi­cer, no less than a sym­bol of state power, get­ting down to pick up his cap off the ground is a nor­malised daily ex­pe­ri­ence of black life. The point has to be made, how­ever, that it is even more wor­ry­ing that the video plays it­self out un­der dif­fer­ent guises in all four cor­ners of the coun­try as if its aim is to de­bunk the con­ve­nient myth that you have to be il­lit­er­ate and pow­er­less to suf­fer at the hands of white­ness. White priv­i­lege is an all-per­va­sive power with a firm grip on the coun­try’s board­rooms, courts, farms, mines, me­dia houses and aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions.

That South Africa sits with a gov­ern­ment that has no po­lit­i­cal will to change the ma­te­rial con­di­tions of black peo­ple only serves to rub salt into the wound.

Why did the po­lice of­fi­cer, armed with a firearm, not place the ag­gres­sor un­der ar­rest? Or why did he not hit back? There can be no other ex­pla­na­tion than that the of­fi­cer could not bring him­self to foil the at­tack. He has come to ac­cept, like many black folks, that he is de­fence­less and help­less. It is in­con­ceiv­able that he would have let a fel­low black per­son get away with the at­tack. This is be­cause he has re­signed him­self to a de­bil­i­tat­ing sense of in­fe­ri­or­ity in re­la­tion to white priv­i­lege.

Do­ing noth­ing in the face of vi­o­lence, in much the same way as the gov­ern­ment of the day ne­glects an over­haul the coun­try’s econ­omy, is cow­ardice of the worst kind. In­ac­tion in con­di­tions where ac­tion is re­quired is an ab­ro­ga­tion of a per­son’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to ex­er­cise agency and to de­ter­mine his own des­tiny.

Our fore­fa­thers in the strug­gle against colo­nial­ism would not have fought gal­lantly if they were not guided by this be­lief. So sa­cred is this free­dom from vi­o­lence that Mal­colm X, in his “the bal­lot or the bul­let” speech de­liv­ered in 1964, said: “I’m non­vi­o­lent with those who are non­vi­o­lent with me. But when you drop that vi­o­lence on me, then you’ve made me go in­sane, and I’m not re­spon­si­ble for what I do.”

No greater vi­o­lence is meted out on to the black body than the struc­tural vi­o­lence ex­pe­ri­enced by black peo­ple the mo­ment they step out of their door­ways to get packed like sar­dines into barely func­tion­ing minibus taxis to get to work so they can try to make ends meet, or to wait in in­ter­minably long queues to re­ceive gov­ern­ment grants. The less for­tu­nate ones have no land – in their coun­try of their birth – to call their own.

There can hardly be any moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for gov­ern­ment’s in­ep­ti­tude to an­ni­hi­late the legacy of apartheid with its mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing ef­fects of poverty and an in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex ex­clu­sively re­served for black peo­ple. In all fair­ness, it is not the ANC gov­ern­ment that birthed colo­nial­ism and apartheid, but it would be disin­gen­u­ous not to ac­cept that it is the gov­ern­ment of the day that per­pet­u­ates – in ac­tion and in­ac­tion – the struc­tural vi­o­lence in­her­ent in colo­nial­ism and apartheid.

The so­lu­tion may not lie in the pre­dictably rit­u­alised mass­man­u­fac­tured anger, driven in large mea­sure by po­lit­i­cal par­ties for their own ben­e­fit, in the wake of ev­ery racist at­tack that finds its way into the me­dia spotlight.

In the year that marks the 40th an­niver­sary of Steve Biko’s death, black peo­ple may do well to in­ter­ro­gate their re­la­tion­ship with po­lit­i­cal par­ties that have al­lowed their ma­te­rial con­di­tions to re­main un­changed even af­ter the in­tro­duc­tion of democ­racy.

A peo­ple’s ca­pac­ity to love them­selves and to elim­i­nate all fear of oth­ers is premised on a con­scious­ness of self. Love for one­self will lead to the re­al­i­sa­tion that it is morally un­jus­ti­fi­able to fear an­other solely on the ba­sis that he or she be­longs to a dif­fer­ent race. Even more im­por­tantly, love for one­self, as es­poused in the black con­scious­ness move­ment, will have no tol­er­ance for a sys­tem that per­pet­u­ates in­dig­ni­ties that have af­flicted black life since the colo­nial in­va­sion of Africa.

Mapheto is a youth ac­tivist and at­tor­ney based in Jo­han­nes­burg

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