On a recent family holiday to the Kruger Park, we were enjoying a swim in one of the day visitor’s public pools.
The pool was full of people all having fun together and we were laughing and playing with the other families. Suddenly, I became aware of the pool attendant calling me over to speak to him. I waded over to him and asked if there was a problem. In a typically polite African way, he quietly told me that there was another pool at the main camp that we might enjoy more. “Why, what’s better about it?” I asked him perplexed. But then it dawned on me that he was inviting me (not telling me) to use a pool where there would be other white people. We declined his obviously well-meaning offer and stayed in that pool for the rest of the afternoon.
A lot of my writing focuses on race and racial identify in post-apartheid South Africa. For me it has been – and still is – an often very painful journey; a journey on which I have discovered to my shame the positive role that the simple colour of my skin has played (and still plays) in my life. On this journey I have also learnt the negative role that skin colour played (and still plays) in black people’s lives. But my white skin has also, at times, made my life sad and disconnected. It did at that pool. Why? Because I want to swim with my fellow South Africans. I do not want a special pool inhabited only by other white people.
As I have grappled with my white privilege and my place in post-apartheid South Africa, I have often felt deeply disconnected, as I did that day. This disconnection results in a form of displacement that manifests in many ways in us white folk; fear; racism; superiority; in statements like: “we’d be better off leaving”; in urgent and often frenzied attempts to “do good”; in burying our heads in the sand about racism; in leaving for foreign countries siting crime or lack of opportunity as reasons.
I have come to understand that at least some of these positions and attitudes come about as we discharge our pain and discomfort at living in a country in which we feel – to some degree – unwelcome as we are. There seems to be a built-in shame – acknowledge or unacknowledged – at being white living in South Africa. And lest we think we can outrun this shame, writer and researcher Brene Brown tells us that it is those of us who battle to admit to shame that suffer from it the most. This shame left unhealed is very toxic.
For those of us who remain here, do we deserve to feel unwelcome? Perhaps that isn’t the right question. Perhaps a better question might be; does anyone deserve to feel unwelcome in their own country?
Now, I don’t often feel the pain of being disconnected or displacement in overt ways such as the incident at the pool; it is subtle and not all the time. The white monopoly capital rhetoric makes me feel disconnected from my country. This is not because I do not believe that our wealth is still way too concentrated in the hands of white people – it is.
Political campaigning which suggests that prospective leaders are using too many white people on their campaign teams makes me disconnected. This is not because I believe that black leaders should use more white advisers than black – I do not.
Quotas and BBBEE make me disconnected. This is not because I don’t believe that our sports teams should privilege black players over white – I do. I also believe that a black job applicant should be privileged over a white job applicant of the same qualifications or experience. This is because restitution for decades of white privilege over black people must continue, until equilibrium (whatever that ultimately means) is reached.
So then, why am I writing about the pain and discomfort of being white in South Africa? Do I have the right to write this? Do I not deserve to feel this? Is it, for want of a better term, a necessary pain that must drive me – drive us all – to seek the healing, restoration and forgiveness our country still so desperately needs? I guess the answer to this will vary between people.
For me, the answer to all these questions is yes: yes, I have the right to write this; yes, I deserve to feel this pain and discomfort and yes, it is a very necessary pain that I must be willing to live with – embrace actually – in order that I might start to learn a new and better way of being white in South Africa.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.