White Privilege: Why Does It Offend Us So Much?

The notion of white privilege challenges many of us wit ou’s deeply. It seems that no greater offense can be levelled at us than an accusation of white privilege.

I heard a definition of privilege that came originally from one of my gurus Dr. Brene Brown. I found it useful. She says that privilege is simply the degree to which we have choice. As a rule, white people through history have had varying degrees of greater choice/freedom/access – whatever words you wish to use. Put simply, we have had greater choice in terms of where we can “live, move and have our being”.  

I find it difficult to deny that this is true – however unpalatable I may find it. I just don’t want to think of my skin colour privileging me over other human beings. But it does. I know that because I was white I could move anywhere during apartheid. I could go to the beach. I could visit any restaurant I wanted to. I could walk freely into any place of worship. I could be up late at night in any area. I could go to any night club or bar I wished to. I could vote.  And all of this was done with no fear of being arrested and jailed without reason, beaten-up, tortured or even killed. This freedom to choose is the basis of all my privilege. At this point it has nothing to do with money or hard work. It just is what it is because I am white.

Then I had the choice to study what and where I liked, I could walk into any job interview, I could command a decent living wage – all these choices, because I was white. I naturally got paid more because I had had access to better education and because white people generally get paid better. I could buy any shampoo or soap I wanted because most products were made for white people. I could even put on a Band-Aid that blended nicely with my skin tone!

By the way, nothing has changed materially since the demise of apartheid/colonialism here or anywhere else in the world. White people still have many more choices than most black people. Because white privilege is systemic in the exact same way as racism is.

So, what am I meant to do with this knowledge? I think my main task is to acknowledge that I have – and still do have – many more choices than most black people. When I do this, I can begin to heal – myself and the world around me. I can let go of the need to defend myself as a white person – telling people how hard I worked and the struggles I had to “make it”; I can stop telling people how tough my parents or grandparents had it. I can begin fresh new conversations that are at their core humble and enquiring.  I can start to play a meaningful part in addressing the deep-seated imbalances of our world.

A black woman and another of my gurus once said this to me: “Justin, enjoy your privilege, but use it to help others less privileged.”

What a challenge!

Broken Hearted for South Africa

It is difficult to imagine the psychological and physical suffering that precedes death by Stress-induced Cardiomyopathy also known as Broken Heart Syndrome.

How much pressure; what levels of anxiety can the human heart endure before it deteriorates to breaking point? What dis-ease needs to afflict a person before the thing literally falls apart. According to the Mayo Clinic website: “The exact cause of broken heart syndrome is unclear. It’s thought that a surge of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, might temporarily damage the hearts of some people. Broken heart syndrome is often preceded by an intense physical or emotional event.” I see her young face everywhere I look; a picture of Hlaudi Motsoeneng has Suna Venter’s face reflected in his eyes; those violent, conniving eyes boring into her, trying to intimidate her and her colleagues into submission. I imagine him whispering to his henchmen: “Break her heart; whatever you do, make sure she doesn’t return.” And in the next instant, his eyes reflect our President; fattened and giggling. This woman’s heart break is no accident. She was harassed, threatened and attacked until it broke.  Will we ask ourselves in 5 years’ time, what happened to the SABC 8 who are now the SABC 4? How many more hearts will break? What will be the ultimate death toll in the war between evil madmen slathering and foaming at the mouth in pursuit of money and those trying to defend our democracy? If you see this as anything but an out-and-out war, you are deluded.  Of course, the aim was silence but it never worked because these people fought to the death – and won. And the fight was always for us – the people of South Africa. Suna Venter and a small group of colleagues from the public broadcaster stood firm and took on the might of a towering empire of corruption and deceit – and won. The pen won the day. But not so fast fellow South Africans. Not so fast can we move on from the death of this young woman. We must not allow for the standard period of outrage and mourning and then forget the price that was paid. One of the last remaining vestiges of our democracy untouched by the fattened fingers of the Guptas and our president, was saved by their bravery. Suna Venters heart broke because she was defending the very ground we stand on; our free press. For if Motsoeneng and his compardres had succeeded in their mission to curtail what news we could and could not see, the attack on our democracy would have been virtually complete, bar the judiciary. That was what was at stake and people were willing to give their lives to defend us from this. I believe that Suna Venter – and indeed the rest of the SABC 8 – must be remembered and honoured as heroes. How do we do this? For a start Suna Venter should by remembered and immortalised by every media outlet in this country. Their very relevance is thanks in large part to her and her colleagues. Every paper, magazine, radio and TV station should hang a photo of her; put up a plaque if you like. Get creative – but do something.  Let everyone who sees it pay their respects and remind themselves that her life was given in the fight for the freedom of our press. Let it be a constant reminder that we will not tolerate anyone who tries to trample on our democracy. We will take them on and we will win – even if it breaks our hearts. Anyone who is involved in the media should take every opportunity to remember the sacrifice made by Suna Venter et al. In my way, I have used this column to keep the memory of Anene Booysens and Josiah Sithole alive by dedicating every piece I write to them. This is so we keep the fight against xenophobia and gender-based violence top-of-mind – not just when an attack occurs. The same applies to Suna Venter. Her name will be added to the dedication of every column I write. As for us as citizens of South Africa, what can we do to ensure that her memory is kept alive and that we join the fight against the powerful and the corrupt who are trying to rob us of our democracy? For a start – as I have written about before – we must resist the temptation to join the system of corruption and abuse; our businesses, our homes, our cars, our places of worship, our NGO’s – wherever we operate – must be places where corruption and abuse of power is not tolerated no matter how much we may stand to gain or lose personally from the transaction. Our complicity fuels the engine. Secondly, we must be prepared -as the SABC 8 has been – to speak out when we see abuse of power and/or corruption or even manipulation taking place. This is very tough – especially when we love those committing the deeds – but we cannot turn a blind eye. On a personal note, the passing of Suna Venter broke my heart and enraged me. I am enraged by what the President, the Gupta’s, the Molefe’s, the Van Rooyens, the Motsoenengs and many others are doing to our country and her people and I want it to stop. Too many people have been robbed from and too many people have died. When will it end? When we – like Suna Venter – put our hearts on the line. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

Colonialism: The Rape of Africa

As I write this I am sat – for the second time in 10-hours – in seat 22C on Fastjet’s flight from Dar es Salaam to a smallish Tanzanian town called Mbeya. Now you may or may not have heard of Fastjet – depending on whether you travel much in sub-Saharan Africa, but the thing with Fastjet is that it isn’t terribly fast. It also isn’t very communicative.

Having sat on the runway for quite some time watching the sunrise, we were all off-loaded because of a technical problem that apparently had something to do with the communication system between the pilot in the cock-pit and the crew in the cabin. This really was the last time anyone at Fastjet concerned themselves with accuracy of communication – for the next 10-hours. For the length of the day, we all sat in the small and unedifying Dar airport.  We drank cups of tea, ate airport food and talked endlessly about nothing much; as you do when you are killing an indefinite period of time. The only thing anyone told us over the course of the day was that the problem would take 5 – 10 minutes to fix (this is when we were still on the plane) but this was adjusted to an hour to two hours when we were being off-loaded. Oh, and around 3 hours in, a tinny Tannoy announcement told us that the flight had been cancelled altogether and we should all go back to our homes and hotels. This was followed immediately by an announcement in Kiswahili proudly telling us that the plane was fixed up and we would board shortly. Both announcements were wrong. We eventually scrummed our way back onto the plane, elbowing one another out of the way in a desperate attempt to beat the irate passengers of a later flight that had also been delayed. We eventually took off in the late afternoon. “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water,” recent Tweet from former DA leader, Helen Zille. The previous day we had landed at Dar airport from OR Tambo. As a foreigner working in Tanzania you need a temporary Visa. This must be re-purchased every time you enter the country (regularly in my case) for 200USD. Acquiring this Visa can only be done on arrival at the Dar airport and it is damn nearly impossible to do so. In summary: it takes around 3 hours for 2 hapless immigration officials   to handwrite – no computers, not even an ink stamp – over 100 Visas. 35 degrees Celsius. No chairs. No water. Again, no communication. During both of these airport experiences it was clear that systems, procedures and an understanding of the critical importance of good communication, were non-existent. I would say it was organised chaos but there wasn’t any organisation at all. It was just chaos. I travelled to Tanzania with Helen Zille’s now infamous Tweet about colonialism fresh in my mind. In fact, it occupied much of my thinking during all the many hours we spent in the Dar airport (and later, the extreme Dar traffic). I condemn what she said with contempt but more, with great sadness. I assume that Zille has travelled extensively to places like Dar es Salaam and other former- colony’s; that she has experienced life in countries that are years even decades behind non-former colony’s. So, the issue should not be whether she believes that colonialism had some good points.  The issue is whether – over years of doing battle as the official opposition to the ANC – she has become so hardened, so cynical, so insensitive that she has lost all perspective and indeed – heart. One can only assume that she is so jaded that she has forgotten what it is that she has been fighting for; a free and equal society under-scored by a total loathing for all that is and was unjust, oppressive, violent and dehumanising. She has effectively made herself one of the utterly heartless and brain-dead: “Things were better under apartheid” brigade. You do not even need to move out of Dar airport to get the picture; to know just how despicable, how crippling colonialism was. And the denial of this fact is alive and well far beyond Helen Zille; all-too-often I hear people opining about how Africa (they try to hide their bigotry by making it a continental indictment rather than a racist statement) lacks innovation or how uncreative Africa is or how backward. And I don’t know why Singapore works well as Zille referenced; maybe because it’s so small you can cover its length on your morning jog. All I know after spending some time in Tanzania and indeed around other parts of Africa, is that colonialism’s negative impact on Africa and her people was beyond measure. So, let us travel our continent, viewing its unequalled beauty and meeting its superb people. But let’s be forgiving of her faults and her failings because the big white boss gang-raped her and left her for dead. It is a miracle that she has come as far as she has. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole

Pravin Gordhan a National Treasure

We have a national treasure in the National Treasury. There is little doubt that Pravin Gordhan now embodies this highest of unofficial titles; a title that we have applied to only a handful of men and women in the past few decades.

I realised just how fast this man was approaching national treasure status when I recently found myself with him on an SA Airlink flight to Nelspruit. Wearing a tweed cap to shield his shiny pate from the brutal Lowveld sun, he humbly agreed to having his photo taken with scores of fans whilst we waited on the runway to board our flight. Person after person – South Africans of all descriptions – took selfies with the Minister of Finance.   Bear in mind that this man has held the most loathed title in any society; that of “tax man”. Bear in mind that this man revolutionised tax collection in our country during his time at SARS. Bear in mind that for years he has lightened our pockets by increasing taxes; bear in mind that he has done this whilst the public purse has been simultaneously lightened by all those entrusted to hold its strings. Yet in-spite of all this financial lightening and burdening, there we were queuing to have our picture taken with him as if he were a rock star. Those who know him well will tell you that he is a man of towering integrity. They will tell you that he is a South African of unbridled passion and commitment to the complete freedom of our people and the realisation of the full potential of our country. They will also tell you that he is fiendishly bright. But these values – great as they are – do not make a national treasure. Ironically that title is bestowed only on the humble great. Pravin Gordhan is fast becoming one of our humble great and his last (we all hope it is not his last, but alas) budget presentation proved this. It was not the maths of the speech that solidified his place in our history. In fact, many people will be gnashing their teeth at the fact that we are paying vastly more for vastly less. It was these words: “Fellow South Africans, if we make the right choices and do the right things we will achieve a just and fair society, founded on human dignity and equality. We will indeed transform our economy and country so that we all live in dignity, peace and well-being,” If you did not know that I was quoting our newest national treasure (and you had never heard/heard of Jacob Zuma), you might say that I was quoting a/our President; these words have a presidential feel. But he didn’t stop at general appeals for participation. He went on to issue a clarion call for us to participate with him in the task at hand: “This is the time for activists, workers, businesspersons, the clergy, professionals and citizens at large to actively engage in shaping the transformation agenda and ensuring that we do have a just and equitable society. Obstacles there will be many. Overcome them. Detractors abound. Disprove them. Negativity inspired by greed and selfishness will obstruct us. Defeat the bearers of this toxic ethic.  South Africans, wherever you are own this process; defend your gains; demand accountability. Be an active agent for change. Umanyano Ngamandla (Unity is power.)” These words coming from our very own “broken man presiding over a broken society” would be laughable. But coming from a national treasure they have the effect of creating hope; presenting a vision and outlining a strategy to get there. If we allow them to, these words could galvanise us into action; to pay our taxes yes, but then to pay attention to what we as individual South Africans could do to take back our power. He is inviting us to join him in fighting for a future – one that he seems to be positive about; he is inviting us to stop pointing out what is wrong – we all know what is wrong; stop whining whilst Rome is burning. He has modelled the way for us (another enduring feature of people who wear the title of National Treasure).  All we need do is act. In the immediate term, this must include an uncompromising commitment to our non-negotiable values. Punch drunk from the ongoing battering of the forces of corruption and greed, we must stand firm and not give into the temptation of; “they are doing it so why can’t I?”. This statement – this attitude – is, I believe, the single biggest danger currently facing us as a society. It will take discipline to resist this temptation but if we don’t, our demise will be fast and frightening. In the meantime, Pravin Gordhan will need all the support he can get as the vultures’ circle. So, if you bump into him on a flight or anywhere else, have a selfie with a national treasure and thank him. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  All my writing –  regardless of topic – is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole. I do this to help keep their stories alive.

Black Lives Matter…Really?

We know now that #blacklivesmatter. We know this because – in the wake of waves of social media exposure of black people being indiscriminately targeted by white policemen in America – the world has proclaimed that #blacklivesmatter.

But do they matter – really; on a grand scale; in every respect?  Does a catchy hashtag make black lives matter a hard truth? This question should challenge all of us both white and black. In a post-truth world, we must guard against the stock response of “so true!” when confronted with slogans like #blacklivesmatter. It is just too easy. We must ask ourselves honestly and openly if all lives do in practise matter equally, or if we just like to say they do so we can feel okay about ourselves. And this question should apply equally across the colour spectrum, because I have seen as much disregard for black lives from black people as I have from white people. I have struggled with some of the seemingly intrinsic practises and values that demonstrate that black lives don’t in fact matter. Or perhaps I feel more comfortable to say that I have struggled with those practises and values that seem to demonstrate that black lives matter less than white lives, or that the vast majority of black lives matter less than white lives. I guess it is up to each of us to decide which level of “not mattering” we feel most comfortable with. These things are not always blatant acts of racism but often just an everyday part of life in South Africa. In addition to this they are – as I have mentioned – often perpetrated by black people. This should not exonerate us whites, but we must also not alienate ourselves or one another. It will only be through unity that all lives will one day matter equally. Until that time we must tread very lightly. Until that time: Until is a time between two places; a time between here and there. It is a liminal space in which anything can happen – and it will happen for the best – if we decide it to be so. Humanity seems to be in that in-between space right now. The question is, will we move forward to a better place? Until we decide that quality education is not only for the rich, black lives don’t matter. Until we are prepared to pay at least the minimum wage no matter the level of work being done, black lives don’t matter. Until we can actively counter the attacks against movements like #feesmustfall with such words as; “education is not a privilege, it is a right for all no matter their economic level,” then black lives don’t matter. Until we are unwilling to continue to watch black waiters being managed by white managers in the clear majority of restaurants across our nation, then black lives don’t matter. Until quality health care is available to all – not just the wealthy – then black lives don’t matter. Until we are willing to acknowledge that redress in the form of quotas is more important than winning the game, then black lives don’t matter. Until we are willing to accept that land must be returned to its rightful owners, then black lives don’t matter. Until we are unprepared to travel behind open bakkies containing anything between 6 and sometimes 20 human beings – always black – crammed onto the back like animals; unprotected; unharnessed; sandwiched together like prisoners of war on the way to concentration camps, then black lives do not matter. (Just yesterday my friend Akhona and I were driving behind such a bakkie and we said and did nothing. In fact, we smiled “kindly” and waved from the comfort of our air-conditioned car, believing that that would somehow bridge the divide and make their sodden and wind-swept journey all okay.) Until neighbourhood watch groups give as much suspicious attention to two white men standing outside a house in the suburbs as they do to two BM’s (neighbourhood watch’s shorthand for “black males”) then black lives don’t matter. Until black beggars elicit the same shock and horror as white beggars, then black lives don’t matter. Until black rape survivors make front page news as white rape survivors do and until they are empowered and supported in equal measure to write books, earn money from talks and open foundations for rape survivors, then black lives don’t matter. And we can kid ourselves all we like that the democratic project has worked. We can say people are free; they can vote; they can go wherever they choose and be relatively safe. What more do they want?  We can perhaps exonerate ourselves of guilt at the poverty we see everywhere; the degradation; the lack of hope. We can say that “they have done nothing with the opportunities that were given to them”, but then we would have to admit – in the quiet of our hearts, our rooms, our offices that black lives don’t matter. But they do. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency All my writing –  regardless of topic – is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole. I do this to help keep their stories alive.