When the train pulls up at the small Dachau railway station in Bavaria, Germany, you are greeted by the sight of flowers.
Boxes and hanging pots all containing a wild and vibrant array of spectacularly colourful blooms adorn the platform. They seem out of place and yet so poignant. A message from the town’s Mayor hangs above the exit. It is more than two decades since I visited the place, but it reads along the lines of: “This village was the site of horrific atrocities committed by the Nazis. Now it is our home and a place of friendship and peace. We the townsfolk are committed to never allowing the memory of the horrors committed in this place to fade. Welcome to Dachau.”
Over the years I have been profoundly moved by experiences
of the many concentration camps in both Germany and Poland. I have visited
Auschwitz, Birkenau and of course Dachau. You can never un-see what you see at
these places; you can never un-feel the feelings. You may ask why one would
visit such morbid places; stand inside gas chambers and tiny huts in which
dozens of people suffered, starved and died. This may not be a thing for
everyone, but my freedom somehow compels me to do it. I believe that by
standing in solidarity with all of humanity that has suffered we never allow
ourselves to forget what was done to them. In this way we ensure that such
depths of evil and depravity are never arrived at again.
The Germans have paid much attention to never allowing the
memory of the holocaust to fade. Have we done as much in South Africa regarding
apartheid? Should we even be asking such a question?
Either way, the answer would seem to be that we have almost gone
the other way: “Can’t we just move on?”, we ask; “It’s been 25 years – must we
still keep being reminded of apartheid?” “When will we stop blaming apartheid?”
Are these questions valid or do we ask them because the memory has been allowed
to fade? Or perhaps some of us don’t really believe it was such an atrocity at
all? “Aren’t we over all that now?” Or the worst denial of all: “We were better
We removed the icons of apartheid: the flag, the racist
signs, the architect’s names on our street signs and airports (as we should have).
But in doing this we seemed to remove virtually all trace of the regime itself.
If you were to visit South Africa and not visit say Robben Island or the Apartheid
Museum (the two big attractions for anti-apartheid pilgrims) you would be hard
pressed to find any physical evidence of the apartheid regime at all. Have we
denied ourselves an opportunity to remember; to continuously seek healing; to
make restitution on an ongoing basis? I think we have – and hence – whilst few
physical remnants of apartheid remain – there are social and economic remnants
everywhere. The memory of apartheid is virtually nowhere, yet everywhere.
By erasing history, we run the risk of repeating it. Isn’t
this what is terrifying people about political killings, book burning, land
redistribution, attempts to muzzle the press, large scale corruption, incitement
of racial hatred etc? What is stopping us from rewinding the tape 25 years we
might ask? Is it just our Constitution (which very few of us have even read) or
is there something more day-to-day; more accessible – something we can all get
We must create spaces and opportunities for recollection to
happen whenever we can (as the media did with the 40th anniversary
of Solomon Mahlangu’s murder); where people can tell and retell the stories.
Not to foster guilt, but to keep the memories alive.
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
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
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.”
Over many years I have struggled with how to deal with racism
when it rears its ugly head in conversations with friends, family or colleagues.
This struggle has become ever deeper as I have worked on owning my “recovering
racist” status and as I have made great Black and Indian friends. In the past 8
years it has become pressing as I raise a black daughter and as I experience
the joy of my Dad being happily engaged to a black woman.
When I am in social or business situations and someone uses
a racist word or weaves a racist attitude or sentiment into the conversation, I
find it very difficult to take a stand in the moment. I find myself seething
but saying nothing whilst trying to change the conversation. This is cowardly
and self-serving. If I am going to take a stand against racism and
discrimination from behind my keyboard or from a podium, I must be brave enough
to do it in the real world where my work and social relationships may suffer as
a result. Because values that aren’t worth suffering for have little value at
all. They are just words.
After a recent racist incident (our Lolly was fortunately not
in earshot), Cathy and I decided that as a family, we will protest against racism
and discrimination by speaking out against it in the moment. This however will
only be done in situations that are conducive to dialogue. In situations that
aren’t, we will simply remove ourselves. This will be done politely but firmly
This is not simply about overt racist words like the k-word
and others. It’s about expressions like darkies, monkeys, cockroaches, coolies,
non-swimmers etc. It’s about references to “they and them” and the veiled or
overt questioning of black people’s abilities. It’s about references or words
that dehumanise or strip others of dignity, enforce one groups superiority over
another or labels other’s differences in a way that is not loving and celebratory.
And it extends beyond racism to all discrimination; derogatory
names/references for women, LGBTQIA people, people with disabilities, people of
other nationalities and religions and – from any person of any colour – any
defence of apartheid or colonialism.
I understand we will be criticised for this stance in all
kinds of hateful ways. But we really don’t care.
2018 has been a particularly challenging year for many of us. As wave after wave of stinking effluent has rained down on us from the various commissions of enquiry; as the impact of State Capture has begun to be felt and as the economy has faltered, the citizens have been left reeling and even depressed.
Over the same period, this column and indeed this website, has celebrated South Africans who are making a difference with what they have in their hands. It has done this to encourage an alternative narrative; one of hope and action. As people we need to keep telling our good stories so that we don’t become overwhelmed by the bad.
I would like to end off the year with a rare and startling story of hope and good. Several months ago, I got a call from a Johannesburg-based CEO by the name of Thomas Holtz. He runs a manufacturing company called Multotec. They have branches nationwide and across Africa, in South America, Australia and China and they employ around 1800 people.
Thomas’s brief to me – along with the way he communicated it – was unusual to put it mildly. He wanted me to work with him (not consultant to him you understand) to help break down patriarchy within his organisation. A male CEO wanting to break down patriarchy? I checked outside to see if it wasn’t snowing in Durbs.
As we spoke it became apparent that this was no ordinary CEO; he was thinking way beyond the usual aspects of bottom-line, leadership development, customer service, team building, diversity and inclusion and safety etc – although all of these would of course benefit from this work. But he was going someplace else; someplace we urgently need to go in South Africa. How fascinating that such a brief would emerge from a manufacturing company servicing the mining industry!
Thomas and I have spoken extensively over the months and what has struck me is that his implicit questions are different: How can we continue to run a very successful business and go beyond CSI and SED to build our nation? How can we contribute to the shifting of the needle on racism and sexism, not just in here but out there? How can we turn the tables on patriarchy? How can we bring love, compassion and purpose into the workplace? You see, Thomas has realised that unless he uses his position, his power and his privilege to bring about change and not just tick boxes, then all he will be at the end of it all, is a successful CEO. The world will not have shifted at all.
Now you will notice from his name that Thomas is male and white. So was 90% of his Exco when we started this journey. And the problems weren’t just the lack of diversity and the lack of innovation that results. The problem was that although he himself (and indeed many of his team) were not archetypal patriarchs, they were labouring in and under a highly patriarchal system. A) Manufacturing b) in the mining sector c) in South Africa. Breaking down patriarchy and its cousins racism and sexism would take a concerted, long-term effort from him and his executive team. This wouldn’t happen through tokenism.
We have held several very intense workshops, one-on-ones and group interviews with middle management. His exco team has done battle with the concepts of patriarchy, racism, power distance and culture. It has been tough – particularly as this is a highly successful organisation that on the surface of it might say: “If it isn’t broken don’t fix it”. But you see in their own way, they were broken, and sooner or later this would have caught up with the bottom line.
The business has begun to transform in profound ways as the individuals have done their own individual work. On one level, the exco is now more diverse. But more significantly, the tone, the mood and how they show up as people has shifted. There is a maturity, a weight if you like, a new way of seeing each other and others in the organisation. The smell of the place has changed.
As we look towards 2019, we can draw on the energy of Thomas and his team. Whether you run a business small or large, a classroom, a place of worship, a project, a government department, an NGO, a home, a family or just yourself – use that platform to have conversations that shift the needle in a positive direction. This team is not perfect, and the journey will certainly continue, but they are daring to speak about the issues that we would much rather pretend did not exist or impact on business. And the world is a much better place because they are doing this work. And by the way, Multotec is a better and more successful company for it and the people are loving the change in their leaders. Indeed, the business is on track to do its best year ever. Coincidence? Maybe, but probably not.
I salute Thomas Holtz and his team for bravely tackling their shadows and working to make not only their business but this country and this world, a better place. They are using what they have in their hands – no more, no less.
They inspire us all.
Justin Foxton is a Process Facilitator and Founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.
It is not simple being a recovering racist. Just as I think I am making progress I go and make a rookie error that leaves me aghast at my lack of progress.
I recently met a friend and colleague at a restaurant in Durban. At the next table was a black lady and a white man, working and drinking cups of coffee. They were clearly happening: Well dressed, laptops out, suitably adorned with the right brands and very chic.
My friend and I finished our meeting, paid our bill and got up to leave, but as I swung round in the direction of the “cool couple”, the woman was also getting up from her table and gathering up her things.
In my mind – my recovering racist (or perhaps more accurately, my recovering-stereotyping, recovering-patriarchal mind) I just saw a black woman picking things up off a table in a restaurant where a white guy was sat – ergo the waitress. She turned to face me at the precise moment I turned and faced her. Our eyes met and in my typically overly-friendly-white-guy-cum-recovering-racist-voice, I thanked her for her service and gestured to the tip I had left on the table for her. I realised my mistake mid-deed. She paused for an instant that felt like a lifetime to me, put on her outsized Dolce and Gabbana shades, and mercifully decided to ignore this white idiot and walk out.
Burning red with embarrassment, I pretended to be referring to the waitress who was indeed standing directly behind her. This only made matters worse because that waitress wasn’t our waitress at all! She just stared at me bewildered. The damage was done.
I am a 45-year old white man. I have an adopted black child whom I adore as mine. I genuinely have best friends who are black. I have done years of processing of my own racism; I read the work of black feminists and I mostly agree with what they say about white people and white men particularly.
And yet I am still – frustratingly – a recovering racist at best. I still catch myself thinking and acting in ways that belie my genuine and passionate desire to live a non-racist and totally non-discriminatory life. Why?
Because racism is hard-wired into us. Period. We are products of a world that pumps racism and discrimination into the atmosphere in the same way as industrialisation pumps greenhouse gases. We just breathe it in. My parents were never racist – I grew up in a typical liberal South African home. But the garden boy was the garden boy. The maid was the maid. It’s just how things were. And we must work daily, hourly to dismantle that often untaught, often unintentional discrimination that placed us in “the big house” and black people in the “servant’s quarters”. Black people were always the servants.
So, in an unguarded moment I revert to type. I swing round and I give a big beaming liberal thank you to a woman who is my age, clearly very successful and a long way from her waitressing years. In
This piece is not intended to be an exercise in self-flagellation. I left and smiled an ironic sort of smile at myself and how long I still must go.
No, this piece is just an exercise in vulnerability and a humble invitation to join me on this journey – regardless of where you are along the road. It’s the most challenging but deeply rewarding journey you will ever take.
My name is Justin and I am a recovering racist.