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.”
What a challenge!
As a white person I do not fully understand the land expropriation without compensation issue. In truth, I cannot. My background, my thinking, my skin, my privilege precludes me from really getting it.
But what I do know – and what, it seems some other white writers are beginning to grapple with – is that the issue is not the issue.
The issue is not about people getting “free land”. It is not about what people do with the land. It is not about food security or what it will do to the economy. I would even say that it isn’t about redress, or certainly not all about redress.
It is to some extent about politics and the 2019 elections but perhaps the timing is just coincidental. Or perhaps the timing is just right.
My paradigms disallow me from seeing expropriation without compensation as necessary and good. My paradigms prompt me to say: “Who can argue against the facts? The statistics prove the point. Countries in which land is expropriated are likely to XYZ. Just look at Zim.” This thinking is one dimensional and comes from a place of strength and privilege. And fear.
As an example, food security – a big focus of our arguments against expropriation – is only an issue to the well fed and at that, when their security is threatened. I work with people in areas like rural Limpopo who haven’t enjoyed a single day of food security their entire lives. To them, food security is when the local wild vegetables happen to take root in the red dust and they get a meal. If you have read Trevor Noah’s superb book “Born a Crime” you will have been struck by a story of his Mother making soup out of river clay just to fill her stomach. Many people in our country would just laugh at us if we told them that land expropriation would impact food security.
And what about the economy? We can argue – and we do so disingenuously to protect our own positions of relative wealth and privilege – that land expropriation will impact the economy and of course the poorest of the poor will be worst hit. This may well be true. But come on! If we really cared so much for the poorest of the poor wouldn’t we do more about them? Would we not give up some of our proverbial farm so that they may farm and eat – or for heaven’s sake screw it up if they wish to? And not just the odd progressive farmer (I have met some of these amazing people) but all of us who have?
The other point we need to understand better from within our privilege is that less of nothing is still nothing. So let’s be brutal with ourselves and say that the economic argument against land expropriation is much more about us who have, than those who don’t.
But if the issues around land expropriation are not the issue, then what is? I don’t know for sure, you would need to ask a black person without land. But from what I have come to appreciate, it’s got as much to do with psychology than anything. It has to do with closure; burying the rotting corpse of apartheid that still lies in the streets and pollutes all of us; It has to do with people being given a realistic chance (not just on paper) to exercise their rights; to be human and adult. It has to do with collective dignity being restored to a vast group of people only some of whom will benefit from land expropriation.
So, when we are tempted to say: But look at what happened in Zim – it will mess up the economy like it did there! Perhaps we can take a broader look and say: Yes, perhaps it will – but perhaps it won’t. And if it does, maybe that’s what is needed for the psyche of people and this country to heal for future generations. We cannot truly do that which so many suggest – move on from the past – until the land issue is resolved.
Bring it on.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.