Morality Politics

Attention, white people in South Africa!

The dulcet tones of Steve Hofmeyr seem to have convinced some of you that there is some sort of impending genocide, and that it’s going to be played out using airline pilots and “cashiers of colour” at Woolworths (that’s your preferred polite phrasing, isn’t it?). And in the pressure-chamber of the shouting we love to do in each others’ general direction, especially on the Internet, Woolworths and SAA are now “racist” for trying to give previously disadvantaged folk a head start in the employment queue.

But my previous sentence contained a falsity, in that we’re not talking about “previously disadvantaged” people at all. We’re talking about currently disadvantaged people, in that it will take more than just a generation of people being able to vote to result in equality of a substantive sort – the sort that gives you the same sort of choices as someone who grew up, and whose grandparents grew up, on top of the social heap. I’ll say more about this in next week’s Daily Maverick column.

Here, just a short note to say that much of the opposition to affirmative action rests on a false dichotomy. It is of course wrong to ‘blame’ white people (except for some, of course – I’m happy to blame PW Botha, FW de Klerk, etc.) for continuing inequality premised on race. It’s wrong to set out to make white folk, in general, ashamed of being white. But those are very different to recognising that there are still significant inherent privileges to being white, and (as a white person) not getting defensive when those are pointed out. In other words, it’s not as simple as option A) everything is equal and hunky-dory or B) we have reverse-racism. We do have racial discrimination, yes, any many people (including many whites, like me) think it entirely justified.

At some point it will (hopefully) no longer be justified, and it’s certainly a worry that politicians won’t have the courage to recognise when that point arrives. But we’re not there yet. And yes, it should be legitimate to ask questions about how we are going about the process of trying to get to socio-economic equality. We can debate the manner in which affirmative action is implemented (class versus race, for example), and we can debate sunset clauses. But when we do so, it can’t be in the self-righteous and indignant tones of someone who denies that your position on the social and economic heap is still strongly correlated with the arbitrary characteristic of your skin colour. When you speak like that, denying this reality, you sound like a racist – and you probably are one, whether or not you know it.

(And by the way, that’s not clever.)

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

24 replies on “Attention, white people in South Africa!”

Your racism is highly disturbing.
See the 1947 preamble of the UDHR as it has reference.

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

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Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

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Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Where in the above statement does it say anything that supports your RACIST stance?

What, exactly, are the counter arguments in your response? What parts of the definitions do you disagree with (I take it it’s disagreement as you are insulting the poster)?

There is a preamble, and then a spirit of brotherhood definition, then some stuff against discrimination – and just spitting out something to the effect that the UN isn’t one to talk (I agree, BTW) amounts to an ad hominem attack of the points raised.

Address the stuff quoted, don’t reflexively insult the people actually ENGAGING IN A DEBATE – it’s becoming rare enough to be cherished.
We get you are superior to Steve Hofmeyr and recognise his BS (setting a high bar, eh), get over that, and add some meat to your arguments.

Anonymous person: counter arguments are only only merited when an argument has been offered (and even then, not required if you’ve already addressed any substantive points elsewhere, as I have). I’ve – in these comments – agreed with the UN’s goals. Neither you, not the person I imagine you think you are defending, have offered an argument. You’re simply yelling.

Fair point – you have addressed the issues the poster raised (I think it needs more conversation, though).
Incidentally, I’m not defending the post – I just get irritated when people are shot down on anything as flimsy as who they quote, but I also missed your response to the Gettysburg thing, and that response answers my comments as well.

Perhaps I could quote the Gettysburg address, which formed part of the events which led to the universal freedom of people from slavery? but perhaps you would deride its colonial origins?
For you support one kind of racism over another however, equally fails to address the current situation. Your solution seems to have undertones of using abuse to correct abuse.

Your equally knee jerk reaction may have lamentably deposited your foot securely in your own mouth.

Anything you merely quote doesn’t add up to an argument. Also, nothing I say contradicts the UN position – the UN position is clearly aspirational, as any casual glance around the world as it is would attest. My blog post is about getting to the same destination, and you and I disagree on the strategy for getting there. But in your outrage at what I wrote, you’ve read things I didn’t say. Note, I make it explicit that we can – and should – debate whether race or class is the best thing to use as our redress yardstick. I’m happy to keep using race for now, but not because I think it’s ideal.

The UN position was the rallying point for the liberation struggle, it is echoed in the Freedom Charter almost verbatim. I used merely to have tangible point of reference, which you chose to attack. If we take it further the constitution of South Africa echoes and expands on the rights set out on the UDHR.
The founding principles are sound, the execution and current corruption of these principles for the convenience of the elites is a betrayal of the human spirit of development.
To use race instead of humanity to achieve development places you in the same illustrious company of Hofmeyr and Verwoerd.
The solutions needed are not of colour, they are of humans.
Perhaps you could reflect on that before you make sweeping statements about your own racism?

Based on the premise that the children born in 1994 will be matriculating in a couple of months does your article hold any weight? These are now young adults which across the country have received equal education, equal rights and equal opportunity to better themselves. Based on that, affirmative action no longer holds water, how can a black school leaver be employed over a white one purely because of the melanin concentration in his skin. That is tantamount to racism.

Yes, it does. That’s the topic of the column I refer to above. The child matriculating in a few months time didn’t have the same cultural capital as most whites have by default. It takes longer than a generation to build up the connections that a person like me has.

Connections like what? What cultural capital? The job I have and the qualifications I have are mine because I worked dam hard for them, nothing I have was given to me because I’m white, its mine because I worked for it and earned it. All that you are now propogating is that we should encourage all non white south africans to develop a sense of entitlement because they aren’t white.

You probably aren’t taking into account the numerous advantages you had growing up that black South Africans didn’t and, for the most part, still don’t have.

Let us look at education as an example. Besides the obvious – that you were privileged enough to attend a better resourced school that black South Africans – your parents’ level of education is an immediate advantage you have in your childhood, from pre-primary all the way to matric. White children were and still are more likely to have an educated parent they can turn to for help with homework in the evening. Can you honestly say you would have done as well at school if your parents weren’t as well educated as they were?

Really, think about your childhood critically and compare it to the childhood your average black person had (and still for the most part, has), even without having anything explicitly given to you, you had a head start. A big head start.

Jacques, this is a brilliantly articulated synopsis of the status quo. Unfortunately the message isn’t getting through, mainly because of white defensiveness and fear which are obliterating the sense of justice and objectivity required to truly understand. We have a way to go before our society can in any way be regarded as ‘normal’, and unfortunately some of the steps which must be taken to get there are painful.

If it helps any, perhaps the whites whose toes are feeling trampled on could reflect a bit on the pain felt by our black compatriots, who for decades felt INFINITELY worse pain than anything we are being asked to endure.

Yeah… so brilliantly articulated. 5-ish paragraphs basically saying “I agree with the necessity for some affirmative action” worded in a way that just reinforces the knee jerk responses of everyone still angry enough to respond to political mudslinging (AKA a thin argument worded / implying that “those that disagree with anything I think are such awfully retarded white supremacists”).

After reading, both sides is thinking that it’s now more self-evident that the holders of the differing opinion is an idiot.

Progress, man.
We call this otherisation “debate”, and we all feel that our position is more justified after reading this type of article. BTW – the differing viewpoints are caused by the same cognitive mistakes – but primed with different biases.

Have fun, folks, be sure to be forever angry and never change anything with your thinking or your writing or your arguments. I’m pissing off and won’t darken your comment system’s doors again. Godspeed.

Well put Jacques. The only reasoning that is being done by outraged white ‘victims’ is bordering on the circular variety. Over the past week I have gone from being embarrassed to sad – the News24 trolls have finally found their soapbox, and they will milk it for all that it is worth until the next thing to get upset about comes along.

At this point, all I can say is that I wish we could demonstrate the same ability to mobilise and speak out against issues that affect ALL of us. A nation-wide outcry against rape, or crime levels, or street kids, or book burning for instance, or even a boycott against Shell for the shit they are doing to kill off our planet. As you pointed out though, us South Africans love nothing more than shouting at each other. Easier to take the desktop activism route and aim for the easy scapegoats than actually do anything to make a difference in our country,

For the meantime, those of us who are able to see the bigger picture just have to ride it out until this cluster-f*ck gives way to the next one.

How easily you can accept justification for abuse. What is your stance on corrective rape, 9 year old child brides and pedophilia?

You might have a valid argument – but you open this aggressively, implying that SteveH is a spokesperson for every white south african, having a KKK pic (to what end?), etc.
Are you preaching angrily to your oh-so-enlightened choir or hoping to change some minds?

The people open to having their mind changed is the middle ground – and phrasing your arguments in a way that will be read as you painting *everyone* you are supposedly speaking to as having an extremist viewpoint and being fearful crybabies dreaming up threats drives people away from your considering your argument and into knee-jerk responses that strengthen the whole viewpoint you try to change.

You are not changing any minds, people are not open to being convinced if you start out by telling them how stupid they are (true or not doesn’t matter).
This article, and many others like it, is just another semi-monologue (oligologue?) where people with the same viewpoint tell each other how moronic those other people are. It’s something that will just get the backs up of the convincible middle ground and make your fan club applaud you. Notice how all the comments are sanitised versions of “f_ck you, stupid person” and “you are so clever”?
This article betters nothing, the same divisions of people are left with their same old ideas, just slightly strengthened, and they are definitely angrier and more convinced that the other side are idiots. You could just as well have saved your energy and our bandwith

Agreed. It will take generations. However there will always be a “previously disadvanteged” whether it was a father, grandfather, great grandfather, ancestors etc etc, the blame will be passed as far back as possible. It becomes a worry when one has political officials throwing remarks around. Just this morning reading headlines on News24, the acting president of the ANCYL, Ronald, poses the question,: “why were only black people killed at the Marikana shootout?” Now I ask you… Really?
What about the ‘previously disadvanted’ people that are quite well off? Decent employment, car, home, and all the basics incl. Electricity, running water etc. How did they get to where they are? They took initiative and worked.
During the zenophobia attacks that were taking place, black South Africans were raiding and looting Somalian owned shops. They brought about damage and stole their goods and stock, never mind the violence inflicted, but did you see one of those black South Africans kick a shop owner out and start running the shop? No, because there’s no initiative, they stole the goods, used, consumed or destroyed them for a once off act of rage, rather than utilizing their time.
Personally I think its time to individually take a stand.

Disadvantaged is not based on skin color any more. I work with a black man, about 35, who went to a good private school and had more opportunities in life than I did. His parents did not have, in those days, as wide a choice of good private schools to send him to, as some were whites only.
But he had it better than me, whose parents sent me to the only school in our little town and had no choice to send me elsewhere, even though there was blatant discrimination in my school. In my school, children from the “right side of the tracks” became prefects, got the roles in the school play, etc. For me from the wrong side of the tracks, even my actual points in exams was sometimes decreased for my report card, because the children with the right parents had to be in first, second and third in class position.

Many people, black and white, had it a lot worse than me. Others, of all skin colors, had more opportunities. Should a black youngster who grew up rich be advantaged in job applications above a white one who grew up poor? And in all this talking about blacks, disadvantaged brown people feel they fall through the cracks – they used to be too black, now they are too white.

Well done, once again as is the case in South Africa, you have successfully used racism to trump human rights. It’s disgusting to see the News24 type commentators being attracted to this like flies.

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