I benefit(ed) from apartheid

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

I certainly benefited from apartheid. And I’ve bought the t-shirt that says so – two of them, in fact – even though I might never wear them except in the company of other 40-something white liberals, with whom I share enough history that misinterpretation is unlikely.

Misinterpretation is unlikely, even as we agree on how many different things the t-shirt could be saying, and often also agree on what it should and should not be saying. It does not need to say that because I’m white, I should feel guilt. It should certainly not be saying that white people should withdraw from political comment, as Samantha Vice once argued.

But outside of the shared space of those of us who – to a lesser or greater degree – participated in some form of protest or activism in the 80s or earlier, this shirt’s message is perhaps a little too ambiguous, and too open to misinterpretation. Two reactions illustrate the problem, and even though these reactions are both far too simplistic, they nevertheless serve as useful examples of two possible extremes.

First, there’s the contribution that “Frank” made to MyNews24, headlined “I benefited from apartheid and other fairy tales”. Frank’s column discussed the “new liberal buzz concept that we as whites … have hugely benefited from a system that has been dead and buried for 18 odd years”. There’s no value in linking to this, as it starts out wrong-headed and quickly ramps up to triumphalist – but completely unreflective – smugness.

While the fact that he thinks this concept “new” might reveal that he’s only started thinking about this recently, more worrying is the fact that he’s bought into a premise that I can’t help but associate with someone who’s unwilling to engage with South Africa’s past (and therefore, present and future) in an honest way. As I’ve argued before, the first democratic elections didn’t somehow flip a magical switch, whereby after 1994 we could be sure that everyone succeeds or fails entirely on merit.

Now, I might like to wear the t-shirt in Frank’s company too, so that he can know he’s alone in wanting to bury his head in the sand, or to engage in acts of “whataboutery” wherein you boycott SAA, or self-righteously stalk the aisles of Pick ‘n Pay rather than Woolworths for a week or two, to say “what about this new-fangled form of racism, eh? Is this what ‘we’ struggled to achieve?”

But then, maybe Frank will think I’m wearing the t-shirt ironically, and never think about the message it’s intended to convey. Or maybe he’ll think, “well, perhaps you did, but my life was hard, and now my kids can’t get into UCT Medical School. And you call this justice?” In other words, maybe Frank will make the mistake we all (white, black, female, male, poor, rich) sometimes do, of thinking that anecdotes count as data.

And then, there’s the other sort of extreme reaction, this time a comment left at the Mail&Guardian (excerpted):

sickening…how self rightous some white south africans can be…so you think a sorry is good enough..a woolies t-shirt with those words is good enough. for me it simply shows the depth at which white people think black people are stupid. How lowly they regard black people’s pain. Will this t-shirt wipe away the memories of apatheid, will it give me the land they took away from my family. will it educate me, will it take away the shame and inferiority complex I have that was passes down to me due to the whites manipulating black people’s minds.

The fact that this reaction is a straw man of the worst order is besides the point, as is the fact that the author of this comment seems to believe that white people are in general insensitive, manipulative, and of the view that black people are stupid. To put it plainly, it’s besides the point that the author of the comment appears to have racist attitudes towards whites.

The reason it’s besides the point is that whether (many or most) whites are like that or not is a separate issue from whether a wearer of this t-shirt in fact benefited from apartheid (which, in general, they certainly would have), what they are trying to say in wearing it and most importantly, whether they think that wearing a t-shirt is all they need to do to wipe the slate clean.

My answers to those questions are not going to be the same as yours. But the key point here is that regardless of what my or your answers might be, those answers aren’t going to necessarily overlap at all with how the t-shirt is perceived by others, and what they think you mean. Intentions aren’t transparent to those who pass us on the street, and the performative role of this t-shirt is a fundamentally ambiguous thing – not to mention potentially a rather offensive thing.

And lastly, there are two quite general problems with this t-shirt, which further decrease the likelihood of my ever wearing one, despite now owning two. First, because as much as it’s true that whites benefited from apartheid, apartheid – or at least its legacy – is increasingly becoming the narrative by which some tenderpreneurs and politicians (even Presidents) enrich themselves at the expense of people who are currently, not previously, disadvantaged.

As much as the t-shirt would speak the truth if I were to wear it, would it be any less true if worn by President Zuma, even though the benefits might be of a very different form? If apartheid didn’t provide Zuma and the ANC with a narrative of being essential to the liberation from apartheid, would he and others not perhaps be in jail?

The other general problem is that what the t-shirt says is partly false. Yes, I did benefit from apartheid, as (on aggregate) all whites did. But I still benefit, because of the cultural capital, the confidence, and from the fact that the vast majority of people in power at my institution are white liberal males, just like me. How could I not have benefited and continue to benefit? After all, isn’t that what apartheid was designed for?

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.