by Richard Pithouse, SACSIS & The Daily News
The words that escaped from Darren Scott's private life and crashed
into the public realm via an argument in a bar are no unique perversion.
For anyone with any doubts about the extent to which white racism not
only spills over into the new order but also continues to reinvent
itself the comments sections on news and analysis websites, spaces that
enable public anonymity, make for dispiriting reading.
But with the exception of extreme figures like Steve Hofmeyer white
racism is a passion that doesn't often speak its name in the public
realm. The desire to hold out a manifestation of whiteness as a power to
be obeyed, or an idea of whiteness as a norm to be conformed to, tends
to cloak itself in appeals to the authority of wealth, expertise, the
law and claims about the weight of the opinion and power of foreign
investors, tourists and the 'international community'.
The paranoia so evident in the rush to silence public reflection on
race is so intense that its even reached into the usually arcane world
of academic discussion. When Rhodes philosopher Samantha Vice wrote a
paper on the ethical burden of whiteness she found herself amidst a
storm of astonishing hostility. When Stellenbosch philosopher Anton van
Niekerk expressed some sympathy for Vice's arguments, he was assaulted.
This is all rather extraordinary given how peripheral most academic
work is to the public sphere. Academic conversation often refers, with a
self-deprecating smile, to an American study, perhaps apocryphal, that
concluded that the average academic article was read once. If this study
does actually exist its findings are not entirely surprising. Academic
prose is often stolid and charmless and its far from unusual for
academic writing to be more concerned with situating itself in a
discourse with some currency in the academic world than in sincerely
grappling towards some sort of comprehension of some aspect of the
But there are diamonds sparkling in the vast fields of academic dust
and every now and then a paper is mined from the academy and thrust into
the hurly burly of our increasingly fractious public sphere. In its
response to Vice the F.W. de Klerk Foundation declared that dangerous
ideas, even from the deepest reaches of provincial academia, must be
resolutely opposed. The essential thrust of their argument was that: “A
substantial proportion of whites cannot be described as being
‘privileged' at all. The vast majority have acquired whatever wealth
they have through the same means as their counterparts throughout the
rest of the world: through hard work and enterprise.”
Neither race nor racism are all about money. But the racialisation of
wealth and poverty in South Africa remains stark enough for no
discussion of these matters to be able to proceed without taking the
realities of money into account. The fact that white claims to power are
often masked as the claims of an economically competent elite whose
particular interests coincide with the general interest compound this
Rhodes University, where Vice wrote her paper, is in Grahamstown. The
town itself is named after John Graham, a colonial soldier, who, with
what he called ‘a proper degree of terror’, drove twenty thousand Xhosa
people from the area in 1812. Graham stole their cattle, burnt their
gardens and killed their soldiers. Rhodes University is built on the
site of Graham's garrison.
Today the municipality that governs Grahamstown is named in honour of
Nxele Makana who, in 1819, led an attack on Graham’s garrison. He had
six thousand soldiers with him and thousands of women and children
behind the soldiers ready to resettle the land. But Makana was defeated,
captured and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. After a
year on the island he led an escape in which guards were over powered
and a whaling boat captured to get the men to the shore. The boat
capsized in the breakers and Makana drowned.
Many of Graham's soldiers, and the settlers that followed them, were
poor people. Many of them may well have been made poor by the brutal
enclosure of common lands in England. But here in South Africa they
became white people and so, for most of them, and their descendents,
hard work was usually redeemed. Whiteness here, as in other settler
societies, had its own wage. For many black people work was as endlessly
unredeemed as the labour of Sisyphus.
Today there are moments here and there where it could be said that
the legacies of Graham and Makana have been brought together in a higher
synthesis. But, on the whole, the colonial structure of Grahamstown
remains strikingly and terribly evident. Racialised inequality is
starkly obvious and is built into the physical structure of the town.
These facts are not solely a hangover from the past. Evictions from
farms turned into game reserves continue to drive people into shacks.
And post-apartheid development on the part of the state has often taken
an actively neo-apartheid form simply extending, rather undoing, the
spatial logic of apartheid.
Of course there are some poor white people living in the township and
there are black people living in the suburbs. But the average white
person continues to live a life of comfort and security. The average
black person is unemployed, living a life of stress and indignity, and
without any real prospects of making a viable path towards a decent
Under these circumstances any assumption that white wealth and power
is purely a consequence of white initiative and dedication to work is a
denial of the history of racialised dispossession. It is this
dispossession, and the systemic racism that followed it, that has so
often enabled generations of white work to be redeemed in houses and
degrees while generations of black work have so often led to life, often
wage-less, in a shack or crumbling RDP house.
The F.W. de Klerk Foundation doesn't use the crude language of Darren
Scott, but the racial denialism that they display in their sneering
attempt to beat Vice's questioning back into submission is just as
Questions about how to live in the world are not worked out in
abstraction from the practice of being in the world. And being in the
world is always a complicated business. But asking questions about
things like power, privilege and the weight of history is essential if
we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. And, in our history,
and, indeed, the history of much of the world, whiteness has been
central to many of those mistakes.