There’s been much fanfare in the media after Samantha Vice’s paper on white guilt and retreat. It has stimulated debate amongst white intellectuals but the bigger challenge would be making the average Helen or Jacob on the street reflect on themselves. Given where I stay, i’ve had much to reflect on.
I live in Knysna, a gorgeous yet troubled town on the Garden Route. Economic and social contrasts are more visible here than in the cities. This results from being a tourist based economy as well as a destination for retirees. Size emphasizes contrast the most. The population is under 100 000; 80-85% Coloureds and Blacks, the rest Whites with a smattering of Chinese. Topography plays it’s part, an estuary and sea semi-circling the town into a smaller shape. The rich and credit-rich live in the low-lying areas nearest the water whilst the poor and low-class view them from bordering hills nearby.
Unlike the cities where multiculturalism expresses itself through restaurants, coffee shops, movie theatres and clubs, Knysna consciously and unconsciously promotes separateness. On the streets, you’d be fooled as differently skinned pedestrians walk to and fro in seemingly harmonious and unhurried mannerisms. I say “seemingly” because indifference is more likely. As for pace, there’s not much to run to in our version of Groundhog Day. Most days were the same even before money decided to take a vacation from us.
With the exception of two, multi-racially attended bars (bizarrely, racists sometimes sitting side by side), Knysna is divided by colour. If they were asked where they come from, a White kid is most likely to say Knysna but a Black or a Coloured would name a suburb such as Concordia, White Location and Hornlee. This results from exclusion, economics and racial misconceptions, forming what I call the New Apartheid. The biggest powers in our town, affecting or substantiating this, are the Knysna Municipality, Knysna Tourism, drugs and the Recession.
The Municipality is the biggest stumbling block and interlinks with the others. Under the new, DA-led Council, they have no plan to address social inequality. Sure, houses get erected but hearts and minds need building too.
You can’t, for example, find someone at the Municipality who deals with schools, the majority in poor areas with no contact details to be found. Drugs, such as tik, heroin and cocaine, are a massive problem in Knysna, especially in the poorer, non-white areas which seem to be left to destroy themselves. The DA have no plan for it let alone a willingness to be educated. Regards Tourism, they give them approximately R4 million annually (which increases to as much as R7 million through events and membership). I believe in the “best person” for the job but the situation here is absurd with all seven members of the Tourism Board, the CEO, Public Relations and the manager at the satellite office in Sedgefield being White. What an irony that the biggest image front for our supposed “town for all” is controlled and aimed at the smallest portion of the population. No surprise that related events and sponsorship, an industry to itself, is mostly the preserve of White organizers for White crowds e.g. the Pick ‘n Pay Knysna Oyster Festival.
Knysna blew a big bubble the last decade. Inflated stock market values equated to imaginary wealth which resulted in far too many holiday developments for the size of this town. Ironically, and to give them justice, they provide rates and taxes. But now, the property market is flooded with these mostly, white-owned luxuries i.e. no more construction, no more jobs. Add a rapid decrease in tourists and the Recession has erased a major slice of the town’s pie, from empty shops and restaurants to business liquidations i.e. less jobs.
These problems are emphasized by an unapproachable DA Council and several unsubstantiated protests believed to be organized by the ANCYL. I’m sure that there are many across South Africa who can relate to this. We are supposed to be a democracy so those average Helens and Jacobs, meaning me and you, have to accept blame and responsibility too.
The New Apartheid is unlike the old which was enforced by law. This is apartheid by our (society’s) choice, a refusal to seek common ground and work together towards goals that are common for all cultures e.g. food, shelter…life itself.
Should Helen Suzman or Nadine Gordimer feel shame for being White? If not, then why should I for simply existing? I can be White and South African. We have to overcome the Us or Them mentality that’s driven by politicians seeking self-empowerment though the use of our anger and fear as weapons. The real determination should be based on reaction or non-reaction to the challenges we’re faced with. It is ourselves who decide our guilt and shame!
White shame should not be alone. Add Black and Coloured shame too for those who do not work towards a better life for all. By the same logic, we can subscribe to Pride in actions that improve our shared lives.
We are a society of opinions with little fact. True reflection is desperately needed. And reflection needs to produce a result that becomes action. I am not ashamed to be White because I am a person of action. That is not ego but a position of general loneliness i’d happily remove by welcoming others, of all races, who want to make a difference.
If I could get my neighbours to ask themselves one simple question which could be applied to your town or city too, it would be:
“WHAT CAN I DO?”
And then hope that they do it.