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The shadow cast by colonialism is very, very long

Cape Times, June 26, 2007, Edition 1

© Gordon Aeschliman Cape Times June 26, 2007. All rights reserved

Gordon Aeschliman

There is a curious rush at the moment by some sectors of the white community to wipe away the memory of racism in South Africa.

"None of us ever really supported apartheid," is a surprisingly common, if not shocking, statement I hear among my peers at any given braai. "How's the snoek, bra?"

There appears to be an underlying commitment to deny the very real consequences produced by decades of apartheid and centuries of colonial occupation.

With this denial comes the implication that there is nothing left for us white folk to do to rectify historical evils, and that, in fact, it is time for black South Africans to "get over it already".

Recently, while having coffee at a friend's home in Khayelitsha, I was struck afresh by the absurdity of the white feeling that we all just need to be happy that democracy succeeded and to now get on with our lives.

If my friend decided to sell her home and buy "up", essentially meaning buying into a white neighbourhood, the equity of her house would not even purchase one tenth of a house in Pinelands, Observatory or Newlands. Not to mention Constantia, Sea Point or Camps Bay.

To put it in the reverse, if we white folk were to sell our homes in order to relocate to Khayelitsha, we could afford to buy 10 homes in my friend's neighbourhood. Such wealth! The problem of racism in South Africa sits right at the centre of this economic fact.

There is a profoundly naive social analysis around which denies all the structural benefits which white South Africans have accrued.

The core project of overcoming centuries of racism in our city and nation is to address the entire weight of colonial history.

Ending racism is not about individual advancement. If we want to rid our city of racism, we have to rid it at the structural level. There is no other way for whites to make a moral stab at our heritage.

The history of exploitation has material and cultural dimensions that persist. We own most of the land, most of the corporate wealth, small businesses, equity in the stock exchange, most of the resorts, coastlands, large houses and corporate real estate holdings and fancy cars.

We enjoy these substantial financial assets that have come to us through colonisation.

Our wealth is measured by the networks we have built in recent decades. Within the business community, we are just two or three phone calls away from selling our services in computer technology, accounting, consulting and catering, to name a few. Our kids are linked into a global network of opportunities and homes.

Today, the majority of our nation's international commerce is with "white" countries that profited from apartheid so that even in this context our white skin slants opportunity our direction. Apartheid and the colonial era have been very good to us economically, and we retain most of the fruit of those years.

There remains a great price to be paid by most "non-European" South Africans, a vast number of whom were stuffed into crowded urban developments we called townships.

We specifically ensured blacks would not develop skills for a competitive role in the job market by assigning them to unskilled labour.

We denied them the right to develop real estate interests, corporate holdings, business networks and educational expertise, just to name a few.

We redefined social standards to mean anything European. Indigenous forms of knowledge, governance, communal living and environmental sensibilities were all but eradicated as if they were a social disease that threatened the superior white way of life. That paradigm persists today, where managers and tenured professors are lamenting the required hiring of "unqualified" staff and co-workers. It's all too easy to hide our racism behind that label.

What gave colonialists licence to destroy local communities was labelling African ways as uncultured, uncivilised and savage.

Overcoming the structure of racism in our society recognises that having one particular culturally-defined skill set for a job is not an adequate measure for qualification in today's diverse community.

During apartheid, only whites lived up to the qualifications of colonial visions. Whites should no longer hold the power to offer calculated, narrow measures of what makes one "qualified".

Some of my braai conversations take me back more than 30 years to JG Meiring high school in Goodwood. At the mostly Afrikaans-speaking school, we were trained to think that apartheid was not a racist system, but one which honoured all cultural groups by not forcing any one particular group's way of life upon another.

The same shameful logic - that you can build a morally sound society without reference to the health of each sector within it - persists today. Apartheid embedded social systems within ethnic categories, ensuring poverty for one and abundance for another. What will it take to be truthful about the rewards we still retain?

Whites should embrace every moral and strategic approach at our disposal to overcome the structural racism within our society today. Our project cannot be about our pure motives or the arrival of democracy

We cannot deprive people of their lands, wealth and heritage for 350 years, and then 13 short years after independence assert everything is now fixed. Time to move on!

I think it could be argued from a strategic point of view that we whites should support affirmative action-style programmes for approximately another 350 years until the impacts of colonial occupation have been truly ameliorated.

We cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot hold on to the assets of our past exploitation and demand "fairness" for our white children who still enjoy all the benefits of centuries of occupation.

If we are not willing to go the distance in establishing economic justice through mechanisms that rectify racism at the structural level, perhaps we should simply dissolve all our white assets and redistribute them to the rest of the population on an equitable basis. That may afford us a more honest start at each day.

For some reason, black South Africans are not requiring immediate economic justice.

If you came into my home and stole my TV, I expect nothing less than its return for there to be justice. We came into this land and took the assets/culture over by force. Justice should, at one level, mean nothing less than returning those assets.

So while the black community says it will not demand an immediate return of those stolen goods and culture, the unthinkable is happening in the opposite direction.

Whites are demanding the immediate cessation of attempts to put more earning, educational and cultural power back into the hands of the black community, even as the whites hold on to all the stolen goods. It is a continued legacy of colonialism with Western intellectual, social and ethical paradigms being employed to justify it.

If we are able to rigorously support social structural changes in our city to the full extent of both the letter and the spirit of the law, then, in time, we will have levelled the playing field and colonial racism will be thing of the past.

Were that to happen, we will no longer be able to refer to Khayelitsha, Langa, Nyanga and Crossroads as black townships and Constantia or Sea Point as white neighbourhoods.

Once the work of social justice is complete, it will no longer be possible to detect the role of race or ethnicity in predicting success, wealth, disease or poverty.

We cannot stop referencing race until economic justice is complete.

Race as a predictor fades into history once history's injustices have been corrected. Then the work of structural readjustment will be complete - not a day earlier.

It makes sense that there is much anger in the white community around the changes and new stresses that democracy has introduced to the traditional white way of life here in South Africa.

But our anger is misplaced if we put it upon the shoulders of those we robbed and oppressed for 350 years.

Ouma and Oupa, together with their forebears, created a legacy of cold-hearted policies that treated black South Africans as disposable labour units.

It is frightening to watch the emergence of a band of morally-energised whites who think black South Africa is the new perpetrator.

That new vocal crowd is being both dishonest and pathetic, not to mention dangerous to a fragile new political reality that is trying to overcome the burdens of our past.

Current poverty creates additional structural problems in education, opportunity and wealth. The mess of today is the consequence of yesterday's apartheid. We have to accept a messy process to rectify it.

We have an opportunity to join the rest of South Africa's citizens to create a legacy of economic and cultural justice for all. Why not aim for that higher, more noble goal?

Why grovel in pretend hardship as we continue to dwell off the abundance of our colonial reapings?

It's not generous of us whites to join a vigorous attempt to build a unified and economically just society. It's the very least we can do to address our past sins.

When I was 10 years old, our gardener, Daniel, used to send me to the butcher to buy him soup bones to take home for supper in Soweto. "They will give you bones with meat, master Gordon," Daniel used to say. "If I go, it will be bones."

I would proudly slap the four tickies on the glass counter and take home more meat, as a child, than a 45-year-old black adult could acquire with the same amount.

We must be wise to the disparity of what appears to be equal. The colonial shadow is indeed a very, very long shadow and there is a very, very long road before a mature indigenous man will receive the same benefits as a white child.

·   Aeschliman hosts foreigners each winter to show them the challenges and successes of transition from apartheid to democracy.






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