White guilt: Why calling a spade, a spade is scary

Tembeka 2 (3)

Is this white or black land? White dispossession of black people’s land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through colonial expansion was resisted by black lawyers who used the law as an instrument, but lost the fight. People such as advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi tell the story in his book The Land is Ours: Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism in South Africa, launched in Cape Town in May. Land and white privilege continues to haunt the country today

“DON’T YOU dare say I don’t belong here!” That’s what a group of mostly middle-aged Jews who lived through apartheid seemed, privately, to want to say to black advocate and author of the book “The Land is Ours”, Tembeka Ngcukatoibi,  last Sunday in Johannesburg. They were at a panel discussion that grappled with how whites and Jews make meaning of their lives in South Africa today. But what these people in the audience actually conveyed, pleadingly, was: “I beg of you, please tell me I belong.”

Ngcukatoibi insisted that to really belong, they needed to shed their ‘whiteness’. The aim, he said, was to create an ‘African’ identity. White and black must be transcended. But what about their ‘Jewishness’?

This is the anguished conversation playing itself out in a myriad ways in South Africa, 2018 and, in this case, at Limmud, a two-day conference with a range of workshops and talks on topics of relevance to South African Jews.

Ngcukatoibi was on a panel that included journalist Richard Poplak and SA Jewish Board of Deputies Gauteng chair Marc Pozniak, and facilitator Lael Bethlehem.

Panelists drenched the audience in guilt for not fitting into the new South Africa. The discomfort was obvious, while not expressed openly. However, a quiet voice inside them seemed to say: “Do I actually want be part of this new South Africa, with its ghastly corruption, politics and violent crime? As a white, I am sidelined. When I apply for a job, I am told it is for blacks only. I have relatives in Australia; why should I stay?”

Hard questions. The panel was arguably one of the conference’s most relevant, and despite it being the last on a full schedule, the hall was packed. But while the topic should have ignited passionate arguments, there were instead polite platitudes and tip-toeing around deep feelings. Is there a fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, the politically incorrect? South African politics today is a minefield of racial and other accusations, whether justified or not.

All panelists were on the moderate left. What was missing was someone from the right to provoke, to say unapologetically, as some whites do: “I am a white South African who didn’t ask to be born into apartheid, but worked incredibly hard my whole life for my living and my kids. I will not be made guilty, and will fight if you try to take it from me! Or I’ll leave the country with my skills and money.”

Disappointment in how South Africa has turned out is widespread among whites – you hear it everywhere in the Jewish community and other communities. The enthusiasm of Mandela’s era has been replaced by fear.

People who 25 years ago decided to stay and rebuild the country, are rethinking. Many audience members had always opposed apartheid in one way or another, even if they didn’t go underground. Bethlehem asked: “Can you be white and ‘progressive’ today, as in the past, by running an NGO and giving blankets, or is that space closed? Can Jews be part of the national project?”

Poplak issued a challenge: “When did Jews become white? They came to South Africa and negotiated their ‘whiteness’, sometimes with bad people, at the majority’s expense. But the gigantic gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation in 1994 has not worked out and we’re at the giving-back stage, way past charity and sewing blankets. You have to give up something to belong.”

Ngcukatoibi expresses blacks’ feelings eloquently: The cultural domination of whites suffocates black people, forcing them to negotiate inclusion into the cultural space determined by whites – the language, the institutions. ‘Whiteness’ remains the overriding cultural norm, in an overwhelmingly black country; whites must give up their supremacy.

Is giving up ‘whiteness’ even possible for South African Jews to consider? It might include giving up things like holiday homes and 4x4s. Is this community too comfortable in its affluence to rethink itself? The same questions apply to other communities. These questions need to be on the table even if there are no simple answers.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

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