SA whites’ bubble in the room

South Af stay or go (2)

To stay or to go? The complex white dilemma in South Africa is a source of much debate, since whites are small in numbers but hold major power and influence in the economy

AS the Democratic Alliance threatens to implode, the sense of security it has given to the small white population of South Africans, many Jews and other minority groups among them, gets shakier. Despite its flaws, its existence represented a political home, in a confusing context where they struggle to find another. This is not ideological, in terms of helping to build a great country to tackle the misery of the masses, but mainly about their personal standard of living and security.

To put it more crudely, can they still preserve their box of privileged life amidst mass poverty? The DA seemed to offer this. Everyone knows that the white liberal minority on which the DA depends is only small in numbers, but immensely powerful in wealth and influence.

Whites who teach in universities and work in managerial positions in business and elsewhere report a pervasive anger among young blacks today towards whites, and accusations of racism based on minor incidents. Whites who weren’t born during apartheid are accused of blocking transformation, and made to feel unwelcome in this country. Their response is, “yes I know the terrible history of black oppression, but what do you expect me to do now? Is the only route for me to accept your rage and leave?”

After Sharpeville in 1960 some whites left the country because they felt it was destined to plunge over the precipice, and didn’t want to raise families in such a place; others left for moral reasons because they didn’t want to be part of the racist apartheid system. Apartheid is gone, but the essentials of this racial disparity still exist.

Where do smaller sub-groups of whites stand on this issue, such as the Jews, the Greeks and so on? Must they follow the white exodus, for safety or moral reasons?

Three categories of whites remain here: Firstly, those who would like to leave but for whom emigration is impossible for financial or other reasons. They are reconciled to staying and making the best of it, knowing they will never be truly African. They live in a bubble, developing their own communities and institutions, and limiting their engagement with broader society, government and national bodies to a minimum. They build their own schools, welfare organisations and financial institutions. In a sense they have ‘left’ the country but remain here.

Secondly, those who aggressively stand their ground as African, declaring to all that they are fully South African, despite being white, and intend staying. They insist on participating in the non-racial project and broader society on an equal basis no matter how much rejection they experience from black pan-Africanists, and despite the anger and accusations that they are still privileged white colonialists.

And thirdly, there are those who drift around in the middle, bouncing between the poles in search of their identity, longing to leave but knowing they can’t, trying to feel more for the South African project but knowing that they will never feel truly African. It is this third group who are the most miserable.

And then of course there is a group who don’t have to be counted here: those whose applications for emigration to Australia or other places are already in process, and are simply waiting to go.

The fact that this debate on the DA predicament is happening every day around white dinner tables shows how unsettling the problem is. The DA may yet regroup, but rather than see this crisis as a collapse of the political landscape that has given reassurance to whites, it could present a significant opportunity to realign the mindset of South African whites, and to clarify why and on what terms they are living here.

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

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