Stealing black people’s pain

By Gcobani Qambela and Simamkele Dlakavu

The results of the last South African census revealed a South Africa deeply divided along racial lines, with the black majority “still at the bottom of the rung” according to President Jacob Zuma. In terms of average annual income, a white household earns about R365 000 while a black household earns an average of about R66 600 annually. This means that it would take over 50 years for the white and black population to even out if the difference in their income growth remains steady. It is realities like these that black people living in a racially unequal country like South Africa have to contend with daily.

It thus came as a deeply troubling surprise to us to hear about the Red October campaigners and protests by white South Africans against a “genocide and oppressive state policies in favour of blacks”. Nechama Brodie has done an excellent write up showing how white South Africans are the least likely of any race group in South Africa to be murdered in South Africa, which we will not repeat here. While many white South Africans would at first appear to have distanced themselves from Red October activities, we argue that many are just as guilty, whether they claim an attachment to the Red October protests or not.

What we saw last week is a narrative of victimisation being perpetuated and strengthened by a powerful and privileged minority. This narrative of victimisation by privileged white people is very dangerous because, in the words of Sherene Razack, it has the consequence of “stealing the pain of others”. This is particularly important in the context of our history and the politics of memory in South Africa, where white people have been violently at the helm for over three centuries and yet nearly 20 years into political freedom still enjoy the social, political and economic safety net they enjoyed for over three centuries.

Red October is able to happen because white people have never collectively been repulsed, and consequently denounced their privilege out of true recognition for how such a white minority violently came to occupy the top tier spot over an unequal country like South Africa. In Whiteness in the Rainbow: Experiencing the Loss of Privilege in the New South Africa Melissa Steyn tells us that notions that white people are under threat or that there is a looming genocide against them in South Africa from black people or the government are false, for white people still enjoy better living conditions, opportunities for advancement and wealth acquirement than black people in South Africa. Steyn however tells us that it is “this comforting state of ignorance is characteristic of [white] privilege” and entitlement that allows inequalities to perpetuate against black people.

By situating themselves as under threat and refusing to acknowledge their ultra-privileged position in South Africa, white people are stealing the pain of black people who for the most part remain suppressed and economically disenfranchised in a country that is designed for the upward mobility of white people and black people as subordinates. Razack notes that this has the effect of providing white people with a form of “race pleasure” by confirming white superiority through the suffering of black people. As Steyn notes, in societies like South Africa, “where social identity has premised upon the subordination of the Other, the normalisation of society is experienced [by whites] as the confiscation of entitlement, rather than equalisation.”

The attitudes of some white people towards black economic empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action (AA) for instance are well documented. Many white people believe that BEE and AA policies advance a sense of entitlement among black people, therefore black people’s need for advancement is painted as undeserved or unearned entitlement.

This is done without a critical engagement however by white people of their own entitlement and the ways in which their unearned privilege dehumanises and perpetuates the pain and poverty that accompanies blackness. These attitudes towards the need for black advancement prove the normalisation and acceptance of black poverty and suffering; so for example BEE or AA comes to be seen as neo-white oppression by a black government and not as a means to redress the society fashioned by white colonialism and apartheid in South Africa.

Many white South Africans selectively remove themselves from the position millions of black South Africans find themselves in as if they had nothing to do with it. Erika Bourguignon tells us “we cannot act without memory, nor can we understand ourselves unless we can understand our past”. The actions of Red October are only a small part of what is a larger movement of “anti-memory” by white South Africans and their institutions to erase and render invisible black oppression and the “unbearable truth” of white history.

Red October is just one event of what is a larger problem in South Africa, of white South Africans attempting to steal black people’s pain and to de-historicise racism. This dehumanises black people and says that white people do not care about black suffering as long as their white entitlements and privileges remain untouched.

On Friday someone said “Red October is what happens when the oppressed are too silent about their oppression.” It’s clear therefore that black people need to speak out more because, as Octavia Butler warned us so many years ago, black people need to always “beware [because] ignorance protects itself”.

Gcobani Qambela is a 2011 AngloGold Ashanti One Young World Ambassador.
Simamkele Dlakavu is a politics honours student at the University of the Witwatersrand and the external liaison for the Young Economists for Africa.

  • Tofolux

    @gcobani, the real debate is not the interest of a few dissatisfied right-wingers. The real debate is how monopoly capital has robbed our country of the necessary advances. It is quite questionable how our attention is drawn away from real practises that flys in the face of our constitution and restitution. For a while now and especially now with elections around the corner, we seem to be inundated with stories of the govt, The President, the ANC and/or the Deputy President. The discourse is set that nothing has been done when milestones such as the creation of two factories (big) financed by China will bring back certain car brands and spare parts or the rescue of the clothing industry in Cape Town where clothes will now be produced locally instead of important has been undertaken by the 2 top clothing chains in SA. We also do not ask how for instance a leading brand in the fishing industry who depend on the resources of this nation, make obscene profits, move their assets overseas and pay staff seasonally. Or we do not question how a mining house trading a high demand commodity can claim a loss in profits and therefore a loss in jobs. The interest of those who organised the RED OCTOBER is caught up in all of the creative working of how monopoly capital operates. The fact that we suffer job losses in mining or fishing is questionable when executives are paid huge salaries and bonuses. In fact, why are profits not reinvested? The non issues of the RO, are non issues.

  • Momma Cyndi

    I would respectfully like to point out that 400 odd (in more ways than one) white people is not really representative of the ENTIRE white population of South Africa.

    It would be helpful if you defined ‘household’ and the number of working people in each one. A correlation to education levels would also be helpful

    The use of generalisations is a big issue in South Africa. Not a particularly helpful one either

  • Yvonne Du Preez

    What a beautiful article. It’s a shame that it won’t reach, or won’t move the people you’re talking about. The Red October type. You are right. Black people should speak out more. I think it’s just as important that us white people who abhor that type of thinking just as much as you do, also speak out against it. We are not all like that. Some of us did become aware.

  • Peter Ferreira

    I am a liberal white man. The fact that you paint all whites with the same brush as the few misguided right wingers is pathetic and actually makes me wonder if they don’t in fact have a point. I am white. We are being slaughtered wholesale. So please tell me as a liberal white how I must digest and accept this slaughter. You seem so very bright.

  • Jan

    The richest man in South Africa is black .you take statistics of the poorest black to the middleclass white ,so firstly you statistics are wrong

    White 800 000 of them pays less then R1500,live in places where there are no water they live in tents because the is no money for shacks ,no help because they are white so you are discriminating because of colour not us .

    If we are not allowed to have protest ,there is no freedom for us ,so you are the ones that is discriminating .

    Now 800 000 of 5million people live in squatter because of their skin colour they got retrenched or let go to make space for black people …..that is discrimination because of colour

    If black men sing shoot the boer it means discrimination ,

    The growth rate of Black South Africans raised with 970% so how can their be equal rights for all ratio wise if the growth rate are not equal ?

    Define Racism =if you discriminate against any other race that is not the same as yours NOT JUST BLACK ,you do discriminate sorry to say but it is true .

    and lastly Mandela was not send to jail because of freedom ,he went to jail for bombing ,killing women and children ,and that is real history go look it up 97 pages in his own hand writing ,killing people because of skin colour is discrimination

  • Mawuli

    Great article Simamkele + Gcobani. You cleverly and thoughtfully raised the critical issues without preaching hatred or falling into the trap of bigotry. A thought-provoking piece that forcefully alerts our consciousness and exposes the danger of allowing such narratives go unchallenged. It is ridiculously absurd for anyone to even come up with such an idea- that there is “oppression of whites under black rule” in SA. Seriously? It sounds more like 1] a deliberate attempt to distort/ deny the actual reality & history of oppression in SA, 2] An attempt to preemptively protect/ defend the status-quo of “undeserved” white privilege in that country. “Power concedes nothing without demand- it never has and it never will”. I do not believe that any of the white folks-in my SA network would identify with this ridiculous red October nonsense. But they all have a responsibility that they don’t allow a misguided few to speak for them. White and black people of conscience must continue to forcefully fight for racial + class equality in South Africa. Of course the privilege few-white-minority who are the beneficiaries of the status-quo are going to be uncomfortable and unhappy abt change, but it is an inconvenience they must live with. Aluta continua!…*M

  • Thabo

    quoting earnings without addressing education, age, experience, tenure, as well as unexplained variables such as innate ability, will always display disparities.

    I am disappointed to see that an ‘external liaison for the Young Economists for Africa’ has failed this most basic economic model.

    the claim that white attitudes toward BEE are well documented is true; financial sector boffs have often necessitated BEE, however they have corrected for the multitude of inefficiencies within the system. But to say that they all think that it creates entitlement is wrong; that is a minority who are published through non critical sources.

    I as a beneficiary of BEE have always believed that it should be shifted from its current ‘transfer of wealth’ format, to that of development (as seen in isolation of Black enterprise development) and thus wealth creation.

  • Sibusisu

    Pains are not stolen, just sometimes are transferred to others due to new situations. Yes SA is still racially divided and remaining so because there is little being done to nation build and de-racialising. While the principle of protesting against the murder of people is sound, this principle relates to all South Africans, not just a particular racial group.

    Please South Africa de-racialise. Please Government do more to nation build.

  • Sibusisu

    Sherene Razack is one young misdirected individual. If you are to truly pursue the ONE principle then you have to try, as hard as it is for you, to deracialise the commentary and the narrative.

  • donovan

    Ai, ai, ai. The real issue was not the protest, the real issue is the lies of this government. You can’t tell me it is apartheid that kept the schools in a dismal state as it is now? Yes, dismal. Because the very people, the blacks (according to BEE status) who suffer, doesn’t have equal opportunity, for 20 years. Oops, let me rephrase rather put down the correct time before everyone is side-tracked. It’s not 20 years yet, but come May 2014 it will be.

  • donovan

    Oh yes, important point i didn’t mention. Notice how the black elite (those who profits from B-BBEE and the government) gets richer and the very same blacks (who’s pain is being taken away by the red october march) gets poorer. You should be more concerned that a PRESIDENT can allow a mansion (or let me rephrase NKANDLA) be built when the very town around him are suffering.

    Ai, ai, ai, and here you are a politics honour student…

  • John

    These type of articles (and I don’t mean articles focussing on race and/or social narratives, but the way it is written and its structure) are not very helpful and actually quite dangerous. Primarily because the article’s argument doesn’t allow any space whatsoever for critical response from a white person, without that white person seeming to confirm the authors’ point. It therefore, by its nature, marginalises and excludes the people who’s behaviour it is commenting on. Which, is really unconstructive. The authors’ rhetorical mechanism of using a central idea to tie together phrases like ‘whites in Red October’, ‘many white South Africans’, and finally, ‘White people’ (collectively and uniformly), is clearly not analytically very helpful. There has been widespread and (I believe) sincere rejection of Red October by ‘many white South Africans’, and this article alienates these people from the narrative that the author is presenting as dominant.

    I also happen to think that the authors’ argument is a very astute assessment of the mindset of a subset of white South Africans, but by polarising ‘white’ and ‘black’ it is also particularly unhelpful for moving forward on this issue.

  • Danny Watkins

    I am white and a registered professional with 25 years experience in my field. Due to AA and BEE I could not get a job in the country of my birth for over a year. Once I applied abroad I had a job within 4 weeks. I accepted and I am now raising my children in a country where they are welcome and where I can make a living based on my capacity to work and NOT the colour of my skin. My family I experienced BEE or AA exactly as neo-white oppression by a black government and not as a means to redress anything.


    All I can say is…. if this is the future of the governance or control of this country…. oh dear….

  • John

    This country can only heal once one is allowed in the public sphere to tell the “unbearable (and politically incorrect) truth” about black history and black present. Unfortunately the revisionist and mostly incorrect history being forcefully fed to our children in schools and adults in the MSM, simply means there will never be any perspective to this debate.
    This is so in every country on the planet- no one except another black may interrogate/criticize a black person. An iron fist of intolerance is wielded when someone tries to explain the truth of our past or our present. And I guess in a seriously disjointed way this was the purpose of this campaign.
    Until the black media and so called “liberal” white media agree to drop the propaganda and expose the other half of black history/present, and the world stops treating blacks like porcelain, only then can we move forward.
    I guess it’s like whites who were always told that they were simply incapable of seeing their own racism. Today this ‘Beacon Topdeck’ has done a 180. “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.

  • bernpm

    “One Young World is a global forum for young people of leadership calibre. Its purpose is to connect and bring together the youngest and brightest and to ensure that their concerns, opinions and solutions are heard and taken into account by those in power whether in government, business or any other sector. ”

    If the above is all this “young world” can come up with I do hope they stay young for a long time.

    Thought leader has recently been inundated with the poor deal given to blacks, be it money, jobs or the penis. The responses from John and Danny Watkins touch on some serious issues.

    Instead of trying to understand their issues (and maybe some these “red October” people) your article goes from defense into attack mode and offers no solution.

    In my mind, a waste of solutions, just another discussion as before at “penis” level.

  • Tofolux

    @Danny Watkins, well done to you. I hope you stay where you are and never come back. To my mind, if you are of your colour and you cannot get a job then something is not wrong with the govt and I say this because where I work, young school leavers of your colour are getting positions that are created for them. In fact, they catapult those who must teach them to do their highly paid job, those who have more and better experienced and much more competent. Their only flaw, they are not of your colour.