I was lucky enough to have a conversation the other day that doesn’t get had much or very loudly in South Africa. More so for a white adult male like me. Yes, it is that conversation. There were a thousand threads to the actual dialogue as it happened, which would be difficult to coherently re-tell here, save for one discussion – around the issue of to what degree and why I feel a need to be involved in helping bridge the yawning chasm of inequality that is post-apartheid South Africa.
To cut to the chase, before the longer explanation, my current view on the matter is as follows:
- I do not bear any moral guilt for Apartheid
- I reject any implication that my race confers on me the status of previous oppressor (as distinct from beneficiary) under Apartheid.
- I believe, however, that I do have a duty to help this country
- I believe that this duty transcends race, and that it is ethically wrong to use your race as an excuse for not helping bridge the divides in the country.
Some explaining is now probably due.
I do not bear any moral guilt for Apartheid
Personally speaking, I reject outright any notion that I bear guilt or responsibility for Apartheid. I say this for two primary reasons. The first is that I grew up in a generation who was largely unaware of the idea of Apartheid (it’s existence, its fundamental philosophical premises, its effects) and so were not in any way able to consent, or even evaluate the system – something which is required for me to take responsibility for it. Secondly, looking at who I am as a moral/intellectual person as a result of my upbringing (raised by a liberal parent) and my education (University of the Witwatersrand – ’nuff said), I very much believe that I would have fallen in with the set of people who disagreed with the system and exercised what power they had in defiance of it. I would probably not have been a Helen Suzman or Joe Slovo, but to be frank, many in the black struggle weren’t either.
The point here is that I don’t believe I had the capacity to understand and endorse Apartheid. Further to this argument is that my upbringing was such that I believe that I would have not endorsed and would probably have exercised what power I had against such a system. The obvious rebuttal to this second point would be that I am only a liberal sort because of the post-1994 South African intellectual environment, and that had I grown up under Apartheid, I would have been different. My retort would be to simply point out that it is the liberal, rights-loving version of myself is the one that some quarters of South Africa would hold to account, not some hypothetical conservative, alternative future Richard. And that Richard, the one being challenged, is not one that would have been complicit.
I reject any implication that my race confers on me the status of previous oppressor (as distinct from beneficiary) under Apartheid.
Referring to the discussion in the previous point – not being complicit in the Apartheid machine means that I cannot – I will not – accept the label of previous oppressor under Apartheid. This is where the extreme left wing nutjobs will usually start to froth, seeing an oppressor and the class that many of them belonged to and viewing me as being a part of the oppressor class by virtue of my relative affluence and white skin. To do so, as many do, is to conflate being an active part of Apartheid with being a beneficiary of it. And that is a wrong thing to do. Many white people who disagreed with Apartheid, and many who acted out against it would have done so from relative affluence (as compared to those in the townships). That was a structural feature of how those in charge allocated resources on a racial basis. But these people were not supporters of the system. Many were not.
The point is that if you wish to determine whether someone should bear the badge of previous oppressor, then you should work it out on the basis of their oppressive behaviour – not their race or relative economic power. And on a trial of my actions (or complete lack thereof), I would fail to fall into that category.
What i will agree with, though, is that I have been born into relative advantage as a result of what those who pursued Apartheid achieved. It was not my choice that this was the case, which makes it different from outright theft from the dispossessed, but the fact remains that I have an advantage educationally and economically over many in South Africa, and the fact that this was obtained for me by others through inflicting pain and misery creates a responsibility for some sort of action to right the imbalance on my part.
I believe, however, that I do have a duty to help this country
And so we reach the next statement of belief. In a country as divided economically as ours, where a few have so much and so many have nothing at all, it is (in my moral universe – a separate discussion) an ethical duty to do what I can to bridge that divide and empower the disempowered. To deny others basic rights, and not to care that we exercise huge freedoms because of where we are in the strata of South African society, is to adopt a fundamentally unethical approach to our fellow human beings.
I believe that this duty transcends race, and that it is ethically wrong to use your race as an excuse for not helping bridge the divides in the country.
There are two fundamental points to note here, though. The first is that I believe that my duty to act comes about because I am better off (wildly so) than the poorest in this country. My duty to act is therefore a consequence of having in a country where so many do not have at all. It is explicitly not an obligation that comes about because my advantage was gained previously under apartheid. I feel that, in a country like South Africa, anyone who enjoys privilege in a landscape of such need has a moral responsibility to act to assist those who are downtrodden. And that means all such people, not just the white ones.
Which brings me to the second point to note. The ‘we’ that I refer to as being well off includes not just the born-to-middle-class white folk, but the newly made black diamonds, the moguls of the corporate world and every other demographic of wealthy person in the country. People who enjoy money and privilege from working their way thorugh the economic and social power landscape that Apartheid bequeathed this country. I gained my good education because – whether I realised it or not – I was white. Many black diamonds have found their way into affluence and power because they too possessed superior educations in a national landscape where that gift was denied to so many, creating a world where they too were born into an unintended advantage, which has elevated them.
Both of us have used our gifts to the fullest, and made hay while the proverbial sun shines. But both of us, therefore, have a responsibility to make things better and to give a hand to those who were not born with such advantages. To say that you are exempt from caring for the poor because you are a different race is to make an arbitrary and unacceptable statement that there are circumstances (determined by race, even more arbitrary) under which it is OK to turn a blind eye to human suffering and enjoy your dubloons. In a country whose moral landscape is informed by the axioms of human equality and right to dignity, that is offensive.
And so we should all care. All of us who live in the suburbs, who can pursue our higher-order freedoms free from worry about hunger and shelter. And so I do. I care because I wish to be a moral human being – because I want to be someone who is part of repairing the damage wrought to South Africa by what came before my time. Not out of guilt or inherited responsibility because of my race – you can take that accusation and shove it. It’s because I want to be a better human being.