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Apparently some white South Africans still think the rest of us should get over apartheid and, in their phrase, “move on”.
I know this because a white friend who has been living elsewhere on the continent told me on a recent visit that she’s still hearing this sort of thing in her white circles in South Africa – nice inside intelligence there. The kinds of things white South Africans will say when they think they’re “alone” are amazing. I thought we were done with this but evidently not.
I know what you’re thinking: another column about race, kill me now. Guess what? I’m pretty tired of talking about race too but I’m even more tired of people pretending that certain facts don’t exist.
Apartheid may have ended more than 20 years ago, but that’s nothing. The United States is immersed in race tension more than 50 years after racial segregation officially ended. And just because we’re (sort of) equal now, this in no way erases the after-effects of centuries of economic structural inequality that are largely racial.
I get the sense, when I talk to some white South Africans, that they really think I’ve had the same opportunities in life that they’ve had. It’s laughable.
So, one more time, here’s a small list of just some of the reasons white South Africans still have one up over the rest of us – and black South Africans in particular.
1. Generational wealth
Here’s how this works: most white South Africans’ parents or grandparents were able to buy and own property and businesses or shares in business. They were able to pay off their properties or expand their businesses thanks to preferential treatment and employment.
They were then able to leave the proceeds of this wealth to their children, our contemporaries, as either an inheritance or a financial jump-start in life.
Most black South Africans have no such jump-start. They stand and fall on their own efforts alone and there is very little safety net if they don’t make it. Family wealth is already thinly spread to cover those who have nothing.
When my black friends say they’re broke, it means family debt, circling loan sharks and the horror of truly going under. When my white friends say they’re broke it usually means they may have to dip into their savings or swallow their pride and ask their parents for help.
I won’t be getting any inheritance, a policy that pays out a nice lump sum at some point in my life or a paid-off flat with little or no rent. These are the reserve of those who have had generations to build this kind of wealth and pass it on.
2. Social capital
When I was growing up I used to watch the Joshua Doore adverts on TV and think: well, at least I have an uncle in the furniture business, if nothing else.
Most white South Africans have so many resources they can draw on, that are not strictly financial. They have educated family friends and extended family in high-level positions across various industries. They can get amazing advice, mentorship and a hand-me-up when needed.
Social capital is difficult to define or clearly appreciate but it’s pervasive.
It’s the spare laptop your parents let you use, the nice clothes you have that make an impression at a job interview, not to mention the nice manners and accent you learned along the way.
It’s the fact that you can reference the right music or literary joke that your superior education afforded you, earning you an in with the boss. It’s a family culture of success and an environment that is conducive towards it.
And it’s not something you earned.
3. Early childhood development
There’s a reason it’s so newsworthy when a black child from a poor background makes a huge success of themselves. The biggest odds they’ve had to overcome are largely invisible. Forget the physical disadvantages of living in a township or rural area.
Most white South Africans had parents educated enough to know to give you healthy food, develop your motor skills as a toddler, and help you read so that by age five you were already leagues ahead of your black peers from the township, an edge that would give you exponential returns as your education developed.
Ask any early childhood development expert: the advantages you were given before the age of five, before you had to do one iota of work, would have set the course of your life very favourably. So don’t give some young black person crap about not expecting hand-outs and working “like you did” for everything you have. You have no idea what you have.
4. The benefit of the doubt
I wish every white person who thinks that race isn’t such a big issue and “we’re all just human” could walk around as a black person for a day in a predominantly white area.
You’ll have people cross the road to avoid you, or refuse to meet your eyes.
You’ll have employers assume you’re lazy, forcing you to work harder than your white peers to prove otherwise.
Restaurants and clubs may or may not give you good service but there’ll be a different awareness around your person, a bubble of air that will attract covert stares or animosity.
Or you’ll be insulted – deeply and personally – every time someone makes a joke about your name, where you’re from, your inability to swim, your love of chicken or any of the other casual, awful racism that gets dished out with a patronising smile.
And you definitely won’t be waved through the boomed-off areas in the suburbs. The security guards manning those points reserve that treatment for those who don’t “look” like trouble.
5. A financial head-start
The majority of my white friends in South Africa were lucky enough to get their first car from their parents, and their first degree almost fully paid for, if they were unable to get a bursary. I’ve had some pretty hairy experiences in my life but the stress of trying to pay for my university degree almost made me physically ill.
I had two loans and a car to pay off after I left university, and that was after I had some help aimed at people of colour – you know, those affirmative action policies some white people think are the most unjust, cruel things ever.
I had to work three part time jobs in my final year at university to cover some of my costs and afford the move to Cape Town for my first job, and the living costs for the first month until I earned my first salary.
For many black South Africans the situation will be even worse. They won’t be able to make it to university, if they can get through school, and will need to immediately work to help the family.
This is not some random fact of life. It is a direct result of the economic policies of apartheid that left generation after generation destitute so that for the first few generations of black people trying to make it in post-apartheid South Africa it’s like running a race with lead weights on your feet – and that’s even with the small hand-me-up that various affirmative action policies and bursaries provide.
6. Self-sufficient parents
Guess what else most people of colour in this country have to pay for once they get their first job? After they’ve paid off their university loans and their cars they’ll be sending money to their parents and other relatives who would be destitute without it. The first time I heard it was the other way round for many of my white friends, I was gobsmacked.
What you can do
There’s so much more but here’s a better idea. Sit down with one of your black friends and ask them to tell you about how apartheid has affected their life. There are so many different kinds of injustice in this world. Race is just one of them. But it’s one that people seem to want to deny the most. When my white friends tell me about some traumatic experience they had that affected their lives I don’t tell them they’re probably imagining it and they should “move on”. I try to listen and sympathise. Try doing the same for the injustices someone else has suffered – including those that are race-related.
I know this isn’t true for all white people or all black people. I’m talking in broad strokes here and there will always be exceptions.