Max du Preez

The role and future of white South Africans


I really should have declined the request to talk on this topic this morning. For almost all my 25 years in journalism, I was the unwelcome messenger of bad tidings. I was hoping that now that I'm slightly over the prime of my life, I would command more respect and people would ask me to talk about sweet topics that make people feel good. I'm afraid I don't have one of those topics.

The fact that any view expressed on this topic normally risks being called racist, liberal, defeatist or traitorous is already telling us something of the sensitivity of the debate. But what the hell, I've been called much worse than that in my life.

The real damage of centuries of colonialism and many decades of apartheid was not that it left people without proper education, employment, housing or health care. The real damage was deeply psychological. Most other nations had the luxury of a natural development from a traditional and tribal society to a modern democratic state, the opportunity of moulding that eventual modern state according to the culture and wisdoms of hundreds of years.

Colonialism and apartheid interrupted and destroyed those natural processes in our country, and in much of our continent. A British style state was imposed where all things African were viewed as primitive and inferior. We talk about the Chinese civilisation and the Indian or European civilisation, but we very seldom talk about the African civilisation. All the processes other peoples had the privilege of going through naturally, were manipulated in South Africa and it became forced and artificial. This is certainly true of urbanisation, social and family structures and even the progression of languages and religious development. By the later part of this century, this damage was irreversible. The European state had become the norm, and all liberation movements in Africa simply adopted it when they achieved liberation and independence.

The overwhelming continent-wide hero-worship of Julius Nyerere, who is being buried as we speak, is an indication of the subconscious desire we have for it to have been different. Nyerere was one of the few African leaders who refused to accept the European state willy- nilly and insisted on going back to the African village as the basis of society. It was a dismal failure and impoverished Tanzania immensely.

I am dwelling on this part of our history merely to make this point: the political, diplomatic and moral victory of the South African Liberation movement which culminated in 1994 was not merely a victory of the black majority over oppressive white minority regime. It was arriving at a point where the black majority could turn and look back over centuries and say: for the first time in many generations, we can now mould our future ourselves according to the wishes of our own people.

There was one snag, one complication that spoiled this picture. Through the peculiarities of our history and unlike most other former colonies, the conquered people were no longer colonials who could go home after their defeat. There was no Portugal or France or Belgium or Britain to go back to. After 350 years, the former colonialists had also become natives. And that is why we are here discussing "diversity" today. (Some actually call it The White Problem).

It may seem obvious to most of you, but it is actually worthwhile examining the reasons why we did not, like any sane and intelligent analyst twenty years ago would have predicted, did not descend into anarchy and communal war such as Rwanda, the Congo, East Timor, Kosovo or Angola.

Let me dwell on just two or three reasons. The first was that we have had strong, moral and responsible leadership at the helm of our national liberation movement from 1912: Sol Plaatje, John Dube, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo. Nelson Mandela was the ultimate product of that culture and process, and so is Thabo Mbeki. South Africa was blessed with the most mature liberation movement in modern history.

The second reason was the strong role of organised religion. The overwhelming majority of South Africans were and are conservative Christians. Two of the greatest peacemakers of our time, Desmond Tutu and Beyers Naude, were the products of this phenomenon.

But I believe there is another reason why we survived without full-on war, and that is that we have always had a visible and influential number of white people who had put their minds and bodies on the side of the black oppressed. Their presence and actions helped prevent our conflict from becoming over-simplified into a struggle against people with white skins. I'm talking about people like Bram Fischer, Trevor Huddlestone, Beyers Naude, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Molly Blackburn, Helen Suzman, Ronnie Kasrils and Jeremy Cronin. Interestingly, most of them were Jews, Communists or Christians.


These were people until recently deeply despised by most whites. These were also people with enough of an understanding of the dynamics of the politics of the majority to play an auxiliary role in the struggle, rather than trying to lead.

Earlier this year, one of my columns in The Star, The Argus and the Daily News triggered a huge debate around the question whether white South Africans could also call themselves Africans. I was unpleasantly surprised by the venom coming from several members of the black intelligentsia. One over-enthusiastic learned commentator even wrote in The Star that I merely want to call myself an African all of a sudden, because I wanted to steal more land from the Africans.

I had the impression at the time that these very same people would have reacted a lot more sympathetically if I had pleaded for a white volkstaat. And a black deputy-editor more or less called me a blasphemist for daring as a white man to quote Steve Biko. It would probably have made him a lot more comfortable if I had quoted Hendrik Verwoerd or PW Botha.

An old colleague of mine of the black consciousness persuasion confronted me and said: Why don't you have the grace to leave us alone to celebrate our liberation and our African-ness? Don't we at least deserve that? I said to him: yes, you deserve the right to celebrate. I'll even forgive you for being arrogant for a while, although I would have preferred your celebration party not to have a sign on the door stating: Blacks Only. But I cannot allow you to exclude me from active membership of my nation and my continent. Because once you have excluded me, you might not want to allow me back on once your celebration is over.

An ANC discussion document leaked to the press this week bemoans the fact that the power of the "English liberal section of the former ruling bloc" has not been reduced significantly, whereas Afrikaner power has been "significantly eroded".

I agree with the basic analysis. And there is a simple explanation: Afrikaners based their power on their control of the state, the civil service, the armed forces and the parastatals, while English-speaking white South Africans had only one way to assert themselves, and that was through controlling the economy and the media. The state and its organs were taken over by the elected government in 1994, but power over the economy is, of course, something quite different. The only way to "undermine" white dominance here is to get the economy to grow quickly and increase the black share in it.

I'm just not sure why the reference "liberal" was put in the sentence. My personal experience is that the majority of white English speakers prominent in commerce are not "liberal" at all. They're quite conservative, even right wing, actually. So are a good number of leading members of the Democratic Party. It is quite odd how the word "liberal" nowadays gets added almost automatically to "English" or even "white". If a black intellectual wants to insult a white person nowadays, he doesn't call him a fascist or an Afrikaner nationalist or a right-winger, he simply calls him a liberal. I'm not sure I get it yet.

But I share the concern expressed in the document that in many spheres of our society, black voices are still not as influential as white ones. One place where this is very obvious is in the media. When we need an expert to explain the latest drama around the gold price, or the inflation rate, or the prospects for economic growth, or the intricacies of the politics of the Great Lakes region or even health issues, we put a white man on the TV screen to explain. This is possibly more about laziness than ideological incorrectness: journalists, black and white, often simply don't bother to go and find black and female experts, because they know and have the phone numbers of the trusted old guru's. Also, most of our book reviewers and movie, theatre and art critics are still white.

But then, isn't the entire top news structure of the SABC black? And aren't most of our newspaper editors black nowadays? Why do they tolerate this?

I'm not sure, though, that I agree with the broad lament this past week that black journalists are not influential in our society. I think the voices of people such as Mathatha Tsedu, Kaizer Nyatsumba, Jon Qwelane, Tim Modise, John Matshikiza, Mondli Makhanya, Ceasar Molebatsi and others have become far more powerful than any of the regular white commentators.

It would help this debate if we did not only see members of the white community as privileged people with a lack of skin pigmentation. We should occasionally also try and see them as ordinary human beings with ordinary human emotions and behaviour. And what we are expecting white people to do, what I expect white people to do, is a very difficult thing for anybody to do: to step back, to accept that at least for the next generation they will have to stand at the back of the queue.

But they will have to accept that there will be very limited scope for whites in South African public life in our lifetime. There will never again be a white commissioner of police, a white head of the army or defence force, a white director-general of a state department. The armed forces, the civil service from national down to local level, and the parastatals will increasingly become very frustrating places of work for white people. Even in big corporations young whites will feel frustrated because of the pressures of affirmative action.

Easy for an old goat like me to say, but what about my 24-year old son? I have often told him before he started his career: your best bet is to become an entrepreneur, to work for yourself. And if that's not the way you want to go, choose something where you will not compete with young blacks. Better even, try and find a career where you can serve the cause of black advancement. He did: he is now the general manager of Wits Business School's Centre for Entrepreneurship.

Inevitable, I say about this process, but at the same time it is a process, which holds several dangers. If this frustration and alienation reach a certain critical level, it can easily lead to the development of a new ethnic nationalism - even a new wave of racial resentment and racism. The process of affirmative action and black empowerment should ideally be phased out before Afrikaners legitimately start seeing themselves as an oppressed minority, and start mobilising around it.

The process is already causing large numbers of promising young white people - lately also young Afrikaners - leaving the country for more level playing fields in Australia, Europe or North America. I think we will all be shocked when the real extent of this becomes clear. Large numbers of Afrikaners living all over the world stay in touch with South Africa and each other via the Internet - hence the talk of a "cyber-volkstaat". I am told that when the Springboks played Scotland recently, Afrikaans was the only language heard in at least two large popular Edinburgh pubs.

It is no use saying "good riddance" to those who want to leave, like I have often done, when they are people in their early twenties. They were not even born when PW Botha came to power.

The worst thing that happens to whites in South Africa is that they start defining themselves out of the nation, like the Rhodesians had done in Zimbabwe. Or, of course, to allow others to define them out of being part of the South African nation.

Affirmative action as a corrective act or ‘regstellende aksie’ is no doubt essential in terms of fairness, stability and progress. But when it results in gross unfairness or contributes to bad administration, it becomes counter-productive. To undermine all hope and ambition among keen and able young white South Africans, would also be counter-productive.

In some respects, affirmative action has already become something else than a practical method to correct the wrongs of the past, a way of giving opportunities to the previously disadvantaged. Black people who had senior positions in the administrations of the Bantustans or parastatals like the SABC, cannot and should not be regarded as "previously disadvantaged". They are not entitled to affirmative action. Like most white males, they got fat under apartheid. Yet there are many prominent examples of these people being promoted over the heads of able whites in the provincial administrations and parastatals such as Eskom and especially the SABC. The Group Chief Executive of the SABC is one such example.

If affirmative action is a punitive act, if it is purely about skin colour rather than giving people opportunities they were denied in the past, then it is wrong and dangerous.

The same applies to a new trend in especially the private sector and academic institutions, namely to appoint blacks from other African states over the heads of white South Africans with equal or superior qualifications. This is unfair. Affirmative action should not be extended to citizens of Nigeria or Ghana or Uganda.

There is a magic solution to most of these complex problems: a fast growing economy. If we can eradicate poverty and create a large number of meaningful job opportunities, the racial resentments and jealousies will soon disappear. But even if we can achieve rapid economic growth, there is still the danger that the new wealth will be grabbed by a new, greedy elite rather than spreading it among all classes. In the New South Africa, as in the Old, that famous old principle of the "trickle down effect" simply doesn't work.

Ironically, this seems to be one of the simplest ways for white South Africans to play a meaningful role in society: to use their education and experience to help make the economy grow faster. But then again, there is already a strong resentment that there are too many white people active in the economy.

It took me this long to tell you I have no answers to the question I was asked to address.
Let me just say this: Probably one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation is to maintain the very fine, delicate balance between a new black assertiveness and a celebration of black confidence on the one hand, and on the other hand not alienating the white community to such an extent that they start feeling unwanted - that they start becoming bad citizens. That would be in nobody's interest.

(C) 2002 DCT Consulting SA (Pty) Ltd Reg. 2001/013615/07