Thursday, October 22, 2009
The same old story
So, a naked hairy white man enters the steam room at the Morningside Gym in upmarket Johannesburg. He greets me. Unusual! Not what one has come to expect in Cairp Tahn, but anyway. So far so good.
His opening remark is something like this. "They", he says, gesturing in the general direction of the sound coming from the television outside, "They are kicking out those counsellors in Mapumalanga (sic!) just to replace them with more corrupt counsellors". I keep quiet. I think Oh God! What did I do? Why was I born? And I wish I was dead - all of these simultaneously.
But he continues. "Its bladdy disgusting! It was never like this before!" Now this is where I made my mistake. I engaged. I said "Pretty much the same as the previous government." - a fatal error. He reluctantly conceded the point, however "it was done with more subtlety", he said - as though that made it OK! "There were never any of these service delivery strikes before", he averred. "No", I said, "because the previous government just shot protesters dead!"
He agreed, albeit reluctantly. But then he went on, musing on the possibility that perhaps "they" need a bit more heavy-handedness than they are getting at the moment. "Oh?" I said, "like shooting them dead?"
He went on. "They" burn their buildings. "They" don't appreciate anything that gets given to them. "They" mess everything up. By this stage I just kept quiet. It seems nothing changes. I wanted to ask him if he would be having the same conversation if I happened to be black. I wanted to ask him why the buildings "they" were destroying were "theirs" and not "ours"? I wanted to ask him if he would have preferred an all-out racial war, rather than a negotiated solution which guaranteed that the former oppressor lost nothing. But I didn't. I just dripped quietly and said nothing.
And as it happens, that day was also when the Rector of the Free State, Jonathan Jansen withdrew charges against the white students who, last year, humiliated workers at the Reitz residence of that University - apparently urinating on meat and then forcing the black workers to eat it on video. He did so "in the spirit of reconciliation". He then went further by inviting the offending students to complete their studies at the university. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu immediately congratulated him on his action? I think he was wrong to do so.
When a black person sees, in their mind's eye, a white student urinating on food and forcing an older black woman to eat it, be under no illusion, that incident is not seen as isolated. It is seen as just another act of brutality and humiliation, which has centuries of history as a precursor. And it awakens all of that. Every act of racist brutality. Every act of humiliation. Every pain and all the suffering caused by apartheid. It is not just an isolated event. And it will not do to say, "Oh, we need to forgive!" because it is blacks apparently, who need to do the forgiving, and whites can just go on humiliating, with impunity. It will not do!
Besides anything else, you can't forgive on someone else's behalf.