White Privilege Is Alive and Well in Post-Apartheid South Africa
I’m standing on the street outside my flat. I take my phone out quick to memorize the license plate number of my Uber so I don’t have to keep my phone in my hand. “Stash it, don’t flash it,” say the posters mounted on the rows of lamps that line the streets of Cape Town’s City Bowl — a pickpocket prevention campaign to ensure unsuspecting tourists don’t have a tainted experience of the Mother City. It’s good advice, but three years of living here have taught me that trouble will find you if it really wants to, whether you have your phone out or not.
I repeat the license plate’s digits over and over in my head, scanning the passing cars to find a match until finally, my Uber driver pulls up beside me. I open the back door and climb in.
“Hi, I’m Jo.”
When I first started taking Ubers in Cape Town, I made a point of always sitting in the front seat next to the driver. I wanted to let them know that I’m a passenger, not a patron. That I just need to use their service, not affirm my status. Sitting in the back seemed hostile. Snobbish. But after a handful of drivers misread the gesture of sitting up front as an invitation to flirt, I promised my partner to always ride in the back.
I try to push my backpack down between my feet and the driver hastily leans over to crank the front passenger seat forward a couple of notches to give me more leg room. It’s always an awkward moment. It says, “I expected you to climb in front.” It sets me apart as a back-seat rider. As someone who maintains the divide.
“Nice to meet you. How are you?”
I’ve taken a lot of Ubers. I know how this conversation will go. We’ll share pleasantries. We’ll comment on the wind or the heat, the changeable weather or the lack of rain. With a name like Takura, or Tendai, or Simbarashe, I know my driver is from Zimbabwe, but I ask anyway so as not to seem presumptuous.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Zim,” he replies on cue.
What follows is a quick succession of questions: “Really? Which city? Which part of Harare? Which school did you go to?” It’s a rapid-fire test of authenticity and once I’ve passed, I’m in. I become their “home-girl”. The warmth and solidarity of the how-long-have-you-been-here’s and the when-were-you-last-in-Zims are probably why I keep replaying the conversation with every driver I meet, but there always comes a moment when the comradery wanes. When I have to tell them I finished high school and went to university in France before coming to Cape Town. When I have to tell them what job I do. When it becomes painfully obvious that, while we’ve both lost our home to the same political and economic unrest, I was dealt the better hand — I was born white – and that is why I am being driven and they are driving.
White privilege in Cape Town manifests in much the same ways as it does anywhere else in the world, but it’s particularly painful to witness and uncomfortable to experience in a country and region with such deep racial wounds. White South Africans only represent about 8.9% of the population and yet, in this post-apartheid society, our white privilege remains potent. That statement alone is enough to set a South African Facebook feed on fire, but the fact remains — I and other white people here in South Africa live easier lives simply because of the color of our skin.
Here are a few examples of how:
White people’s lives are treated as more valuable.
In 2016, 16-year-old Franziska Blöchliger was raped and murdered in Tokai forest. Reading the news reports was harrowing. Her story was all the more tragic, as her mother, whom she had split away from only minutes before, was only about 150 meters away from her at the time of her death. The brutal event sparked outrage and thousands gathered in a silent vigil to mourn her death.
For weeks afterward, on every hiking trail that I went on with my best friend Irene, every cluster of (predominantly white female) hikers that we walked past was talking about it. They used clipped, angry language. Their outrage was palpable — not only at the brutal death of a teenager, but because the incident threatened the sanctity of their lives. Were they at risk too by merely walking in a forest or on the mountain? What precautions would they now be forced to take?
Ever since moving to Cape Town from Pretoria, Irene has found herself in largely white-dominated spaces, giving her a fly-on-the-wall experience of conversations she may not have otherwise been privy to as a black woman. It was on a busy hike on Table Mountain near Constantia Nek that she finally lost her cool:
“I can’t bear to hear another person mention it! Seriously, let’s just get down this mountain or I don’t know what I’m going to do. Don’t they realize people get murdered every single day in the townships?”
South Africa has an infamously high murder rate. In 2016, roughly 51 people were killed every day of the year. The other 50 or so people that died the day Franziska did, were most probably not white. They did not make the news the way she did. There were no thousand-strong vigils to speak of. I do not know their names.
To quote a protest banner I’ve seen circulating on the internet, “Privilege is when you think something isn’t a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally.” What became so painfully obvious to Irene and I that day on the side of Table Mountain was that most white people in South Africa don’t get angry about black murders the way they do about white murders. Is it because they don’t see them as relevant? It’s not their community, therefore not their problem? Or is it simply that there is no shock anymore? As writer Sisonke Msimang puts it, “We need not use our imaginations to envisage violence against blacks of any social standing: We have already seen it happen.” Either way, there is an empathy gap where color and class are involved. Despite being a majority black country, law enforcement and the national news seem to follow suit.
How united can this Rainbow Nation be, if the rape and murder of a black woman doesn’t feel as worthy of outrage and consequence as the rape and murder of a pale-skinned girl in a nice part of town? Why does the one spark action, when the other doesn’t? Is it not strange that, as a queer white woman, I feel safer being gay in Cape Town than I have in any other city I’ve lived in, but my black queer sisters are victims of corrective rape and murder on a regular basis? What about Noxolo Nogwaza? What about Sanna Supa? What about Phumeza Nkolonzi? Were their killers caught and prosecuted like Franziska’s?
To quote Professor Njabulo Ndebele, “We are all familiar with the global sanctity of the white body. Wherever the white body is violated in the world, severe retribution follows somehow for the perpetrators if they are non-white, regardless of the social status of the white body.”
“The global sanctity of the white body” is why, when black South African miners protest to ask for more money, 34 of them are killed at the hands of police, but when white people block freeways in Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Cape Town waving old apartheid flags to protest farm murders as part of #BlackMonday, the police merely “monitor” the situation. Sisonke Msimang writes, “It is impossible for me to picture this government authorising police to shoot at a crowd of white protesters. It is harder still to imagine any element of the police — even with that authorisation, whether trained or untrained — picking up their guns, pointing them at whites, and then squeezing their triggers.”
White people are given the benefit of the doubt.
I step off the street into my local shopping complex in the bohemian neighborhood of Observatory. I quickly scan the bustle of people around the entrance to SPAR. Having been subjected to a handful of attempted muggings and pickpocketings, I always keep my wits about me now. My eyes spot a pair of black bare feet. They are keeping pace with a pair of shoes and I immediately suspect the bare feet belong to an insistent beggar — the kind that walk alongside you for as long as you’ll let them, perhaps to get a better chance of reaching inside your purse. I follow the bare legs up, past the raggedy lapels of a thin cardigan and stop short. The man’s face is one of a young, hip, university student — septum piercing, short dreads, and all. He’s simply going to the shops with a friend.
I’m embarrassed. I also realize he’s the first middle-class black person I’ve ever seen going barefoot in public — a very common thing for white South Africans to do. It is no doubt a rare sight, because black people are sure to get profiled in the way that I had just profiled that young man. In our cultural narrative, black bare feet evoke poverty, but white bare feet evoke earthy free-spiritedness.
These double-standards influence black lives constantly. Every day, men and women pour into the city of Cape Town from the surrounding townships to work in tax offices, restaurant kitchens, supermarket aisles, hospital wards, and backyards. If you happen to find yourself on public transport first thing in the morning, you’ll notice freshly ironed clothes, polished shoes, oiled hair, and bright faces. You would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between someone who lives in a middle-income household and someone who lives in a shack. Dressing well is a point of pride for most people, but there’s something interesting about the irreproachable appearance of Cape Town’s commuters. It is the self-imposed neatness, the unassuming tidiness of a perfectionist trying to pre-empt criticism.
During my time in France, the UK, and Belgium, I have never smelt more deeply unclean human beings in my life than on the buses and subways of their biggest cities. I had come to believe it was an unfortunate but unavoidable part of city living. And yet, I haven’t experienced bad body odor once since getting a MyCiti bus card or riding the trains here in Cape Town. I believe that’s because with white privilege comes the benefit of not really having to prove yourself to anyone. Despite having running water in their homes, a puzzling number of Europeans seemingly allow themselves to slide into squalor, but Cape Town’s non-white workforce will be scrutinized and judged in ways white people rarely experience.
In South Africa — and, I imagine, in many other places in the world — black people’s intentions and competence are constantly questioned, whether it be when simply walking into a supermarket or shaking the hand of their patient for the first time. Forced to play by rules and standards that say that dark skin and nappy hair and black bare feet are equal to poor, to uneducated, to dangerous, then the first line of defense is to present an unquestionable appearance.
White people are free to inhabit space.
I used to live in a house share with eleven other people in Tamboerskloof, an upmarket neighborhood below Cape Town’s iconic Lion’s Head. I got into running and used the quiet residential backroads to zig-zag down the steep hill and then run back up. Tamboerskloof has some of the most beautiful roads in the city. There are granadilla vines hanging from garden walls, furious pink bursts of bougainvillea, patches of speckled shade under jacaranda trees, and the sweet smell of jasmine and lemon blossom on warm nights. Running those streets was a quiet pleasure.
My black housemates Muano and Alfred ran too. One night, Alfred came back from one of his evening runs in a state. He said he’d been stopped and interrogated by a private security vehicle because there had been a report of a black man with dreadlocks in a pair of shorts lingering outside a small apartment complex with a torch. Alfred had merely stopped to change the song on his iPhone before continuing his jog. I could just picture the old white woman peering down from her balcony that had made the indignant call.
The hostility and suspicion with which the two of them were treated for doing exactly the same thing as I and our predominantly white and wealthy neighbors did, led Muano to eventually stop running in Tamboerskloof. He said it made him feel like a criminal.
“Everyone looks at me as though I’m running from the scene of a crime.”
White people are shielded from much daily abuse.
The elderly woman inspects the muffin that has just been brought to her table. She gets up and walks to the counter.
“This isn’t the right muffin.”
“You brought me the wrong muffin. This is not what I ordered.”
“Which one did you order?”
“This one,” she says tapping the glass display cabinet vigorously, “This one!”
“The bacon and cheese muffin?”
“No, I ordered The Sunrise. Right here.” She taps again for emphasis.
“The Sunrise is the bacon and cheese muffin.”
“No, it’s not I can see blueberries in it.”
“The Berry Burst muffin has blueberries in it.”
“But the sign says it’s The Sunrise.”
“These are The Sunrise muffins and these are the Berry Burst muffins.”
“Well, how do you expect us to order when your signs are all mixed up! They don’t match the display at all!”
This is the kind of bickering from a customer you could hear just about anywhere, but it takes on a very particular quality in a place like South Africa when the service provider is black and the customer is white. There is an insistence on public humiliation, an obvious commitment to playing dumb, a seething frustration below the surface that far surpasses the matter at hand. In fact, the conflict really begins long before the interaction. It begins with the expectation of black incompetence.
Sometimes it’s expressed in loud, racially charged expletives about, “You people!” but other times the micro-violence is silent:
I’m scanning the frozen section in Woolworths when I hear a disgruntled noise behind me. I turn to see a white man holding a bottle of milk. There’s a white pool on the floor from milk leaking out of the cap. At that moment, a stock manager steps out from a pair of swinging doors. The customer wordlessly hands him the leaking bottle of milk. No greeting. No recognition. No explanation. Just an accusatory gesture that says, “Deal with it.” The stock manager stands for an instant trying to understand why he has been left with this jug of milk. He tilts it this way and that, feels the liquid running over his fingers and instinctively steps back to avoid the drops. The customer is long gone and the stock manager is left with the silent humiliation of being nothing but a faceless, wordless prop in someone else’s life.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways that white privilege manifests. Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack does a better job of that. This is however, an attempt to look at the realities of my new home.
The minute any of this is mentioned on social media, many white South Africans are quick to rebuke, “Why must you always make it about race?” My question is, “Why must you always deny that race is a major factor in all of our lives?” Perhaps they ask this because their race doesn’t present them with daily obstacles. Perhaps they ask this because they have the benefit of living in a world that continues to view white as “default” or “neutral”, making everyone else “other.” Perhaps they ask this because to them, race is not a problem because it isn’t a problem to them personally.
I understand why people get defensive when they’re told they have privilege. After all, they might have grown up poor, as part of a religious minority, or in a wheelchair, and as a result, have experienced discrimination all their lives. But even though my Uber driver Takura has male privilege that I cannot access, I still have white privilege that he cannot access.
As difficult or embarrassing as it can be to admit to the different kinds of privilege we each have, acknowledging it is our only duty. After that, it’s really up to you. As writer Roxane Gay explains, “You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You don’t need to diminish your privilege or your accomplishments because of that privilege. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about. They might endure situations you can never know anything about. You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good — to try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. While you don’t have to do anything with your privilege, perhaps it should be an imperative of privilege to share the benefits of that privilege rather than hoard your good fortune.”