Mhambi has been redeployed.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Myths and misunderstandings: South African white racism

Originally uploaded by Barry Lewis.
Mhambi is regularly struck at how the British (and probably most Westerners) misunderstand South Africa racism. I just started a new job, and over a boozy Chistmas lunch, a new colleague told me of his lovely visit to South African shores.

He had a lovely time but was gob smacked when he visited Sun City, playing a round of Golf on the famous course. It was not the fact that there are real crocodiles in the water hazards that shocked him. It was a sign "No caddies past this point" - on the border of a crocodile infested pit.

For a start he did not use a caddie, that smacking too much of white-michief-type colonialism. In South Africa caddies are almost exclusively black. But the sign left him incredulous. "How could this racist sign still be up there, a few years after apartheid ended??" he asked me, clearly exasperated.

Mhambi gave a well practised sheepish laugh. What to say? First off, I was not sure he and I saw it the same way. I certainly was not shocked.

I deduced that he must think that white golf players send their caddies into crocodile infested pits to fetch their racist bwanas balls - hence the sign. And then he said as much. "How racist is that?!!" he asked rhetorically.

I laughed even more, now my embarrassment was tinged with sadness.

To me one could detect signs of racism in the sign, but of a different ilk to the one that had just been spotted and caused such disgust.

The sign was directed at caddies, and not players who commanded them. The caddies were not mere automatons with no power to decide where they could go.

In fact, the caddies probably scour the golf course on their own for abandoned balls, to sell them at a discount to players.

They have a reckless disregard for the dangers of this particular course - hence the sign. That's how I saw it, and I'm pretty sure I'm right. But I kept this to myself.

But my colleague can just not imagine that a caddie would want to try and get a ball in such a dangerous place.

The Sun City golf course management and myself could. But for him, it was easy to imagine whitey golfers sending powerless caddies to their deaths.

Does this misunderstanding tell us anything more profound?

Yes. White South African racism, and in particular Afrikaans racism is of a paternalistic kind: It's a - our blacks that we can't trust to look after themselves - kind of racism. That is the racism this signs speaks of, and it is often mistaken for another more BNP / National Front / Klu Klux Clan - Western kind of racism.

Does it matter? Of course. Any lawyer will tell you that the intention of an offender is essential in determining the severity of the crime.

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james said...

I'm a little confused by your post. You say: "White South African racism, and in particular Afrikaans racism is of a paternalistic kind: It's a - our blacks that we need to look after - kind of racism."

Do you mean all White South African racism is paternalistic? Or just certain kinds?

Wessel said...

Hi James, and apologies for taking so long to answer your comment.

Partly its because I have been working so hard, and partly because racism in South Africa is such a destructive force and such a sensitive subject. Fools rush in...

First off, I was talking about racism in the past, when whites ruled the roost and could not imagine the world another way. I think there is a different dynamic now.

I certainly don't think all white racism is of a paternalistic kind. Although I think it was pervasive and still is.

It's an ugly racism, but there are examples of far worse and abhorent racism, which is incidently also found among blacks, coloureds and asians.

(I don't think South Africans are inherently more racist than for instance the English, I just think that history and their environment has dealt them a very different hand.)

But white racism has had almost all the publicity. And often rightly so. But seldom was this racism properly analyzed and in the majority of cases it was over simplyfied or even mythologised as an every easy cause, a cause against which they could rally - an ointment with which to sooth Western guilt over colonialism and racism.

I think there is very little real undertstanding of South African society in the West, just as they are now finding it hard to undertand Iraqi behaviour.