Why this pale male is shutting up (for a little while anyway)

Six weeks ago I touched down in London: a born-and-bred Cape Town boy about to start a new job in another country.

While the online smorgasbord of Politicsweb, the Mail & Guardian and Business Day still form a daily news staple, an inevitable sense of detachment from the roiling intrigue of South African politics has crept in. And not merely detachment: perhaps it’s because I’m living in a country, far, far away, that I feel less able – or qualified – to comment about day-to-day political issues.

But I’ve also succumbed to ennui. I’m tired of participating in a debate riddled by crass racial accusations – a discourse where identity prevails instead of ideas, rash insults instead of reason. South African debate is lively – thankfully so – but arguments are too often drowned out by the din of racial politicking. It’s become reflexive – a lazy tic employed by so many commentators. It’s easier to resort to racial stereotypes, or accuse people of being racist, or place blame on our racialised history, than it is to grapple seriously, thoughtfully, considerately with the mammoth challenges South Africa – and Africa – faces.

At the back of my mind every time I consider piping up, is the thought of my own impotence – condemned to irrelevance, almost, thanks to my perceived identity. I can’t avoid those thoughts: what’s the use in saying anything, when whatever I’ll say will be dismissed by a cursory “But he’s just another middle-class, white male”? It would seem my love for South Africa, my desire to see positive, long-lasting change in this country, counts for nothing in the eyes of many. I dream of a nation where all South Africans – black and white, and every shade in between – are prosperous; where children receive a good education; where families receive the support they need; where men and women are able to chart their own lives and shape their own destinies through their own efforts.

That counts for nothing in a media environment palsied by identity politics. Apartheid’s scars were often physical – and certainly social. Glance through the pages of our newspapers or tune into our talk shows, and you will witness that the wicked system’s lingering effects are psychological too. Sadly, the obsession with race, and with what race supposedly says about a person, has only deepened.

After more than 16 years of democracy, an implicit racial bias underpins much of South Africa’s media’s ouput – both in its commentary and reportage. Many journalists, it seems, are tempted to reinforce a narrative in which the legitimacy of people’s motives or actions are based purely on their skin colour.

I find this particularly evident in coverage of the DA’s governance in the Western Cape – the Makhaza toilet saga being a perfect example. Coverage on the issue laid bare the media’s inherent hostility towards a party perceived as “white”, as well as journalists’ reluctance to obtain facts on the ground that might contradict their sly suggestion that the DA was hell-bent on humiliating township residents.

Now that I’m living in London, a new label – that of expatriate – will of course be slapped onto me, further undermining the “legitimacy” of my contribution to political debate. South Africans can easily misinterpret moving countries as a sign of indifference about the migrant’s homeland: he’s run away; he’s given up; he doesn’t believe in our future. Staying is equated as a vote of confidence in the new South Africa, leaving merely shows contempt for it. Those who believe this forget, of course, that our world is an increasingly globalised one – and that leaving often has very little to do with the faith (or the lack thereof) in the country of one’s birth.

A part of me says this all shouldn’t matter, and that I should be writing about South Africa regardless, in the hope that my views won’t always be completely discarded as self-indulgent musings from an ivory tower. But, for the moment, that argument doesn’t hold sway and, wearied and wary, I’ll be letting my typing fingers rest for a little while yet.

Rest assured: I won’t remain silent forever. That would simply allow victory for the bigots who say political debate is a territory that can only be occupied by those who claim victimhood. For South Africa to move forward, we cannot allow that belief to prevail.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Why this pale male is shutting up (for a little while anyway)

  1. h mabena

    wow wow wow!!!!! I cannot believe that I am the first to comment on such a brilliantly heartfelt piece. It really resonated with what I have been feeling of late about our commentary as a nation. I find it so refreshing when I read US or UK news that they don’t go on and on about race issues and not other pertinent universal issues! Well done, please speak up, do not stay silent, SA indeed the world needs voices like yours!

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