In her provocative piece, Samantha Vice, a Distinguished Professor who works with the Wits Philosophy Department and the Wits Centre for Ethics, explains that “Apartheid’s dubious gift to whites was the chance to live comfortably, securely and with opportunities for creative development and worldly success. Apartheid cushioned whites at the expense of making life very hard for others – and the effects of this injustice are still present” (1).
This is best summed up as White privilege, a topic we looked at briefly in this article. But Vice, I’d argue, goes a bit too far. She contends that because White South Africans, her included, “move easily about a world made in our own image,” they should now do things “quietly and in the background, working on the selves that are cause for shame before we judge others.”
What she is saying is that White South Africans should feel shame and regret for the past and for the fact that their privilege still benefits them unjustly. As a result she believes that Whites should withdraw from the political space and live “in humility and silence.” It is in this space of silence that Whites should embark on personal journeys aimed at repairing their damaged moral selves. White people should step back, and disengage with political and public life all in the name of self-reflective silence (2).
Eusebius McKaiser, a South African philosopher and political commentator, commends Vice on her honesty saying that “She is grappling with what it means for her to be a white person in a country that is still deeply racialised, deeply political and deeply unjust. Her reflections drip with an intense honesty that is too rare in the South African academy” (3). I’d agree with McKaiser that thoughtful White South Africans should grapple with what it is like to be a White person in a country that is still deeply divided, as well as a White person who may be the beneficiary of White privilege. But I just can’t agree with Vice that Whites should withdraw into silence, and McKaiser agrees with me on this point, “Vice’s only mistake is her decision to withdraw from the public political sphere,” he explains.
I believe that all of us as South Africans, and especially so as White South Africans, should reflect on Apartheid and its lasting legacy. Desné Masie explains that there “ is merit in all South Africans taking some time to meditate on what apartheid did to us, and indeed, articulating a mature post-apartheid political consciousness remains one of our most urgent tasks” (4). Thus, Masie commends Vice “for beginning to tackle this,” however, she goes on to critique Vice’s idea that Whites should withdraw from the public and political spheres.
I find Vice’s view problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, we need to learn from what happens when the majority of a population, in this case White people, are silent. The silence of the majority of White voters under the Apartheid government, and their silence over how that government victimized non-Whites, was deafening. We needed Whites to speak out against those moral injustices under that oppressive system, but the overwhelming majority did not. Are Whites to be silent yet again when they can speak out against moral evils within the public and political realms within contemporary South Africa? I say no; we must learn from history.
Moreover, Vice’s statement is blatantly racist, even though she is herself a White. Apartheid was very much about disenfranchising Blacks, and part and parcel of that was to silence and shun them politically, and thus put all the political power exclusively in the White man’s hands. Most people would say that is a good example of racism in practice. Are we to revisit this racism except having it the other way around in favour of Blacks? We must learn from history.
But even if we were to grant Vice’s view, then what of the South African Constitution? The Bill of Rights affirms the “Equality” and “the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms” for all South Africans (5). Are Whites to withdraw into silence when the Constitution affirms their political rights: “every citizen is free to make political choices, which includes the right to [a] to form a political party; [b] participate in the activities of, or recruit members for, a political party; and [c] campaign for a political party or cause”?
Thus, it is clear that Vice’s view asks much more than it could ever make happen. Personally, I like my constitutional rights and I am grateful for them; I am grateful for them because we South Africans know, and have seen what happens when they’re taken away. Thus, Whites needn’t be silenced because a lone philosopher thinks that would be a good idea. McKaiser agrees and contends that Whites should “have an unqualified political and ethical right to engage in the political and public spheres of (y)our country” (6). However, and I’d agree with McKaiser, Whites should exercise their rights while being “mindful of how your whiteness still benefits you and gives you unearned privileges.”
So, should Whites still have a voice in post-Apartheid South Africa? Yes.
1. Vice, S. 2011. Why my opinions on whiteness touched a nerve. Available.
2. McKaiser, E. 2011. Confronting whiteness. Available.
3. McKaiser, E. 2011. Ibid.
4. Masie, D. 2011. South Africa: How I live in that Strange Place – By Desné Masie. Available.
5. South African Government. Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 – Chapter 2: Bill of Rights. Available.
6. McKaiser, E. 2011.