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Op-eds

White guilt: why calling a spade a spade is scary

  • Geoff
“Don’t you dare say I don’t belong here!” That’s what a group of mostly middle-aged Jews who lived through apartheid seemed, privately, to want to say to black lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi at Limmud last Sunday.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Aug 10, 2018

They were at a panel discussion that grappled with how whites and Jews make meaning of their lives in South Africa today. But what the audience actually conveyed, pleadingly, was, “I beg of you, please tell me I belong.”

Ngcukaitobi insisted that to really belong, they needed to shed their “whiteness”. The aim, he said, was to create an African identity. White and black must be transcended. But, what about their Jewishness?

This is the anguished conversation playing itself out in a myriad ways in South Africa in 2018 and, in this case, at Limmud.

Ngcukaitobi was on a panel that included journalist Richard Poplak and Marc Pozniak, the Gauteng Chair of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, as well as facilitator Lael Bethlehem.

The panellists drenched the audience in guilt for not fitting into the new South Africa. The discomfort was obvious, while not expressed openly. However, a quiet voice inside them seemed to say, “Do I actually want be part of this new South Africa, with its ghastly corruption, politics, and violent crime? As a white, I am sidelined. When I apply for a job, I am told it is for blacks only. I have relatives in Australia; why should I stay?”

Hard questions. The panel was arguably one of the conference’s most relevant, and the hall was packed. But while the topic should have ignited passionate argument, instead there were polite platitudes and a tip-toeing around deep feelings. Is there a fear of saying the “wrong”, politically incorrect thing?

All panellists were on the moderate left. What was missing was someone from the right to provoke, to say unapologetically, as some whites do, “I am a white South African who didn’t ask to be born into apartheid, but worked incredibly hard my whole life for my living and my kids. I will not be made guilty, and will fight if you try to take it from me! Or I’ll leave the country with my skills and money.”

Disappointment in how South Africa has turned out is widespread among whites – you hear it everywhere in the Jewish community. The enthusiasm of the Mandela era has been replaced by fear.

People who 25 years ago decided to stay and rebuild the country, are rethinking. Many audience members had always opposed apartheid in one way or another, even if they didn’t go underground. Bethlehem asked, “Can you be white and ‘progressive’ today, as in the past, by running an nongovernmental organisation and giving out blankets, or is that space closed? Can Jews be part of the national project?”

Poplak issued a challenge, “When did Jews become white? They came to South Africa, and negotiated their ‘whiteness’, sometimes with bad people, at the majority’s expense. But the gigantic gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation in 1994 has not worked out, and we’re at the giving-back stage, way past charity and sewing blankets. You have to give up something to belong.”

Ngcukaitobi expressed blacks’ feelings eloquently: the cultural domination of whites suffocates black people, forcing them to negotiate inclusion into the cultural space determined by whites – the language, the institutions. “Whiteness” remains the overriding cultural norm. In an overwhelmingly black country; whites must give up their supremacy.

Is giving up “whiteness” even possible for South African Jews to consider? It might include giving up things like holiday homes and 4x4s. Is this community too comfortable in its affluence to rethink itself? These questions need to be on the table even if there are no simple answers.

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