My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
My rather sharp post in which I responded to Ronald Kevan Roberts and pointed out the deathly and disastrous consequences of President Thabo Mbeki’s questioning of the widely accepted medical paradigm on HIV/AIDS, elicited some interesting and some really depressing responses from the readers on Thought Leader, where it was also posted. Instead of engaging with the substance of my argument, many respondents attacked me personally, invoked some or other conspiracy theory or directly or indirectly accused me of being a racist.
To me the most interesting response came from “Khosi”, who was very upset because I had said that I was deeply disappointed in Thabo Mbeki – a man I had voted for in 1999 – for being so blind to the suffering of his people. “Khosi” then made the following point:
The point I am raising is that white people always feel the need to present themselves as sympathizers to black people. I am sure that you have had the phrase “My best friends are black”. For me that statement is similar to you saying that you voted for the ANC. You are trying to buy your argument immunity from criticism. You want us to believe that because you ‘voted’ for the ANC, you are, unlike those who did not vote for the ANC, in a better position to criticise its President. It is precisely because of such statements that we will always have a racial society that you try to bemoan in your reply.
On one level “Khosi” is saying in a relatively polite way that because I am a white person I dare not take part in a public discourse on politics; that I have no right ever to criticize President Thabo Mbeki or any other black leader; in short that I should shut up. He seems to suggest that because of the horrors of apartheid and what white people have done in the past in South Africa to black people, whites have forfeited the right to be full citizens of this country. No matter what one’s personal or public politics may be, no matter how one might interact on a daily basis with others and what one feels about other people and about the past and about race, if one is white, having an opinion in South Africa is by its very nature a racist act, he seems to suggest.
To “Khosi” and many other South Africans who would agree with him, those of use who purport to speak from a more progressive position are no different from the white racists who spew vitriol on the radio talk shows – in fact, we are probably worse because we are dishonest and hypocritical because we are trying to pretend to be sympathetic to issues of race and racism when we are, after all, well, in the end just white and all white people are the same. This view is based on a kind of race essentialism which sees a person’s race as something that tells the absolute and final truth about who that person is as an individual. Whites may try and pretend that they are “sympathetic to black people” [whatever that might mean] but they are white and therefore the enemy of black people.
As a white South African with an acute awareness of the past and the symbolism of my white skin, this is a somewhat precarious and potentially painful debate to engage in. On one level I can understand where Khosi and others like him comes from: a position of perceived or experienced disempowerment and a rage at white elites who dare to criticise someone they might see as a hero. But I do not think we will get ahead in this country if we do not talk about race – including about being white and what that means in South Africa.
There are of course many white South Africans who are bitter and twisted and feel hard done by in the relatively new democracy of ours – despite their entrenched priviledges. There are people who feel wronged and have no problem saying it loud and clear: professional whiners, fault finders, horrible, depressing, arrogant selfish racist pigs. But there are also white South Africans who do not think like this and in their different ways are engaging with the post apartheid reality in constructive ways – even if not always in the wisest and most astute manner. Khosi seems to suggest that no matter what such a white person says or does, he or she can never become a full citizen of South Africa and may never criticise a black leader or if s/he does need not be taken seriously.
I think it would be foolhardy to argue that being white does not or should not matter in South Africa. Given our past, it is imperative that white people recognise their whiteness and the symbolism and latent power of that whiteness in a deeply racist world. As whites we should recognise this and act carefully and with circumspection when engaging in loaded political debates. This is what Tony Leon just could not understand and why he is so widely loathed among black South Africans (and also, I might add, amongst progressive whites).
None of us can escape the fact that race and racism is at its heart about power. In apartheid South Africa my race (and class and gender) automatically placed me in a powerful and privileged position that allowed me to have a roof over my head and food to eat, my skin colour gave me the opportunity to go to university to be educated in my own language and to excel there, and of course it instilled in me as a white man something of the feeling that when I spoke, people would listen (slightly diminished, perhaps, by the fact that the man who was speaking was not heterosexual).
We have not had a race revolution in South Africa, so the white voice and experience remains a powerful one. But the dynamics have changed and in the public discourse at least the easiest way to neutralise the power of the white voice is through silencing. And one of the most effective ways to silence a white person is to call him or her a racist. The fact that Khosi and others failed to engage with the substance of my argument but immediately pointed to my race as proof that my criticism must not only be wrong, but malicious and driven by racist animus, seems to suggest that this was an attempt at neutralising my opinion and my arguments – not really about making a point about race and the power of the white voice.
That, I think, is why Khosi was so irritated by my statement about voting for President Mbeki in 1999: he perceived it as an attempt on my side to counter-neutralise allegations of racism and (as he would probably see it) re-assert my know-it-all white voice. And that white voice was making arguments that he did not like and wanted to shut up but could not easily do on substantive grounds. By allowing me to win the argument he would have been allowing the white voice to re-assert power and thus to undermine black people in general, I suppose.
But if we see every argument in those terms, real argument and discussion between us becomes impossible and – in effect – real democracy becomes impossible as well. Then ideas and opinions are irrelevant and the only thing that counts is naked power and who can wield it best through the deployment of racialised name-calling. We would then not be living in a democracy but in a racial dictatorship. That is why I believe that despite the difficulties associated with white criticism and the power of the white voice (about which as a white person I think one should be ever vigilant), it is not necessary as a white person to choose to either shut up or shout invective. I wish to assert emphatically that I am not only my skin colour – even if accepting my racial identity in that way would hand power to the Khosi’s of the world. I am also a teacher and an academic and a lover and a friend and a man who cries and laughs and makes mistakes: through all my actions and words I have become more than just a generic white person whining about the President and because I live in a democracy I demand the right to assert the right to act like a full citizen of this country and believe asserting that right is good for society in general and for our democracy.
Caving in to bullies – no matter what race they are – can never be good for democracy.
I am especially wishing to assert my right to criticise our President on the way he has acted on HIV, because it is a life and death issue which I have thought have long since stopped being a racial litmus test. Most people I know in the TAC who pour scorn on Mbeki’s HIV stance are black and it seems the majority of ANC members (who are also black) seems to agree that Mbeki is not above criticism. In fact, he is not much liked among the majority of ANC members if the weekend voting is anything to go by.
The challenge is to take race seriously and to take the power of race seriously but not to fall for cheap tricks by lazy and reactionary people who cannot move beyond race essentialism and cannot see that every person can potentially be more than merely the colour of his or her skin. If one cannot accept that every human being is more complex than his or her skin, then one has not really internalised any of the values enshrined in the Constitution. This does not mean we should not take note of race and acknowledge the power of race – it just means that we should not allow ourselves to be the narrow minded prisoners of race essentialism. On that path lies bitterness and hatred and before we know it we will all sound like those whining whites we profess to despise.
“Khosi” might not like my views, might violently disagree with me and might even inexplicably think President Mbeki has been an excellent leader on HIV/AIDS issues, but I think it would be far better for all and for our democracy if he debated these views with me (even though I am a white person) and did not try to stop me from expressing them merely because he assumes I am the generic white who goes around telling people that “some of my best friends are black”.