Quote of the week

Mr Zuma is no ordinary litigant. He is the former President of the Republic, who remains a public figure and continues to wield significant political influence, while acting as an example to his supporters… He has a great deal of power to incite others to similarly defy court orders because his actions and any consequences, or lack thereof, are being closely observed by the public. If his conduct is met with impunity, he will do significant damage to the rule of law. As this Court noted in Mamabolo, “[n]o one familiar with our history can be unaware of the very special need to preserve the integrity of the rule of law”. Mr Zuma is subject to the laws of the Republic. No person enjoys exclusion or exemption from the sovereignty of our laws… It would be antithetical to the value of accountability if those who once held high office are not bound by the law.

Khampepe j
Secretary of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State v Zuma and Others (CCT 52/21) [2021] ZACC 18
22 April 2012

Pierre de Vos: Taking risks, taking responsibility: on whiteness and full citizenship under the South African Constitution

Taking risks, taking responsibility: on whiteness and full citizenship under the South African Constitution

Talk delivered at Gipca, 19 April 2012 

Pierre de Vos§


Writing under the penname of Hannelore F. Bekokstower, in Die Burger of 18 February 2012,[1] a rather famous Afrikaans novelist[2] published a satirical essay/short story about a South African glamour photographer called Petronella Mak-Van der Wee, who for the past four years has exclusively taken pictures of her own left hand. All the houses in Oranjezicht, Hannelore remarks tartly, including the waiting rooms of all the plastic surgeons and psychiatrists, are said to be adorned with these pictures of Petronellas left hand. When asked by Hannelore why she only photographs her own left hand Petronella replies:

This is all I . can live with as an artist in South Africa while retaining a clear conscience. It is my own, inalienable and unique hand; it says something, but only about myself; it is a white hand, I show it clearly and brightly; it is clean and soft and reveals its privilege through the good manicure and the sleeve from which it peaks; I have nothing more to say. I do not make any pronouncements about anything which I have not seen with my own eyes literally on my body within reaching distance. [] One cannot be pure in this country if one is white and privileged, but one can keep ones art pure, ones heart, pure from the gods.

Hannelore then begins to protest: You will die of…” But her voice trails off. She has no talent, she thinks, to conjure up euphemisms for rottenness (beskimmeldheid), vanity (ydelheid), selfdenial (selfontsegging), or esthetic frigidity (estetiese frigiditeit). What she does say is the following: But what about responsibility? We live in a kind of scandal of violence and injustice against the poor in this country, do you not read the newspapers? Look at what Steven Cohen is doing; with his huge toothbrush and artificial diamond stuck up his arse he went to brush and clean the squares in Berlin in memory of the suffering of the Jews during the Second World War. The Police arrested him immediately. If you did something similar on the steps of the Union Building.. Hannelore trailed off.

 At the end of the story, as she walks home, Hannelore, close to tears, is steaming with anger and launches into a monologue:  “… May you, just once, in your soul, be occupied by the horrors of your time; may you one day be unsettled or surprised by a lucky mistake of double exposure and through that be brought to something else than your overcooked opinions; may you be seduced to take risks and to fall into conflict; may your right hand once forget what the left is doing, and the other way around, may the chaos of the universe ever vibrate into your body and your stupid resolutions, like in the tormented human flesh of a figure in a Francis Bacon painting. Until that begins to happen one day, you will be known in my book as: Petronella-help-yourself.

Introduction: on whiteliness, shame and retreat

I was reminded of this essay by “Hannelore Bekokstower” when I re-read Rhodes philosopher, Samantha Vice’s, now famous (or is it infamous) article entitled, “’How Do I Live in This Strange Place?’”[3], published in 2010 in the Journal of Social Philosophy. In that carefully constructed, thoughtful and – in my opinion – brave article, Vice reflects on what it is to be “white” in a country like South Africa.

I pause here to note that, like Samantha Vice, I do not believe in the amnesia-induced fairy tale that we can somehow undo 350 years of colonialism and apartheid through sheer willpower and a declared commitment to non-racialism whatever that term may mean. We cannot suddenly turn ourselves into race-less beings, whose race is utterly irrelevant to who we are, how we are perceived, how we experience our world and the extent to which we succeed in the world and are able to flourish in our world. Race may be constructed and therefore more of an ideological creation than a biological fact, but it is experienced as real by all of us who live in this country. Our selves, says Vice quite correctly in my view is saturated by histories of oppression or privilege.

When I hear arguments about the need to be blind to race, I imagine a Monty Python skit one that has never been written, but might capture some of the absurd and frenetic humour of that classic comedy quartet. (And I am aware that I am taking a risk by making fun of such an emotional and laden topic as race and racial classification and identity, but as this talk argues in favour of taking risks I will dive right in.) In the skit, the slightly manic and extremely awkward John Cleese will star as a policeman chasing a young, limping, man with a huge and unsightly hump on his back through the streets of London. After losing sight of the suspect, the Cleese character will encounter a clueless bystander, perhaps played by Terry Gilliam. I imagine the Cleese character asking the clueless man whether he had spotted the suspect. The absurd, Monty Pythonesque humour will be produced by the fact that the Cleese character wishes to be polite and politically correct so as not to draw attention to those aspects of the suspects appearance which society (now more aware of prejudices in this regard) requires us to be blind to even as these characteristics are blindingly obvious and although assumptions are made about an individual based on these characteristics.

Cleese: Have you perhaps spotted a gentleman running by?

Gilliam: Cant say I have.

Cleese: You sure?(Cleese looking confused.)

Glliam: Well it depends.

Cleese: (Exasperated) It depends?!! What do you mean it depends?!

Glliam: Yes, it depends. What does he look like?

Cleese: (Stammering and sounding a bit hysterical and desperate and acting in the manic Cleese fashion.) Well, he is, well, you know.. (Cleese starting to gesture above his head as if wanting to indicate a large hump on his back, but then quickly bringing his hands down to his sides like a naughty child just caught out.)

Gilliam: Tall? Is he tall?

Cleese: (Almost embarrassed.) Well, not exactly. (Cleese trying discreetly to point to his legs but of course not being discreet at all and jumping around like a mad man from one foot to the other.) You know… The man, shall we say, is not a sprinter.

Gilliam: An old man?

Cleese: No, no. Youngish, but, you know..(Cleese desperately gesturing towards himself.)

Gilliam: Yes? Good god fellow, out with it.

Cleese: (Manically jumping around from one foot to the other.) Eh well, you know, he does not really look like, like. us.

Gilliam: Oh . you mean the Hunchback fellow with the limp? Why did you not say so before old chap.

In her carefully argued piece, Vice – identifying herself as a white English speaking South African, a product of the apartheid system and undeniably still benefiting from it – asks what the morally appropriate reaction would be to her own situation of white privilege.[4] She engages with the problem of what she calls “whiteliness”, the often unacknowledged and unnoticed commitment of those who are identified as “white” to the centrality of white people and their perspective and the supposed unquestioning superiority of this perspective.[5] Because the habits of “white” privilege are deeply embedded in our society, Vice argues that few “white” people, however well-meaning and morally conscientious, will be able to escape the habits of “white” privilege: their characters and modes of interaction with the world just will be constituted in ways that are morally damaging.[6] Under these morally dubious conditions, whiteness becomes a problem and those of us who are “white” therefore need to reflect seriously and critically about how we ought to live “in this strange place”. “Life for conscientious “white” South Africans is at any rate richly infused with moral emotions”[7]

Up to this point, I associate myself with Vice’s analysis. Those of us who  identify ourselves as “white” South Africans or are identified by others as such would do well to remind ourselves of the economic privilege and cultural capital that continues to flow from our whiteness – whether we directly benefited from apartheid or not. I would contend that the mere fact that I stand here tonight, that I might be listened to, perhaps even respectfully, and that my words might be viewed by at least some as being imbued with some authority and plausibility, is (at least partly) based on my “white” skin and everything that is associated with it. It is the result of the privileged education I received because of my “white” skin and on the continued privilege that oozes from me because I happen to be a “white”, male, a supposed “expert”, a Constitutional Law professor at a relatively good University like UCT. It is surely no co-incidence that most of us who are asked to comment on constitutional matters in the media happen to be “white” and male. Being aware of the pitfalls associated with this position is for me the starting point of this discussion.

But this is not really the focus of this talk. What I wish to focus on today, is the question of how one should respond to this problem of one’s whiteness, given the unspeakable injustices that Hannelore Bekokstower speaks about in the essay I prefaced my talk with; the injustices we are confronted with every day in this strange place called South Africa; indeed, in this strange place called Cape Town. My interest in this question is, of course, more than academic. As the writer of a widely read Blog on constitutional and political matters and as someone who is often asked by the media to comment on highly controversial legal and political issues, I cannot but grapple with this issue. And this is where I part ways with Vice. Vice makes two claims and both, it seems, are problematic because, so it seems to me, it is predicated on the assumption that one can deal with one’s complicity in injustice by turning away from the world, by avoiding taking too many risk and making too many mistakes that will inevitably be made because of our habits of whiteliness.

 First, she argues that it is appropriate for “white” South Africans to feel shame. She distinguishes shame from guilt, arguing that shame is essentially directed toward the self, rather than outwards toward a harm one brought about. Shame is a response to having fallen below the standards one sets for oneself, whether moral or not.[8] Shame is the recognition that one ought not to be as one is: it does not depend on the claim that one could be different to how one is. Shame is an appropriate feeling to feel, Vice contends,

For white  privilege does not attach merely to what one does or how one benefits, but, more fundamentally, to who one is. And one does not wish to be a person whose welfare is dependent upon harm to others. One does not wish to be a person with vicious traits that are helping, however passively, to sustain privilege and oppression. And how can one ever be a good person in South Africa if ones best moral response is to recognize and feel ones ongoing complicity with wrong? Being embedded in white  privilege means that there is not going to come a time when one escapes the necessity of, at least, shame and regret.[9]

Second, while Vice admits that our selves can be changed through our actions, she does not think this can be enough if the theses of moral damage and “white”  habit are correct – direct work on the self is also required. She argues that we need to seek an appropriate way of living with “white”  shame that is nonetheless private and does not assume that every person ought to respond only as a political animal, and that every response need be an outward action. Because every aspect of life in South Africa is so politicized, we should allow space for forms of penance and self-improvement that do not demand a public gesture or political activity. This is not cowardly or disengaged, she argues. Rather, the care stems from the recognition of the moral complexities and potential for mistakes, which would entrench the very habits from which one is trying to become disentangled. We would, instead, express our attachment to justice through a commitment to a private project of self-improvement.

Making pronouncements about a situation in which one is so deeply implicated seems a moral mistake it assumes one matters politically and morally beyond the ways in which everyone matters equally. One needs to learn that one does not. One would live as quietly and decently as possible, refraining from airing ones view on the political situation in the public realm, realizing that it is not ones place to offer diagnoses and analyses, that blacks must be left to remake the country in their own way. Whites have too long had influence and a public voice; now they should in humility step back from expressing their thoughts or managing others[10].

Should we feel shame?

Shame is, in the end, a virtuous and therefore not altogether difficult feeling to embrace. Admitting to feeling shame could be seen as an admission that one is, indeed, capable of being virtuous and perhaps, also, that one is a moral notch or two above others who do not feel shame. That is why I feel uncomfortable with the notion of embracing shame as a way of dealing with the problem of whiteliness.

I am not sure this was Samantha Vice’s explicit intention, but I fear that this focus on an avoidance of making mistakes and taking risks, and the focus on working on oneself, might well constitute an attempt to deal with the injustices – also racial injustice – of our country by trying to avoid the inevitable and by doing the impossible, namely to live well, to live a life that may be morally pure (or, to be fair, a life that is at least morally less tainted) in this strange place despite our whiteness, despite being the beneficiaries of privilege and despite the sea of injustice in which we swim. Is the problem not perhaps that the moral view taken by Samantha Vice is too narrow. Can anyone who reads the newspapers every day about our political life; who reads government reports about failures in service delivery; reports by the Public Protector about corruption and venal nepotism, who reads law reports about the flouting of human rights and the systemic neglect of the poor and marginalised; who engages honestly and expansively with people from all walks of life, of different races and classes and genders and languages; who visit or work in state hospitals and township schools; who has nursed someone dying of HIV related illness; who must decide every day whether to give food or money to the beggar who comes around to your house (something a minister in a R1 million car is not confronted with) or whether one should make a donation to the man selling trinkets at the traffic light, would such a person be able to maintain that the most important moral impulse for a “white”  person is to feel shame and to turn inwards and retreat from the public space?

Because of her advocating a turning away from the world we live in, she might have misdiagnosed the problem or might have diagnosed the myriad of ethical dilemmas that we face and have to live with, that we will continue to have to live with and that no work on the self will allow us to escape from confronting day after day, hour after hour.

As I see it, because Samantha focuses on the self, on a project of remaking oneself with an awareness of the structural privilege one embodies because of one’s race and an awareness of the habits of “white” privilege that ineluctably forms part of who one is, because she asks how we – as “white”  South Africans – can live (and perhaps can even dare to hope to live well) in what she calls this strange place, given the structural privilege that we enjoy, that we live every minute of every day because we are “white” , she misses or ignores the broader context in which each of us live here in South Africa. This South Africa, I contend, is a strange place but perhaps not only or exactly in the way envisaged by Samantha.

If we want to engage with the question of how we can live in this strange place, I contend, we need to look at South Africa not only and exclusively as a place haunted by racism, racial discrimination and the admittedly pervasive problem of whiteness. Yes, our lives and our selves are haunted by race – how can it not be, given our history – but it is also haunted by many other profoundly important ethical concerns. These concerns may be affected by race but not exclusively so. I mention a few examples.

In South Africa more than 5 million people are HIV positive and despite important gains, many South Africans still die because they do not get tested or do not or cannot get access to life saving anti-retroviral drugs. Because of stigma, superstition and hate in our society there are huge disparities in the way in which those of us who are HIV positive experience this disease. Some of us go through life relatively well-protected by family networks and wealth. Others live in fear of being exposed to the ridicule and rejection of colleagues and family members. Some of us access private health care and are well looked after, others do not access health care at all and die or access sub-standard health care in the public sector.

South African schools are in crisis. If one happens to be the child of an upper middle class Law Professor living in Rondebosch, one may send one’s children to one of the many private schools in the vicinity or to an establishment like Westeford High School where they will receive an excellent education. But if one lives in Kayelitsha one may well have to send ones children to a school with no library, no computer facilities and teachers who do not have the skills or the will to educate their children. Those children are likely to either drop out of school before they reach matric or to achieve mediocre results that will not prepare them for gainful employment (and the dignity and financial rewards associated with it).

If one happens to be middle class and heterosexual and male, one is far less likely to experience sexual violence and one will probably not be attacked or even killed because of one’s gender or sexual orientation. But if one happens to be a black unemployed lesbian one’s bodily integrity and indeed one’s life is in constant danger because of the prejudices and hatred that many South Africans harbor towards gay men and lesbians (and also, towards women). How do heterosexuals life in world in which heterosexuality is seen as normative and where hetronormativity – like whiteliness – continues to oppress and marginalize some of the most vulnerable members of society in a systemic manner?

And of course, according to statistics a sizable percentage of children in South Africa sometimes go hungry. Although this figure has been decreasing, this nevertheless means that in a country in which some can afford to drive in R1 million cars – even if they are not Cabinet Ministers – others regularly go to bed without food to eat.

In the light of the larger injustice we are daily confronted with – yes, all haunted by the ghosts of our racialised past but not exclusively and uniquely following the logic of race – is this project of working on the self, of, in essence trying to work on oneself to do less harm to others, a person that feels appropriate shame for being “white” and being part of a system that has benefited one and continues to benefit one materially and also in non-material ways by bestowing on one a certain social status and power because of the perceived co our of one’s skin, is this not essentially – despite Samantha’s pointed protestations – an essentially narcissistic and slightly self-indulgent one? A bit like Petronella’s photographing of her left hand?

The shame, agent regret and retreat from the public sphere advocated by Vice seem rather hopelessly inadequate responses to the very real and serious larger ethical challenges faced by any middle class person (of any race) living in South Africa – even when the ethical call is more acutely and insistently addressed at “white”  South Africans? For that reason it is my contention that this project of turning inward, retreating form the public sphere, and of working on the self is ethically deeply problematic. Our habits of “white”  privilege, the social capital we embody because of our “white”  skins, and the consequences this has for our fellow South Africans is just part of the larger ethical landscape within which we (and here I mean all of us regardless of our race) have to operate. A more nuanced understanding of the problem of trying to live an ethical life in this strange place is required.

Moreover, I worry that this turning inward, this essentially self-centred project will focus too much on the self, on the “WHITE”  self, rather than focusing on the system that produced whiteness and the racial hierarchy that is continually being perpetuated by all of us. Can one really, by turning inward, escape from the very system that produces the racial hierarchy and can one really escape from being complicity in it’s perpetuation? By turning inwards and focusing so obsessively on ones shame and ones whiteness, is one not affirming the racial hierarchy and the very structures that produce “white”  privilege which one needs to undermine and subvert in order to begin to address the structures that produce whiteness and blackness and continues to do so in a hierarchical manner? This is not only a personal problem but also a structural problem. How does one address whiteness without perpetuating the racial hierarchy?

I wonder if this project does not assume or take for granted the impossibility of being anything else but the sum total of ones racial identity? Does it not reinforce the logic of the apartheid constructed racial hierarchy, assuming that one is only and always exclusively “white” or “black” and never anything else and that this is the sum total of our identity and our place in the world? Can one really say that our race says everything that needs to be said about how we need to respond to the ethical problems we are confronted with? Surely not? We are not only ever “white”  or black. Some of us are cabinet ministers in government; others Police Commissioners or the Head of Crime Intelligence, others are mining magnates or one of those who had received corrupt payments from mining magnates; others are teachers who turn up drunk at school and sleep with pupils; others are church ministers, rugby soccer players; musicians, poets, academics too. Many of us benefit from the capitalist system on which we rely to make a living – often at the expense of others. All of us are also someone’s neighbour – literally and figuratively – called on to show the kind of radical hospitality that it is impossible to extend to one person, let alone everyone one interacts with. Personally, I am also a boyfriend, a lover, a gay man, a brother of four sisters, an orphan, a lecturer, a HIV positive middle class academic, an Afrikaans speaking, poetry loving, person with a passion for our Constitution, somebody who feel it is morally imperative to take risks and make mistakes because without taking risks and making mistakes I can hardly imagine being fully alive and hardly imagine living a life invested with any meaning at all.  Should men all feel ashamed for living in a world that oppresses woman? Should heterosexuals feel shame because of the systemic marginalisation of gay men and lesbians? Should Christians feel shame because of the powerful and sometimes overbearing shackles of conformity which organized religion often seem to have the effect of imprison us in? Should we feel shame for benefiting from the economic exploitation of others because we take part in the capitalist system? Is the avocation of shame not a paralyzing moral cop out in response to the injustice around us, injustice in which we are steeped whether we are “white” or “black”?

Should we retreat into silence?

When the 84 year old granny, Ntombentsha Phama, welcomed a TV news camera crew into her home and spoke about her plight, in the hope that a Good Samaritan would come to help her fix her house, which was damaged by hail in 2010, this resident of Seshego village in Dutywa did not realize that she would earn herself a visit from a delegation of ruling party councilors. 
The drama started last Wednesday, the day after the bulletin containing Phama’s story was aired nationwide on SABC. Local Ward 2 councilor Nosakhele Nkqwiliso, acting on Mfecane’s orders, visited Phama and verbally attacked her to such an extent that she fainted. Bystanders alleged the ANC councilor arrived in a 15-car convoy with supporters to grill Phama for alerting media to her situation. During a second visit, this time with Mfecane in tow, Phama was again scolded, given two blankets and a business card, and told to call the mayor – not the media – when she had problems.

This story troubles me deeply. The mayor and his cronies never stopped to think that Phama had a RIGHT to invite the TV cameras into her home and that instead of berating her, they might have done something about her plight. They never thought that the embarrassment to the ANC city council came not from the granny, but from the way in which the council had behaved. At the heart of this story, so it seems to me, is a deeply undemocratic attitude towards the “masses of our people”, to democratic debate and contestation and to any forms of criticism. It reflects a view of citizens as passive voting fodder who must be galvanized every five years to vote for the movement and otherwise must remain silent. This represents an impoverished view of democracy and of citizenship, one in which individuals are denied any form of effective agency. Individuals are not possessed of an inherent human dignity which allows them to play some role in deciding for themselves who they are, how they wish to behave and how they want to give meaning to their lives. It turns citizens into subjects, little more than automatons or pawns in the power games of politicians. It is not the kind of democracy that our Constitution has established.

In Doctors for Life International v Speaker of the National Assembly and Others[11] former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo provided a detailed discussion of the nature of South Africa’s democracy. Pointing out that our Constitution was inspired by a particular vision of a non-racial and democratic society in which government is based on the will of the people, “a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights” Ngcobo argued that ours is a democracy with both representative and participatory aspects. This means that not only do we all have the right, and would contend a duty, to vote in regular elections for the political party of our choice, we also have a right and, I would contend, a duty, to participate freely and robustly in political life to help ensure an open, accountable and responsive government responds appropriately to our needs. The nature of our democracy must be understood in the context of our history.  During the struggle against apartheid, a system that denied the majority of the people a say in the making of the laws which governed them, the people developed the concept of the people’s power as an alternative to the undemocratic system of apartheid. This concept ensured that the people took part in community structures that were set up to fight the system of apartheid. In order to ensure that we never again repeat the mistakes of the past, our Constitutions bestows on every South African the right to participate in political and public life.

In the overall scheme of our Constitution, the representative and participatory elements of our democracy should not be seen as being in tension with each other. They must be seen as mutually supportive. General elections, the foundation of representative democracy, would be meaningless without massive participation by the voters. The participation by the public on a continuous basis provides vitality to the functioning of representative democracy. It encourages citizens of the country to be actively involved in public affairs, identify themselves with the institutions of government and become familiar with the laws as they are made. It enhances the civic dignity of those who participate by enabling their voices to be heard and taken account of. It promotes a spirit of democratic and pluralistic accommodation calculated to produce laws that are likely to be widely accepted and effective in practice. It strengthens the legitimacy of legislation in the eyes of the people. Finally, because of its open and public character it acts as a counterweight to secret lobbying and influence peddling. Participatory democracy is of special importance to those who are relatively disempowered in a country like ours where great disparities of wealth and influence exist.[12]

This means that all citizens (also “white” citizens) have a right to have their say and to participate in public life. The argument put forward by Vice regarding the need for “white” people to remain silent and to turn inward, is therefore at odds with the notion of being full citizens in a constitutional democracy. The argument plays out against the background of events such as the harassment of 84 year old granny, Ntombentsha Phama. And it is against this background that I advance three arguments to counter Vice’s plea for silence on the part of “white” citizens.

First, I would contend that as democrats we have a duty to speak up, to participate in public affairs, to praise when needed and to criticize and take action when needed – regardless of whether we are “white” or “black”, male or female, gay or straight, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or atheist. This will always be risky – especially when we speak from a position of power which we are cloaked in because of our race, our sex, our class, our sexual orientation, our level of education our proximity to power For is it not a bit precious – showing perhaps inadvertently too much concern for ones own ethical purity and ones status as a not so bad person – by not wanting to take risks and not wanting to make mistakes?  Is this not a move to avoid exposing oneself to ridicule, hatred, criticism, accusations of racism and arrogance, of sexism and homophobia, which might well be leveled against us by others who, surely, one would not wish to construct as utterly powerless victims of whiteness and of what “white”  people do and say? Surely, despite the structural inequalities and the effects of past and ongoing racism and racial discrimination, it would be highly problematic to hold that “white”  people should be silent because this will be somehow respectful of black people and the powerlessness they experience in the face of “white”  privilege? I do not experience black South Africans as powerless or being in need of my silence. If I make a mistake, if I talk and my words are seeped in whiteness or the arrogance that is associated with “white”  structural privilege, I know that I will be told so in no uncertain terms – and rightly so. And is this not a better, more democratic way for citizens to work on the self? By engaging with the world, with fellow South Africans, by doing so in a manner that is fully aware of ones privilege, by taking the risks, by getting it wrong and reflecting on why one got it wrong and trying again and by demonstrating in word and deed that one is not the font of all wisdom, does one not being to address the problems of whiteliness itself? Is this not how we even begin to embark on a journey of becoming full and equal citizens in this country? Will the silence, then, not be a whitely silence? Silence can appear like a cop out, like and avoidance of the burden of having to take decisions and taking risks, and for taking responsibility for one’s whiteness and for inevitably getting it wrong and taking responsibility for the effects of structural privilege and for doing something about it?

Second, is silence not – whether one intends it to be seen in that way or not – already an attempt at achieving a kind of inappropriate moral purity, a moral purity that a “white”  person cannot achieve but that our whiteness and the ideology of whiteness has ingrained in us as being our due, as the natural state of being a “white”  person? By being silent, does one nor rather narcissistically hold oneself up as, once again, somehow morally superior. As someone who deserves special consideration or applause because of this noble attempt at goodness?

Third, this silence says Vice should go hand in hand with private acts of justice. But injustice is not only or even primarily about personal relationships and the injustices that result from our inability to interact with others in an responsible and ethically appropriate way. It is about structural problems, about the way in which the world and our society and government is organized and how it operates and the failure of all of us – including our politicians – to take the steps that would begin to dismantle these structures that produce and perpetuate inequality, poverty, marginalization and oppression.

Not remaining silent is not always going to be risk free and it is not always going to be easy or morally pure. It will require us to engage with what Hannlore Bekokstower calls the “horrors of your time”, to take risks and to fall into conflict with our fellow citizens. It will require us to face the full horrors of our existence in this strange place. It will expose us to the chaos of the universe which may vibrate into your bodies – and we might well, from time to time, feel and look like the tormented human flesh of a figure in a Francis Bacon painting. But that is what is required of us as full citizens in this democracy continuously coming into existence.  Do we really have the luxury not to dirty our hands?

  • § Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance, Department of Public Law, University of Cape Town.

[1] Hanelore F. Bekokstower “Wat die ander hand nie weet nie” Die Burger 18 February 2012.

[2] Judging from the style of the writing, the inclusion of Dutch sounding words, the use of food metaphors and the somewhat baroque style, I assume the author of this piece is Marlene van Niekerk, author of two magisterial novels (both translated into English): Triomf and Agaat.

[3] Journal of Social Philosophy Volume 41, Issue 3 at 323-342.

[4] Ibid at 323.

[5] Ibid at 324.

[6] Ibid at 326.

[7] Ibid at 326.

[8] Ibid at 328-329.

[9] Ibid at 333.

[10] Ibid at 335.

[11] 2006 (12) BCLR 1399 (CC).

[12] Ibid par 115.

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