Revisiting the white privilege debate: an open letter

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DA Federal Congress 2010: DA leader Helen Zille, ahead of her keynote address
DA Federal Congress 2010: DA leader Helen Zille, ahead of her keynote address. https://www.flickr.com/photos/democraticalliance/4839802085

I address this open letter to Kevin Leathem, the deputy principal of Jeppe High School in Johannesburg, whose speech about white privilege went viral a year ago – though I missed it at the time. I have a retired marxist professor to thank for bringing it to my attention more recently in the context of renewed debate about privilege – stimulated in part by Helen Zille and Thuli Madonsela.

I think it is worth looking back on what you said about white privilege, and perhaps especially in light of this year’s ‘Youth Month’ of June having as its theme ‘25 Years of Democracy:  A celebration of youth activism’. It is a good time to think about schools and the period of life called childhood.

A Yeovillite myself, I nearly went to Jeppe, but started my schooling at nearby KEPS instead, back in 1996. As KEPS boys, we met Jeppe boys on the sportsfields and sometimes I’d see them walk the streets to buy sweets. By the mid-2000s, however, things in Yeoville had changed and I learned the phrase umlungu zonbulala – ‘Whitey, I’ll kill you’ – from gangs of no-school youths on the streets. Around this time I stopped seeing Jeppe uniforms around the suburb. And then things changed again, notably during and after the World Cup, for the better.

You talk about stretching the body and the mind to grow; Jeppe has a fond connection to my life in this regard. By grade 6, I’d made brown belt in karate with some Jeppe students at my side.

This meant extra tough training. We’d meet at the Yeoville dojo at 5am on Saturday mornings to take up to a memorial spot atop a hill near you. Running past Jeppe’s grounds as a pre-teen, cold and exhilarated by the effort, I’d think, Wow, look at that!

It is a privilege to study and work in such a beautiful and historic school as Jeppe. You told the boys that it is a privilege to be white, too. Sometimes it is, as I can attest.

My most obvious personal experience of white privilege is this. A decade ago I was about to catch a flight from Jamaica to New York to continue my university studies. At customs in Montego Bay I was told that because of my RSA passport I had to go into a special room to be strip-searched and interrogated, but my Canadian and Israeli friends were free to pass this ordeal by. In the room, however, the inspector laughed and said: ‘Don’t worry, man. You have an African passport but we only strip-search suspicious-looking black Africans. Go ahead.’

Maybe he was joking, but I think not. Because I was white I got a free pass (from black staff) and I took it. Otherwise I’d have been late for the plane.

Your piece on privilege stands out in that you recognize ‘privilege is not the same thing as Wealth’. My experience in Jamaica is another exemplar of that fact. Privilege can come in all kinds of advantages based on some kind of perceived status.

But did I conclude that all of Jamaica is racist, that white privilege would protect me like an unearned shield across the country? No. That would be an over-extrapolation from the facts.

Curiously, your speech made no mention of an encounter in which you yourself experienced white privilege directly, but focused on your parents’ privilege instead. Perhaps that is because, like me, you were too selfish to make the sacrifice of resisting it in the moment. You say ‘whatever you do don’t deny’ white privilege, but you made an effective denial in your personal capacity, through omission, and I think I know why. It is much easier to talk in the abstract – or about one’s parents, over whom you have no control – than about your own failures.

You did speak very personally about your little daughter who landed on the other side of white privilege, being discriminated against in a grocery store (presumed to be a thief) because she is not white. You did not mention whether the perpetrator apologized for this but I (imagine) and hope that she did. Such discrimination is shameful and ugly and I extend my sympathies to you and your family. It must be hard to shield the innocent from a complicated, sometimes nasty world.

‘Complicated’ is a key term to understanding the world. You told the impressionable teenagers trusted in your care ‘when you are white, you enjoy the privilege of being presumed innocent’.

You echoed Thuli Madonsela’s claim that ‘white privilege is universal’, everywhere, always. But let’s consider facts from four particular cases.

One is the Coligny case against two farm-workers, Pieter Doorewaard and Philip Schutte – ‘fat white men’, as Bendel Pakisi called them before he called them ‘killers’. Pakisi works as a part-time butcher in Coligny. In 2017, Pakisi accused Doorewaard and Schutte of murdering Mohamolu Moshoeu, who was old enough to be a Jeppe boy, for stealing sunflowers. Coligny was ransacked and torched in outrage against the white ‘Coligny killers’. Media across the country and around the world presumed Doorewaard and Schutte guilty before the evidence was gathered. Then the judge found them guilty and sent them to prison for 18 and 23 years respectively.

And yet. Pakisi recanted after the trial, according to four witnesses, saying he made it all up. His evidence in court was self-contradictory. It was also contradicted by forensic evidence. And hard evidence from cell-phone towers. The judge not only overlooked these bases for ‘reasonable doubt’ but also denied leave to appeal the guilty verdict. You can read about it herehere, and here. You tell your boys ‘when you are white, you enjoy the privilege of being presumed Innocent’. Would you tell that to the ‘fat white men’ in Coligny, too? I’ll find you the directions to their prison cells.

Here’s another case reported around the world. School racism hit every front page at the start of 2019 when grade R teacher Elsabie Olivier was denounced as racist after a photo was leaked of her classroom showing black and white students sitting at different tables. The presumption against Olivier was so strong that no one even bothered to find out her name before making their judgement against ‘that racist white teacher’. In the race to ‘make heads roll’, the wrong (white) teacher was suspended, namely Elana Barkhuizen. No one who denounced the supposed white privilege for some little children and anti-black racism against others in that classroom thought to ask black parents who had their children in Olivier’s class in previous years what their experience was. But a little investigation revealed glowing reports of open-hearted care for all her students from black parents, and hundreds of Whatsapped photos to parent-groups to back it up.

You said ‘when you are white, you enjoy the privilege of being presumed innocent’. Would you say that to fellow educators Olivier or Barkhuizen? Would you say that at any school in Schweizer Reneke? What about Joao Rodirigues? He is now on trial for the murder of Ahmed Timol. Timol died in 1971 when Rodrigues (white) worked as a clerk delivering notes and coffee to police in John Vorster Square, near enough to Jeppe. Rodrigues was presumed guilty by the inquest into Timol’s death in 2017, and by the media here and once again around the world. If you want to know why this presumption is groundless read hereherehereherehere and here. And yet the effort to make Rodrigues die in prison goes on.

What about the protests against farm murders in 2017 called ‘Black Monday’? A spontaneous protest erupted around the country. An eNCA journalist tweeted a picture of the old (apartheid) flag and the protesters were roundly denounced as guilty of calling to bring back apartheid. Then the journalist, Nickolaus Bauer, admitted that the picture was fake news – but the presumption of guilt stuck and ramified.

The Coligny case, the Timol trial, Schweizer-Reneke, Black Monday – some of these events unfolded after your speech so perhaps you would like to rethink? It seems to me that there is a trace of good news here. White skin is no longer a shield of impunity. This is good news worth sharing with the bad – we are all potential victims of the mob’s version of justice, might is right.

This has damned the innocent while the venal walk free. The ANC considers Zuma innocent of all corruption allegations, for now. They point to the courts which after decades have not been able to translate mountains of evidence into a guilty verdict against Zuma. Why? Because he had the power to turn the Scorpions, the NPA, SARS and the state intelligence services against themselves. But how did he wield such awesome power? The ‘front line’ of the ‘President’s Keepers’ were, according to writer Jacques Pauw, those who peddled a black-first narrative according to which the central focus must be combating ‘white monopoly capital’, a sometime-synonym for white privilege, rather than prosecute the blatantly corrupt. Zuma is not alone in enjoying the presumption of innocence stretched to this absurdity within the ANC.

If the Jeppe Boys you are charged to care for struggle to find work after matriculating it will largely be because the country’s economy is shrinking in the longest business contraction since WW2. Zuma’s ‘lost decade’ was partly made possible by universalist extrapolations of white privilege such as yours according to which all allegations against black people must be products of a racist mentality. Have we learned the lesson?

When Zuma was replaced in 2017 the ANC took on the new line that all white people are land thieves while the ‘new dawn’ president talked up congenital race-based guilt through the doctrine of ‘original sin’. Perhaps Ramaphosa does not really believe this and only said so to placate enemies within the ANC but still, the country is on its way to slashing the Bill of Rights on the back of that Nasrec resolution, just as it was when you made your speech. One result is that the economy is doing even worse now than before Zuma’s replacement.

So my hardest question to you is this: When you said if ‘you are black you do not have the privilege of being presumed innocent’ were you auditioning to be Jacob Zuma’s lawyer? Or would you prefer to represent Ace Magashule?

The greatest victims of the anti-whiteness rhetoric that kept Zuma in power (all the while enriching a rainbow clutch of elite networkers) have been poor black people, 20 million of whom live on state-owned land where unemployment numbers approach Zimbabwean levels. People there cannot buy, sell, loan or invest to accumulate the generational wealth you talked so lucidly about in your speech because the state won’t release the land’s title of ownership. To own fixed property is basically a privilege in South Africa that is directly denied by the state to almost half the population, and, because of marxist-race nationalist policy this proportion is rising. If you want your students to conscientize themselves to injustice in this country, why not mention that? It’s not fashionable, but it is important.

Let me repeat myself. White privilege exists. In some rooms. White privilege is not universal. You used the example of Jeppe’s first team rugby boys to explain the concept. Those boys can wear a special scarf as a mark of (earned) privilege. It is not about money or power, it is about esteem. This is a very good example. For that specific privilege like all others is limited to a particular domain of estimation. After matriculating, for example, a boy could give that special scarf to his girlfriend (or boyfriend) to wear at Wits and that would be that. Or he could keep it, treasure it and wear it to the office (if he’s lucky enough to get a job) where he might be esteemed for displaying his former schoolboy excellence and he might also be dissed (disesteemed) for not moving along with the times.

Different rooms come with different rules. So, for a third time, let me be clear – there are rooms in which to be white is to get some unearned privilege. But those rooms do not include the courts described above or even the Constitutional Court which ruled that it can be better to hire nobody at all than hire a fully qualified white person. The interview rooms in which your boys will go to seek work will be dictated by laws on BEE which also do not privilege white people. If your boys love the ANC as I did in high school they should know that the rooms in Luthuli House will not privilege them because of their skin. At the highest levels of the NEC exactly the opposite is likely to happen at this time.

As I have only summarised here, some people in South Africa and around the world have been all too ready to believe accusations of everything from racism to murder against white people, while stretching the benefit of the doubt for black powerful elites like Zuma beyond breaking point. Your claim that white skin will serve as a shield of presumed innocence and a key to open doors in all rooms is irresponsible and misleading. Your claim that black skin will serve as a stigmata of presumed guilt and obstruction is, if anything, more irresponsible.

I hope that some Jeppe boys wondered about your various omissions in that speech, like the cases against Zuma and Magashule. The Institute of Race Relations’ most recent survey shows that over 60% of people of all races believe that ‘talk of racism/colonialism is from politicians seeking excuses for their own failures’. I think that is very good news indeed, many of us have learned the lesson.

It might have been a well-intentioned accident but your speech furthered those politicians’ agenda nevertheless. We need to work together to add value and rid the corrupt rather than peddle disinformation that alienates, excuses and falsely elevates people ‘universally’ based on race.

You say that you want vigorous debate at Jeppe High to stretch your boys’ minds just as we grow our bodies by the kind of training I can remember outside Jeppe all those years ago.

Perhaps you will consider inviting me to speak to them about our 2019 report: Reasons for Hope, Unite the Middle. It would be an honour. And a privilege.

Gabriel Crouse is the George F D Palmer Financial Journalist Trust Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.

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