I have followed with much interest and, often, trepidation the reactions to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s suggestion of a special tax to make white South Africans pay for having benefitted from apartheid. I do not agree with many reasons advanced for rejecting this proposal, especially coming from many of those who love the man when he castigates the ANC and National government, but who suddenly find the racist in him when he attempts to address matters that they would rather remain hidden under our dirty and smelling carpets of history.But I too, do not agree with Archbishop Emeritus Tutu’s suggestion either. My reasons are different. Selecting white people who remained in South Africa during apartheid, whites who benefited directly from the undeserved, artificial, cushion that apartheid had placed around whites in general – often at the expense of blacks in general – will not be an easy task. Will there be a special clause protecting whites like Ronnie Kasrils, who went into exile or others who quietly left the country for England, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and other destinations during apartheid years, only to return after the banning of anti-apartheid movements and the release of former political prisoners? Or would this be a blanket tax levied on people simply because they happen to be white South African? What about other whites, those who immigrated to this country after the fall of apartheid and have since taken up South African citizenship? My take is that were the Arch’s suggestion to be taken seriously by government, its implementation would be very hard monitor. I do not think that making this “reparation drive” seem punitive so many years after 1994 is the right way to go.
There are thousands of white South African who are quietly and privately going about the business of “giving back” in this country. We seldom, if ever, read about them in newspapers and their names never get taken forward for the plethora of community builder awards that have mushroomed all over the place. They adopt – often not formally but through their deeds and regular contributions – children in difficult conditions; pay for their school fees, introduce them to sports, the arts, travel, give them sponsored membership to local libraries, etc. without making a lot of noise about their acts of kindness. Should these also be made to pay? Who would be the judge of what would constitute sufficient reparation and what would not?
A few months ago I finally accepted a long standing invitation to join an old friend – who happens to be a white South African – and his fellow cyclists from the Hout Bay Cycle Club (soon to be known as Hout Bay Imizamo-Yethu Cycle Club) on a Saturday morning ride. Almost four months after I went on that first ride, my Saturday mornings have changed; they are now systematically reserved for road cycling with this group. Besides it being a good way to explore amazing parts of the Peninsula on a road bike and to get fitter, I have been deeply touched by the acts of my friend and his other friends, all a handful of white South Africans. An Englishman and a Swiss man and his young son, also residents of Hout Bay, have since joined the “development club” and are happy to contribute in whatever way they can to it. All these people are happily married with families; they have no reason to escape their families on Tuesday late afternoons (a day on which I cannot join them) and Saturday mornings. Between the handful of them, and a little help from some private donors, they have purchased bicycles and other cycle paraphernalia, and then sourced a shed in which to keep them safely when not in use. A
Dutch company with interests in South Africa donates the cycling attire for the boys. So, twice a week, every Tuesday and Saturday, they take out a group of up to 20 boys between the ages of 12 and 18 on rides around the Peninsula. The faster of these boys, Group A, often take longer and harder routes, leaving the young ones, Group B, to be chaperoned by us. Some have also participated in the annual Cape Argus Cycle Tour for the first time last year; they also participate in other road bike events, including the most recent Tour de Worcester Cycle Tour in the Boland this past Sunday. Again, these are white South Africans who, without being pushed to do so, have gone out of their way to use personal time, energy and resources to give back to those who have less or, in many cases, nothing. They give selflessly without asking for anything in return. There is no doubt in my mind that there are many other such people around the country. While these South Africans come from all backgrounds, many of them are white; the same whites that we find easier to generalise about and to put down as doing nothing to help rebuild this country.
This piece is not meant to make a naïve claim in defence of all whites. I am a living witness to the existence of many white South African who still refuse to acknowledge that apartheid was wrong and, importantly, that it did lasting damage to all of us. Many of such white people are of the view that “apartheid ended in 1994 and blacks need to move on because they’re now in power”. This piece is not about the latter group.
I have, over the last number of years, been invited to sit on trusts, committees and boards of all forms of non-profit making organisations founded and driven by enthusiastic individuals who are driven to help others get out of all forms of hopeless situations. These private initiatives range from the popular ZipZap Circus School through the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon charities, Bob Skinstad’s “Bob for Good” organisation that donates much needed brand new school shoes to children in impoverished communities, the erstwhile “Kids with HIV Foundation” and, a few months ago, a group of local motorbike clubs who come together every year to collect stationery for schools and crèches in places like Kensington. The latter are mostly coloured bikers and were supported this year by none other than Mzoli Ngcawuzela, owner of the famous Mzoli’s eatery in Gugulethu. I have met ordinary people doing extraordinary things; people who are little celebrated in the opinion pages of our dailies. Perhaps it is safe to say that South Africa whites are like moving targets: for every one of them who is all negative about everything in the new order, there’s another one who is a community builder because it’s the right thing to do.
There is no doubt that it is still helpful and necessary to continue unpacking and addressing the root causes of the things that continue to divide us, but it is also important to stop from time to time to remind ourselves that not all is black or white or yellow in our confused maze of social issues. There are many nouveau rich blacks who do not give a cent to charity and there are many whites who give to support the less fortunate.
What South Africa needs is the fostering of a voluntary culture of building communities for the good of all of us. Those who have more, irrespective of their background, must be encouraged – perhaps even incentivised – to share willingly, not under the threat of a whip in the form of punitive taxes.
Let us to stop a bit more often to acknowledge the many silent builders of bridges between our communities for a better Cape Town and South Africa. There are hundreds of these people walking silently amongst us, perhaps even wondering if we, regular contributors to the opinion pages of our daily newspapers and radio talk-shows, live in the same world as they do; many of us argue while they get on with the job!
Click here to download article as printed in Cape Argus on September 14, 2011.