There are a number of myths perpetuated in South African politics. A myth is a “widely held but false idea or belief”. This is the fourth in a series of articles from the SAIRR which explains and debunks some of the political myths in South Africa.
Myth No. 4 – White Privilege
A privilege is a special right or advantage granted or available only to a particular person or group.
Whites were a privileged group under apartheid. Indisputable. This was the reason for apartheid. Whites gained access to education, job and wealth opportunities that were denied to blacks. This is no myth.
But white privilege as a method of attack and insult is becoming a leit motif in our politics. And white guilt is always on hand.
Ella Kotze, writing in The Star (01/07/2015) said that perhaps it’s time to feel guilty, to speak out and really listen to others. Kotze is a psychologist and Pepfar Fellow at Lawyers against Abuse. LvA is an NGO that offers legal advice to victims of gender violence.
She attributes the need to feel guilty to media coverage that seems to focus on the plight of under-resourced schools. She refers to a Mpumalanga school where pupils sat on ‘chairs’ made of bricks. The school has broken windows, toilets without doors and a severe lack of text books.
“Twenty-one years into democracy, we tend to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the government. We want to know how these atrocities – because that is what they are – slip under the radar.
We want to know why there is no money for chairs or textbooks. And we, indignantly, and rightfully, ask these questions of the government, and education spokespeople stutter and stumble over their explanations...”
Kotze then shifts focus to a suburban, Afrikaans, predominantly white primary school.
Parents, dressed for business, drop their neatly uniformed children off in luxury cars. These children have proper chairs and plenty of textbooks, and an abundance of extra programmes designed to maximise academic and social growth. These children will, like their parents, become teachers, nurses, doctors and engineers.
“White privilege means that we were born in well-stocked, well-staffed hospitals. White privilege means that we went from those hospitals to houses built with bricks, with running water and working electricity. And, as we grew up, white privilege ensured that we got the best type of education. When we went to university, white privilege gave us access to funding, proper accommodation and good nutrition. In some cases, it even meant that we could complete our degrees in our mother tongues. White privilege ensured that we got good jobs, further access to loans for housing and cars, medical care, relative safety and freedom of movement…”
Kotze suggests that perhaps whites should feel guilty about everything they have amassed, “that was really only built on what our ancestors have taken”.
She says that it is not fair for our children to continue reaping the rewards of an unjust system, at the expense of children in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Northern Cape.
Kotze suggests lobbying the government and political parties to stop talking and start doing or thinking of ways to spread our resources more equitably.
Kotze’s approach is naive, simplistic, cliched and guilt-ridden. Black school children are not deprived because white school children are privileged. The latter’s education, healthcare, accommodation and nutrition are paid for by after-tax income. Taxes go to support the former. The policies the government implements to realise this support is another issue altogether.
There are 51 million South Africans. 13.7m are registered as tax payers. 3.3m pay income tax. Ninety-nine percent of those pay all South Africa’s income tax.
8.1% of all taxpayers earn R 500 000. Of those 33.5% earn R 500 000 or more. The assessed taxes of those taxpayers at 2013 was 54.3%. Those earning between R 201 000 and R 500 000 were 44.1% of those assessed.
Gwede Mantashe recently said that the challenge for the white community is to recognise that the understanding and interpretation of racism should be premised on the experience of the black majority. The hoary old canard – only blacks can experience racism.
Presumably white views must cede to black, whites must withdraw from taking opportunities available to them out of shame, whites must distribute their wealth, however it is comprised.
The tone is totalitarian and intolerant. It also implies that black advancement cannot occur without white degradation. Thus blacks remain victims who cannot redeem their own lives without the subjugation of whites.
The ignored truth is that being white under apartheid didn’t automatically lead to success. Whites still had to work hard to realise the benefits of advantage. Most did, some didn’t. Advantage didn’t cause success to just fall into white laps. Hard work and commitment had to be exercised to realise the benefits.
The ANC should harness the benefits of the results of that advantage to best advantage for all South Africans. Not just through taxation, but they should create space to help the economy to flourish, so that impoverished blacks have a better chance of accessing advantage.
The government owes it to the disadvantaged to use taxation effectively and efficiently to their benefit and not to squander or steal the money. This means creating good and effective policies, and administering them efficiently.
It is crucial to understand that once advantaged has been gained, it is seldom lost, whatever your colour.
Blacks are increasingly entering the middle class. They work hard, earn good salaries, buy houses and educate their children. Their children are then poised to take advantage of this background. No group, whatever its colour, is going to see its children regress into poverty.
Succeeding generations usually build on success. The real challenge for South Africa is to increase the size of the middle class.
Recently The Economist (October 3rd - 9th 2015) dealt with the discrimination against Asian students by American universities. Michael Wang was 2nd in his class of 1002, sang at President Obama’s inauguration, came 3rd in a national piano competition, participated in several national debating competition finals, and was in the top 150 of a national maths competition. But he was rejected by 6 of the 7 Ivy League universities.
Chinese Americans have suffered enormous racism and discrimination. But Asians are known for their extraordinary level of educational achievement – 49% of Asians have bachelor’s degrees (compared to 28% of the population) but comprise 5.6% of the population.
None of the Asian interviewees believed in innate ability. For them success boils down to one thing and one only – hard work, very hard work, and belonging to a community which supports education. Apparently, Chinese parents threaten their children with being sent to stay with relatives in China and so be forced to work even harder, if they don’t achieve well enough at school
The alternative to apartheid isn’t black privilege. It is access to advantage. To work very hard, to achieve, to take out loans to study, which may take a decade or more to repay. To appreciate that making the most of opportunity requires sacrifice.
Tertiary education is not a right – it’s a privilege.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica.