Are black anger and white growth in South Africa linked?

I am reading a book, ‘The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race and Rage’*, by Ellis Cose. Over a decade ago, he’d written another book, also with an inordinately long title: ‘The Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care?’ This earlier book focused on a small segment of the African-American population: the middle class. Cose’s exposition here tackled the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudice faced by black professionals, and concluded that class does not protect from the racial prejudice that at the time seemed present in almost every aspect of American life. This, the limitation that the prejudice placed on the aspirations of American blacks, he said, gave rise to their anger.

In ‘The End of Anger’, as the title suggests, Cose’s take is that developments in American society — the most significant of which was the election of a black man to the country’s highest office — have begun to change the sentiment of this segment of the black population. Unlike decades before, Cose contends, middle-class black Americans are now more optimistic as the racial bigotry woven into the country’s social fabric fades. As a result, these Americans find that they are now part of a system that no longer limits their aspirations, so their anger wanes.

While I eye the book’s optimism with hopeful suspicion, I am keenly interested in the dynamic because in many ways, the story of South Africa post-apartheid has been foretold by United States’s journey, post-abolition and post-civil rights.

Many South Africans have cottoned on to the fact that race relations in the country aren’t as harmonious as sold by the promise of the Rainbow Nation. Unlike the U.S, we had a truth and reconciliation commission, where many of the atrocities committed during our period of legal racial segregation and prejudice were fessed up to. There, apologies were made and accepted. But just like the U.S, when it all ended, there was no instant correction of the economic and social imbalance the previous system had caused. In both countries, this left a population of privileged whites and disadvantaged blacks to deal with the ramifications.

“South Africa is a morally tangled place to live”, wrote Rhodes University philosopher Samantha Vice in her essay in the Journal of Social Philosophy. Her article was a personal and critical reflection on what it means to be white in South Africa — a question she believes white South Africans should seek to answer as a personal project. In her belief, if you look closely, you may perhaps see faint echoes of something not too dissimilar to the black consciousness movement’s challenge to black thought and identity.

A lot has been written** in reply to Vice’s essay, especially on the conclusion she reaches: that shame seems to be the appropriate response to the privilege whites continue to benefit from as a result of whiteliness and apartheid’s continuing effects, and that learning to live with the shame should be a private journey. Rather than adding to the replies, I note the significance of the call for white South Africans to ask themselves what it means to be white in South Africa — a question that perhaps whiteliness has never asked of them. Vice quoting Paul Taylor’s ‘Silence and Sympathy’: “Whiteliness tends to involve a commitment to the centrality of white people and their perspectives.” Core to this centrality is that whiteliness exists without ever asking questions of those who enjoy its advantages. Black thought and identity, on the other hand, has always posed questions for the black psyche, as the black consciousness movement in South Africa demonstrated.

Now I’m not saying that there are no white South Africans who have undertaken this journey and sought to question whiteliness as Vice has. I am saying that because whiteliness never asks this of them, only those who actively seek it will ever think to ask the question. And worse, those who do ask the question, because of how difficult it is to answer, often give up, settle for a superficial answer or stop short of answering the tougher aspects of this question. Vice again: “In South Africa, it is common to hear proud declarations from whites that they refuse to feel ashamed for being white.” Said in another way: I refuse to question the privilege being white in South African has conferred (and continues to confer) on me.

This is important. Cose, at the very beginning of ‘The End of Anger’, says on this new-found optimism of middle-class black America: “…the increasing maturity level of whites, whose attitudes have changed through the years — evolving, most notably, as they moved from parent to child — has freed a rising generation of African Americans and other people of colour to aspire to a future their parents could only dream about. Black hope and white growth, in other words, are closely related.”

While I am not sure whether white Americans have come to this growth and maturity Cose speaks of by answering what it means to be white in America, I am in agreement with linking black hope (and the end of black anger) to a change in white attitudes.

In his impassioned opinion piece in The Daily Maverick, ‘Should South Africa’s black people get over apartheid? Hell no!’, Sipho Hlongwane responds to that ol’ chestnut often wielded by the whites who’d say they refuse to feel ashamed for being white: Apartheid ended 17 years ago, so black people should just get over it. To this, Hlongwane replies: “Apartheid’s victims should remain angry as long as its effects are with us.”

17 years since its official end, apartheid’s effects remain with us, especially its economic effects, and black South Africans are angry about it. With whites — who continue to enjoy a position of economic privilege as a result of apartheid and whiteliness — on one side and blacks — the majority of whom continue to be poor as a result of apartheid’s effects — on the other, it’s easy to understand why the anger persists.

I speculate that the only way for the anger to end and for a non-racial South Africa to emerge is, on one side, for white South Africans to reflect, personally and critically, on whiteliness and what it means to be white in post-apartheid South Africa. Hopefully, without presenting it as a foregone conclusion, this will lead them to rejecting whiteliness. And on the other side, for black South Africans, who for the longest time were defined by the struggle for liberation, to redefine blackness and what it means to be black in post-apartheid South Africa. And again without presenting it as a foregone conclusion, hopefully the result of this will be the realisation that the past is important and relevant today, however, we are by no means its prisoners.

This, I believe, will ease the conversations that cause the most racial tension in South Africa today, allowing for solutions to be found to the country’s most pressing problems. This, I believe, will completely take away the impetus for the rise to prominence of what is being called black nationalism. The alternative to this frank and individual reflection, surely, is the natural result of anger: conflict.


* NYT review of ‘The End of Anger’

** Other replies to Vice’s article:


15 thoughts on “Are black anger and white growth in South Africa linked?

    • spacemonkey says:

      T.O.M’s already given a great response to the first article. I want to comment on the second because it covers similar territory to something else I’ve been thinking about recently.

      I’m not going to respond to all the specific arguments about the economics of apartheid, but the overall sentiment that white people did NOT benefit from apartheid is something I partly agree with.

      It may just be liberal-minded naivete, but I don’t believe that oppressing and exploiting anyone can be genuinely beneficial. I believe that if our society was one that was not based on oppression and exploitation, that it would be more prosperity — and that prosperity would benefit everyone, including the former oppressor and exploiter.

      But, even if I accept that position (which essentially means that I, a white man, am also a victim of apartheid [albeit a lesser victim]), I can’t ignore the position of relative privilege that I occupy. To do so would be to make exactly the same mistake — allowing another group to continue to be oppressed, which, aside from being immoral and unjust, is ultimately not to my benefit either.

  1. As a white South African, I strongly agree we need to reflect on what whiteness means and figure out how we can bring down white supremacy.

    Unfortunately, most of the time when I say this to other white people (even in the lefty workplace at university of the left) I am answered with comments questioning my sanity, insults & etc. This is a hostile defense mechanism as white people feel frightened by the possibility of losing their privilege – and more than that, actually, their very right to exist, have opinions, live& share in this country. It IS a frightening undertaking, but if it is not undertaken, I believe we are going to see (understandably) increasing anger (and believe we already are seeing an increase in that anger).

  2. Here’s my own (unfinished) take, still going to say more –

  3. blogmachete says:

    I read your response on my blog There is nothing personal about a journey where one tries to understand what it means to be white. For the simple fact that many people are of the same skin colour and will have different conclusions. What this points to is that there is no such thing as ‘whiteness’ and all Vice has discovered is what it means to be Samantha Vice. Her journery has nothing to do with everyone else. Mind you neither does ‘blackness.’ Some blacks are angry and some are not angry and some will be angry for different reasons. And yes white South Africans are more privileged than black South Africans but it could easily have been all blonde people. Would we talk about blondeness then? Let’s be serious.

    The real problem is many people being disempowered and the reality that some South Africans have access to opportunities and some do not. With a focus on an education system that equips our learners for acquiring further skills, and an economy that attracts investment and creates an environment for business, especially small business, to flourish as well as a respect for rights and freedoms we will be on the right track. People need to stop imposing their emotional angst on everyone else. I will not interrogate my ‘blackness’ because there is no such thing, and such introspection lends credibility to the illusion.

    • T.O.M says:

      Again I feel you are being far too simplistic and one-sided on a complex issue. Knowing your politics, would it be fair to assume you’re a liberal? (And please, this is not an attack on liberalism. I am merely trying to illustrate how your perspectives shape your view on this issue and how you are viewing an issue with many facets from one perspective.)

      Now that the disclaimer is out the way…one of the core thoughts in liberal ideology is individualism and resisting collectivism. I believe that it is from this perspective — even if you do not identify as a liberal — that you are viewing the whiteliness and blackness debate. Your saying that Vice’s journey has nothing to do with anybody else tells me as much.

      I, too, value individualism and also recognise that things like race, a social construct, do not automatically define who I am, nor do they confer automatically a sort of moral, social or other solidarity with those who share that characteristic. However, I also understand and value human interdependence. And for me, in this aspect, it is clear how our dealings with race throughout history have resulted in a shared experience for people of the same race. It is these shared experiences — heritable and embedded in our social code — that give the flesh and bones to whiteliness and blackness.

      It is for this reason that I take issue with and reject your saying whiteliness and blackness do not exist. I put that it is not having interrogated why these exist and what it means for us at the group and individual levels that’s the cause of our disempowerment. To your saying “the real problem is that many people are disempowered and some South Africans have access to opportunities and others do not”, I will ask: how did this come into being? You will say, if you are being honest: It was many years of state-sponsored disempowerment the majority of South Africans (augmented by 17 years of a government at times far out of its depths). And as we unpack this further, we come back to how collective identity — which, like individualism, can cut both ways — laid the groundwork for the state-sponsored disempowerment of one group and the events that followed. So whiteliness, in otherwords, gave licence to the disempowerment and as the disempowerment still persists today, should those who benefitted (and continue to benefit from it) not interrogate it? It is not, as you say, imposing emotional angst on others.

      Anyway and ultimately, I am not trying to win a debate here nor am I trying to change your mind. If you are convinced that you exist in South Africa today set apart from a broader black identity and that whites do, too, separate of a broader white identity, then okay.

      The whole reason for this reply was to illustrate (and I hope you see) that as much as you may believe it to be, yours is not the only valid perspective. And if you believe it to be, it is then perhaps best for you, in your individualism, to retreat to that world where you exist set apart from the rest of us interdependents and our emotional impositions.

      (Side bar: I have not respond to the comment about blondness as it was asinine.)

  4. Dylan Edwards says:

    Fantastic piece – goes beyond the glib marketing slogans of rainbow nationalism to show that we really are all in this together. Ubuntu, ne?

    But there is one thing about your conclusion that makes me a bit uncomfortable. If you are saying that white maturity is necessary for black hope, are you not only giving agency to white people? Does it not once again cast white people in the role of the saviour? First we brought you civilisation; now we set you free from your anger. Aren’t we so mature?

    I hope I’m not coming across as making the point that black people simply need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? On the contrary, I think you are quite right in seeing a link between white growth/maturity and black anger/hope. But the relationship works in both directions – black anger plays an important role in pushing white attitudes towards maturity. Or something like that? I dunno, haven’t quite figured it out. I just know that I’m not the messiah 😉

    • T.O.M says:

      For I have touched the hem of Dylan’s garment? Haha.

      My thoughts around this aren’t as refined as I’d like, but I think it’s something like this:

      I think you’re right. I think am, in the SA context at least, giving some agency to white people and I am comfortable with that. It’s not as some kind of saviour, but rather as part of the interconnectedness of us. I am giving agency, too, to black people, as you say, in playing a role in pushing white attitudes toward maturity. In the South African context, white people hold an economic power and enjoy privilege that black people would like (and should be entitled) to access. This access is necessary for the end of anger black anger and white maturity, in this context, can allow that. Without this maturity, I reckon blacks, due to sheer numbers, may take the economic power and privilege**, by force if necessary. This is the potential for conflict I speak of. Worse is, the situation also allows these so-called black nationalists to stir and usurp this anger for their as-yet-to-be-revealed intentions.

      Conversely, black maturity unlocks white hope in that when blacks allow themselves to redefine an identity as a liberated people, whites may finally be free lay down the shame (or whatever appropriate reaction/response) and take their place in South Africa society without the burden of the past.

      ** Also, I do realise that there is a small but growing sector of blacks in SA who enjoy this power and privilege, but they are the proverbial drop in the ocean***.
      *** I love footnotes, as you can see.

    • spacemonkey says:

      Erm. I just realised that the first half of my comment below is essentially a really clumsy version of your reply to Eusebius McKaiser’s article. I apologise and thank you for laying my own thoughts out so neatly.

      (And after reading the other half of my comment again, I realised that even I don’t know what my point was. I think this all tells me I should read more and write less.)

  5. blogmachete says:

    I would love to retreat to my own world and be left alone but the reality is that people like Sipho Hlongwane and Samantha Vice won’t let me. Every time I pick up a newspaper or go online another person seems to know what it is that black or white people should and should not feel. It is not uncommon to hear people say ‘as a black person’ or ‘as a white person.’ As long as the colour of my skin is black, I must speak when somebody attributes their views to the skin colour we share as opposed to the individuality of their emotions and mental processes.

    Of course people have shared experiences, and apartheid ensured that those experiences appeared to be intrinsic to blackness or whiteness. But increasingly that is not so. I have shared experiences with black friends and black people I have never met, but it would be disingenuous not to recognize that I equally share many experiences with white friends and that many of these are experiences I do not share with other black friends or strangers.

    If I call the shared experiences with other black folk ‘blackness’ then how do I define those experiences I share with white folk? And I am not dumbing down your argument. I know that by experiences you do not mean one single event or moment. Rather what I believe is in question is the collection of experiences including the mundane like games played when one was young to the substantial like the values one grew up with, the norms of life that shape one as a person. I share much of that with white friends as much as I do with black. Perhaps that has to do with being a middle class black living in the suburbs and attending a private school while the rest of your family is in the township.

    What I am pointing to is that even the seemingly shared experiences are varied. Furthermore we become different and separate people despite our shared experiences. To this end I am of the opinion that it is meaningless to speak of an idea of ‘blackness’ as though our shared experiences with other black folk make us similar. You may indeed be similar, but there is just as much a chance that those similarities in humour, in values, in ambitions are shared with those outside the colour of your skin.

    I too understand human interdepence which is different to collective identity which is what the idea of ‘blackness’ or ‘whiteness’ assumes. With all due respect if you are determined that ‘blackness’ or ‘whiteness’ are things that can be defined and which exist outside of the individual than you do not value individualism all that much.

    Everyone is entitled to an opinion but I need not expand on the fact that not everyone’s opinion is rational or lends itself to the best way forward. I wouldn’t be reading this if I believed there was no chance that somebody else’s opinion might be more rational or constructive than my own. And I respond to your blog under the assumption that you too are prepared to consider the shortcomings of your views. It is a debate, say what you will, but indeed not one that is going to be concluded on a blog.

  6. spacemonkey says:

    A few random thoughts (I’m too inarticulate and confused to give a real response):

    “”In South Africa, it is common to hear proud declarations from whites that they refuse to feel ashamed for being white.” Said in another way: I refuse to question the privilege being white in South African has conferred (and continues to confer) on me.”

    I find it very hard to accept the idea that anyone should feel ashamed for something that is beyond their control, an accident of their birth. On the other hand, I don’t have any issue with feeling ashamed for my action or inaction in working to end an unjust system that favours me based on my skin colour. I guess the distinction might be arbitrary.

    “17 years since its official end, apartheid’s effects remain with us, especially its economic effects, and black South Africans are angry about it. With whites — who continue to enjoy a position of economic privilege as a result of apartheid and whiteliness — on one side and blacks — the majority of whom continue to be poor as a result of apartheid’s effects — on the other, it’s easy to understand why the anger persists.”

    There seems to be a huge divide between the typical white view and black view on this sort of statement. My over-generalised take on it is that white people tend to see continued black poverty as being primarily the result of the current government’s failure to find solutions; and that black people tend to see continued black poverty as primarily the result of past injustice and continued resistance to change.

    It looks like a political disagreement, but I think it’s rooted in personal worldviews. White people seem to tend to diminish the harm caused by apartheid and underestimate how widespread racism still is (racism of the personal prejudice sort).

    • T.O.M says:

      I hear you. But white people who see continued black poverty as primarily being the result of govermnent’s failure over the past 17 years either have no understanding of socioeconomics or are cherry-picking the explanation that sits easier on their conscience..

      • spacemonkey says:

        A bit of both, I’d imagine.

        Arguing doesn’t ever seem to get anywhere. It seems it only raises blood pressures and ends with both parties walking away feeling more firm in their belief that they’re right and their opponents idiots.

        I suppose it could just be that I’m abrasive or something, but all my attempts to get family, white friends, colleagues, etc (I’ve given up on News24 trolls) to consider the ‘other side’* of the argument have led nowhere. I might get to feel a little bit self-righteous about being right, but if I don’t convince anyone, it’s really a pointless exercise.

        So, I’ve recently been trying to examine my own discomfort with the ‘other side’ of the argument. Then, trying to figure out if there’s another way to state it (without losing the essential point) that takes the edge off that discomfort. The goal being not to make it so comfortable that it can be ignored, but rather to be able to relate it in a way that’s more likely to be met with understanding than angry defensiveness or guilt and shame (that don’t lead to action or a change in behaviour).

        * I don’t like making it seems as though there are simply two points of view: obviously, neither white nor black people have a unified view of things. But I’m sure you understand what I’m trying to get at.
        ** If you can use footnotes, I can too.

  7. Pam Sykes says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, and for linking to all the source material – I am sorry to say I’d never even of Vice’s article until today. It’s a lot to take on board and will take a few days to process … but it has been profoundly depressing reading some of the responses in other places. Makes me want to go hide under a rock… people who believe you can be both privileged and morally comfortable in a society as unequal as ours just aren’t paying attention.

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