Privilege? White, Black, Anyone’s?

People look at me in amazement when I confess that I love Twitter. I do. I love Twitter. I love the freedom of thought, the discussion, and yes, even gasping at some of the insults.

One person who always manages to set Twitter a-tweeting is Helen Zille. Like her or loathe her, she stimulates thought and discussion. That is the best part of living in South Africa as against my home land of Eswatini. The vibrancy of discussion, the controversy, the provocation. You are made to think, to look into yourself and find what your beliefs really are. Almost anything goes.

Helen Zille’s latest foray, initiating an intense argument about white versus black privilege has done that for me. My first thought was, yeah, she has a point. Maybe. Bit of a long shot. Then I read some of the responses from all sides of the divide and began to really think the question through.

Without doubt I grew up in a totally different environment to my Swazi neighbours. I am not sure how different, because there was little fraternisation. I know I loved the food they ate from locusts to sour porridge to imbitfo to lekusha. Lifestyle was simply the way it was. We lived the way we did, ‘they’ lived the way ‘they’ did. There was no overt condemnation, or in retrospect, concern at the distinction. This is the mind-set of privilege.

 It was a no-brainer that I would start school as close to my fifth birthday as possible, while my Swazi peers, who knows? I certainly didn’t. Although I do remember when the first two Swazi children came to St Mark’s Primary School in Mbabane in 1964, or was it ‘63. It was a big deal for all of about five seconds.

I know we did not have electricity, but somehow I was still put into a hot bath. We had a paraffin fridge, a radio, I slept in a comfortable bed. Were those facilities the same in the police houses adjacent to ours? I doubt it, but cannot say for sure.

We had a motor vehicle. I had a bicycle and a horse too.

Are these criteria for white privilege? Or is it only about money, how much one has, regardless of how one came about it?

Is it that simple? Is the divide that neat?

Our forebears are decried for looting and taking land and riches that were not theirs to take, and for this reason we whites must forever bear the shame and blame for the ignominy and cruelty of the apartheid years, for colonial horrors the world over.

Do we deserve this acrimony? Again, I am not sure.

What I do know is that I love history as much as I love Twitter, and so my thoughts, whenever I allow them to chew on a delicate question, tend to trundle back in time. I recently watched Braveheart, a tale of dreadful tyranny and oppression of the Scottish people by the English. I read a book recently that outlined repercussions for many as a result of the Irish troubles, I think of the internecine wars that have inked a bloody trail through Europe’s history, and, incidentally substantially changed the tribal boundaries of that continent.

Oppression and colonialism go back to the dawn of time, across every land, every continent of the world, from Babylonian and Egyptian times to Alexander to the Picts, Angles, Jutes, Huns, Vikings, the list is pretty long and I haven’t left Europe yet!

Against this backdrop, Africa cannot hope to be the exception.

The first settlers to be dropped off at that fair Cape were not in search of domination at that point. They were cast offs, people exported from their own countries to the furthest reaches of the known world for no reason except expediency at the behest of their rulers. Australia was a boot camp for criminals, a life sentence of separation from their native lands and families. Can you imagine what it was like being dumped in a foreign land, totally different to anything you have ever experienced, tropical diseases, an inclement climate, vicious animals you have never heard of let alone seen.

These displaced peoples lived a life of oppression and blow all privilege in Cape Town, and so they set off for pastures greener. They had nothing to lose. At this time, blacks were living free, and believing, I guess, they were privileged if they thought about it at all. They themselves fought their enemies to take possession of land they wanted, raided for cattle and wealth in exactly the same way as there paler brethren to the north had done for centuries.

Then came the gold rush. Why did none of the black tribes rush for the goldfields. Prospect for their share of the metal. As far as I can establish they were not prohibited from doing this. Or were they. Or did it not fit into their idea of wealth, and so they didn’t get caught up in the fever.

I have the same question for the Indians in North America.

There were blacks who benefited in California, although they were in the minority, according to Blacks in Gold Rush California, published by Yale University Press. An interesting and telling excerpt:

On a September day in 1848 a black man was walking near the San Francisco docks, when a white man who had just disembarked from a ship called to him to carry his luggage. The black cast him an indignant glance and walked away. After he had gone a few steps, he turned around and, drawing a small bag from his bosom, he said, “Do you think I’ll lug trunks when I can get that much in one day?” The sack of gold dust that he displayed was estimated by the white man to be worth more than one hundred…

South African History on line, when telling about the discovery of gold in 1886, mentions that “blacks had mined gold hundreds of years earlier.”

Why didn’t you guys go for it in 1886? Did you sit back, thinking you were OK in your tribal customs and ways, and decide the whites were all lunatics in their quest for the gold stones, and leave them to it?

That’s where the problem began in my humble opinion. Way back then you lost out! Not because anyone stole it, or held you hostage while they helped themselves. Your forebears sat back and allowed it to happen!

I can just hear the chorus arising from the twitterati if any should read what I have written! But bear with me a little longer.

Can you imagine if the majority of those claims had landed in the hands of Xhosa and Zulu and Pedi and Tswana and other tribal hands how different the history of this part of Africa would be today?

The impermanence of a life without privilege

Who would have killed who? Which tribe would be in power, and where would they be based? How would the boundaries of Africa have changed, and what might they look like today if only the indigenous residents of the time had the same value system as those sent into exile to this strange and wonderful land?

Regardless of any supposition, however, we are where we are today. I am privileged. So are many other people. Of all colours and races. Many more are not. They live in hovels, eeking out a living in conditions I hesitate to imagine they are so awful.

The real question is what are we going to do about it? Black and white if you have to discriminate.

Jesus said:

“… for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in;

I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”

Mathew 25 vv 35,36

The only question any of us should be asking is: what am I doing to alleviate the suffering of my fellow man, how am I making his load easier to carry?

As important as debate is, action speaks louder than words.

So I ask again: what are you doing?

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