It’s pointless to pussyfoot around the issue of South Africa’s social ills, writes Eusebius McKaiser.
“Bull****!” shouted someone from the audience. This happened in response to novelist Thando Mgqolozana saying that white people should stop going into townships doing charitable work like running soup kitchens. They should, he says, instead go back home and work on rooting out their racism.
The context of this discussion was the Franschhoek Literary Festival. The audience in the school hall was at least 95 percent white and the framing question for discussion, which I moderated, was: “Is anger underrated?” The other panellists were brilliant psychologist and award-winning author Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and excellent – not to mention enviably funny – journalist and author Marianne Thamm.
This “incident” yesterday affirmed for me the importance of us learning to talk better about anger and other emotions.
Mgqolozana is angry but may not like the word because of its unfair association with irrationality and imprudence. But he is in fact angry – and for good reason.
He feels anthropologised when he comes to literary festivals with predominantly white audiences. He sees the audiences as coming to watch him perform. They want to be surprised by his humanity and skill, if these are successfully presented on stage, or, when he stumbles, they’d want to, at any rate, hold him gently, paternalistically.
Mgqolozana has had enough, he says, and will not attend another literary festival because these festivals are “abnormal”.
He believes black people are right to feel anger more generally because they have never had opportunities for self-determination. We needed, he thinks, a “knock- out, victory” moment. We never did and 1994 wasn’t that. Little wonder, he concludes, there is so much rupture like #RhodesMustFall.
Some audience members, like the white doctor who shouted “bull****!”, were ex-tremely angry. She stood up during the question-and-answer session and told her own story with palpable sincerity and reflective self-awareness.
She responded to Mgqolozana by saying she’s sick and tired of feeling guilty for being white. She is a doctor who specialises in HIV and does an enormous amount of work in communities worst affected by this disease. She also gives money to an NGO and has seen the small but real difference it can make.
Just the other day, she was with a black girl who was HIV-positive and who she was treating.
The girl told her it was her birthday, but she hadn’t received anything. She gave the girl a Naartjie dress. It doesn’t seem right to her – and she struggled to contain her tears at this point – that she has to be told to stop doing these things or to feel guilty for a skin she had not chosen.
She pleaded for there to be a place for her and white people generally. Like Mgqolozana, she too was angry.
It was awesome that anger surfaced and was expressed. It wasn’t an incident. It wasn’t jarring. It was an exhibition of honesty without an interlocutor disrespecting another, and this despite deep disagreement.
Anger reveals that all is not well with us. We need first, in that moment, to allow someone’s personal narrative and subjective truths to be heard. It means listening closely to them, motivated to know what propels their anger.
That’s why, as moderator, I had no intention of interrupting that audience member as she spoke. Equally, I protected Mgqo-lozana from shouts of “answer the question!” when he chose not to respond to the doctor, and only addressing another question from the floor. It was arrogant of some audience members to compel Mgqolozana to respond as they wanted him to; ironi- cally, such demands express the problem of whiteness, which is the reason Mgqolozana won’t be at another literary festival. It’s emotionally draining.
Still, I liked even the expressions of anger from some in the audience.
There is often a politeness and gaming that go on at these events that should be disrupted. I’m not implying anarchism is preferable to conviviality. Those are false choices to be offered. I certainly am saying that if you have 10 sessions on race or misogyny, and the tone never becomes awkward in any of the sessions, then you’ve pussyfooted around some hard issues.
Sure, you can make some good progress in dealing with social ills by remaining calm. And anger that doesn’t result, as Gobodo-Madikizela pointed out, in reflective engagement won’t lead to personal transformation.
But honesty and truthfulness must be pre-eminent values of a festival of ideas.
As for the white doctor: of course all South Africans, black and white, must work on our private selves. We are all deeply implicated in our history of colonialism and racism.
And it requires difficult, personal, private work to focus on the vestiges of racism in myself and see the ways I’m impli- cated by our noxious history of racism. Mgqolozana is right to ask the doctor to do this work. Just as victims of colonialism and racism have to aim at the kind of self-determination he was talking about.
Where I disagree with Mgqolozana is on whether white people should contribute to charitable work. They should. If this doctor gives of her time and skill, I celebrate that. More whites should emulate her and give more charitably even.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t simultaneously work on your stained self. Charity work doesn’t transform you magically.
But the doctor shouldn’t feel guilt. She’s not Hendrik Verwoerd. But she certainly should continue to live in reflective self-awareness of her unearned privileges as a white person.
We need more of her and more of Mgqolozana.
* Eusebius McKaiser is the author of Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma
** The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Media