Wednesday, May 12, 2010

white women speaking black

A very profound week, last week. I marvelled in a bitter way, at how in most of our South African media, the Mafia-stylled hit on a shady, strip-club owner, and the search for his killer, overshadowed the death of a longstanding activist for justice. Yet, this fine women stood up, with a black sash, when the rest was turning the blind-eye. She was white, inspired by her faith and a heroine in the struggle against injustice. She stood in the tradition of white, middle-class women, who fought for justice, often and still at the risk of being labled as naive, self-righteous and gullable, infantile. The New York Times notes, she 'moved far beyond the traditional sphere reserved for white women of her day'. I salute the memory of Sheena Duncan, for decades the public face of the Black Sash.

Perhaps you might have noticed that this reflection is not simply about Sheena Duncan. Its about the ongoing struggle for equality and justice. This is about how powerful forces continue to silence the cry of justice. This struggle relates to another debate during the past week, on the recent book by another white, female activist, Antjie Samuel (Krog), called provocatively, Begging to be Black. I write about and hope to contribute to a highly emotional and complex conversation (Cobus , Tom, 'Skillie' and Steve) about matters of identity. It's, at least for me, also about the manner in which women is shaping the conversation-away from what the headlines might want us to talk about. I have a hunch that the struggles of women, 'beyond the traditional sphere reserved for white women', might just be a critical clue to helps us in trying to make sense and get focus, on the black struggle for liberation. It may be appropriate in the warm atmosphere of Mothers's Day to reflect on this. These women, worked the struggle from the trenches (just read of Krog's role in the local Kroonstad struggles, behind the scenes) as the personal (home) became the space where these battles were fought (she is in an ongoing conversation with her husband and mother). I think that perhaps women are grappling openly on these because they experience what it means to live in a world where an invisible norm, called patriarchy, continue to create situations where they as not valued as fully human, by the dominant, hegemonies. They experience the subtleness and sophistication, yet brutality of being excluded and purposefully misrepresented. They know how it feel to be subjucated, violently.Therefore, perhaps they may also be in a better position to speak out or respond to the pervasiveness of something called whiteness.

Let me agree with Tom, that whiteness is a reality. This is not simply skincolour. This is a construct in people's heads, but also, its a system of priviledge that was engineered consciously for material exploitation. It asserts itself, irrespective of whether you are overtly crude in your pronouncments over the 'other'. Its a system which is based on an idea; but also its a powerposition where it does not even matter if you're aware of this. Like patriarchy, most of those in power, are particularly sensitive to those who recognise, identify and name these powerful forces...let alone start to unravel, expose and dismantle it.  The battle becomes bitter and relentless.

This is the point where the resistance to policies aiming at redress is fought, as well as the thinking behind these policies. Its a conflict over these flawed ideas, yes, but its also about how these ideas, embedded in a legislative framework perpetuate the real material inequalities. This is why organisations like Afriforum and MynwerkersUnie (Solidariteit) would wage their struggle, strategically in the court-house and media platforms. They know where the real battle lines is drawn-not in defending the flawed ideas in public, but fighting the legislation, which aims at redress. One should not be fooled by the human rights or civil rights language, nor gestures of change in attitude or well-meaning welfare efforts. This will not change the situation of the oppressed poor.

What will transform the situation? Let me again start with the womanist struggle against patriarchy, as these hold key insights. The situation against which Sheena Duncan waged a relentless struggle will be transformed where the unique voices of the downtrodden are heard, in all its strangeness, pain, uniqueness and complexities. When we, as men listen and filter these voices through our ears formed by our positions of power, then we will easily ridicule, scoff and ignore it. (Most of the critical voices have not even tried to read Krog).  But when we take serious the 'long conversation' of which Klippies Kritzinger made us attentive to, then we will stay and struggle to hear, to understand, to stand with. This will change the relationship from power-over to power with, sharing power. This will be a painful struggle. This will transform the situation. Perhaps I should keep quiet now...
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