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White people should acknowledge privilege and contribute to restorative justice

Rather than remain defensive, white people should acknowledge their past privilege and contribute in a meaningful way to restorative justice.

My daughter, Wenzile, and I were fascinated by the manner in which the Law Society of Ontario in Canada commenced two events we attended as part of the process involved in awarding me the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

At each event, Chairperson Malcom Mercer commenced proceedings by acknowledging the indigenous owners of the land we stood on, thanking them for permitting peaceful coexistence and continued use of the land.

I asked Mercer if the preface to proceedings was a government requirement. He said it was not, but had become a common practice in public events.

I told him I had seen a similar, though more elaborately ritualistic, practice at government events in New Zealand. He acknowledged borrowing the practice from New Zealand.

This led to a dialogue about the complexities of confronting the shadow of past land and other socio-economic dispossession of indigenous communities, compounded by historical discrimination against women, people with disabilities and others.

The colleagues liked my comparing past dispossession to a Monopoly board, where one group would not be allowed to play until after all the land had been taken and buildings constructed.

They also found resonance in my usual allegory about the blue and pink eight- year-old teams.

In that scenario, the blues are given a head start in a race and, when equality is declared, the pink team is allowed to join the race – resulting in only the fastest of the pinks catching up with the slowest of the blues.

Mercer opined that the reality of dispossession was far more complex and toxic. We explored why many descendants of dispossession beneficiaries deny that their forebears were given a head start that led to advantages for their generation.

I have concluded that denial of legacy privilege and disadvantage is principally driven by fear.

There is fear that individual self-exertion by current achievers and their forebears will be discounted.

There’s also fear of being made a scapegoat with potential consequences similar to the Holocaust in Germany and the genocide in Rwanda.

In both instances, a grievance against a minority, projected as opulent at the expense of the majority, led to genocide.

During my much-publicised tea with former DA leader Helen Zille (my host), I was left with the impression that her views were inspired by some of these fears. I also sensed a concern that the ANC government, now in power for 25 years, would be exonerated for its failure to reduce poverty and inequality if the shadow of the preceding 342 years of colonialism and apartheid were blamed for the persistence of these social maladies.

Concern over the prospect of the white minority population being scapegoated to the point of vulnerability to genocide was verbalised strongly.

She reminded me of her Jewish descent and of family members decimated during the Holocaust.

This remains a painful chapter in her family’s life and is documented in her memoir, Not Without a Fight.

Zille writes of how her industrious grandmother and father lifted her family out of poverty through hard work and education.

She locates the key to success and transcending poverty in strong families, hard work and education, saying that’s how Afrikaners did it.

I questioned her logic: If not Afrikaners, who then were the key beneficiaries of job reservation, land dispossession and other unjust laws?

I explained to Zille that, in the blues and pinks allegory, her hard-working grandmother and father would be among the relatively fast in the blue team, while those from poorer, less educated families would be trailing, but still mostly ahead of the pinks.

I said even disadvantaged whites benefited from operating within an affluent ecosystem, and that past advantage translates into compound advantage, like compound interest.

She disagreed, arguing that, as Jews, they never had the advantages given to the English and, later, the Afrikaners.

The reality is that my host’s forebears were whites who arrived in South Africa poor.

They thrived partly because most social and economic opportunities were reserved for whites.

Yes, as Jews, they were discriminated against. But to say they never benefited from opportunities reserved for the white population, particularly white men, at the expense of the indigenous population and others socio-economically excluded on the grounds of race at the time cannot be rationally sustained.

Every white person who competed for opportunity did so partly through self- exertion and privilege, thanks to being insulated from competing with 90% of the nation.

For example, around the same time my host’s family could freely establish a shop in Johannesburg, my father could not.

He was arrested for trading without a licence – a licence that was denied. All black people were prohibited from trading in the city, where people with money converge.

In addition to land dispossession and further uprooting from subsistence farming through taxation to create labour reservoirs for mines, they needed a pass to go anywhere.

They were prohibited from owning a home and were given hostel beds at work while their white counterparts got family houses.

The 1913 Land Act consolidated land dispossession for black people, leaving them with only 13% of it – even then not to own but as arid patches managed by traditional leaders as trust land.

If you could not own land, you could not leverage it as collateral to borrow money for other purposes.

Spaces in the mainstream universities were also restricted to whites. Only a small quota of black people was allowed, subject to approval by a minister after an application that had to argue that no black university offered the same.

As for land, not only were black people forbidden to own it, forced removals also saw many uprooted from and economically disrupted in places like Sophiatown and District Six.

Gender discrimination – resulting in women being barred from certain occupations – further restricted competition for white men, while white women’s chances were constrained.

The intersection of race and gender had a severe compounding effect on black women, whose denial of property rights was extended to family property, including exclusion from inheritance.

A discussion on privilege must also consider the effect of the white supremacy and dehumanisation of black people narrative that was systematised to justify exclusion and privilege.

My host did not deny that the past was harmful and created enduring inequalities. I understood her as saying that black people are advantaged politically through numbers today.

I agreed that some black people, like me, enjoy certain privileges as a fruit of the political landscape.

I disagreed that this translated to privilege enjoyed by all black people.

I explained that acknowledging white privilege transcended economic advantage and was not about blaming or shaming the current white generation.

It is about recognising enduring racially skewed power relations as a legacy of past hierarchisation of humanity on the basis of artificial racial categories.

But, truth be told, most of it is economic. Today you need collateral to get a bank loan; this usually involves immovable property.

According to the World Bank, the bottom 60% of the population, comprising mostly black people, owns only 7% of the nation’s assets; the top 10% owns 70%.

Given that 75% of urban land remains in white hands and rural land ownership is 72% white, this entails race-based advantage regarding leveraging land as collateral.

Could the past 25 years have gone better? Absolutely.

My host said corruption had undermined progress in reducing poverty and inequality. This is true.

Corruption and clientelism have not only distorted policy priorities in violation of sections of the Constitution; they have stolen money meant for inclusive development, including addressing the infrastructure backlog in previously neglected black communities.

Corruption has also seen government buy land for restitution and redistribution at many times its value, while selling state land for a fraction of its value. Comically, the state spends a fortune buying back the land it sold for next to nothing.

Corruption is also responsible for the prioritisation of the politically connected regarding black empowerment and land redistribution. Policies such as BEE have also missed the mark.

Do corruption and 25 years of missed opportunities explain where we are? An algorithm that quantifies, with reasonable accuracy, the effect of past exclusion and dispossession would help.

How about picking a family from District Six and estimating where they would have been by 1994 had land dispossession and other unjust laws not occurred?

Land redress means only land back or financial compensation, with no regard for socio-economic opportunities disrupted through forced removal and dispossession. Could an algorithm help us figure out how a family anchored in a solid family structure, hard work and education, which my host holds important, would have fared without disruptive dispossession?

Assuming we can mathematically prove compound privilege and disadvantage, does it make white people bad people, land thieves or a group that should be ashamed?


I believe that acknowledging the ugly and complex shadow of our past gives us solid grounding for a responsive theory of change for win-win solutions that anchor sustainable, peaceful coexistence.

That’s the thinking behind the Social Justice M-Plan. We can learn from Canada and New Zealand.

Closer to home, Stellenbosch University’s restitution statement acknowledges the unjust past, the university’s role in it and its effect on today’s social relations, while committing to playing a meaningful role in restorative measures.

Is it possible for all to join this noble quest? My host says she’s in.

Madonsela is professor and Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University, and founder of the Thuma Foundation and the Social Justice M- Plan.

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By Prof Thuli Madonsela
Published 2 July 2019

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About the Chair:

Professor Thulisile “Thuli” Madonsela, an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, is the law trust chair in social justice and a law professor at the University of Stellenbosch, where she conducts and coordinates social justice research and teaches constitutional and administrative law.

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