the in-language of my people and shared its values. Sometimes perspective is best attained at a distance. And the results of seeing yourself as the world sees you frequently aren’t pretty. Then again, the rest of the world often doesn’t have a leg to stand on. That drunk dude liked his assumption that I was a racist, white South African. I’ve heard of white South Africans travelling overseas during apartheid, and being taken aside by people who whispered something along the lines of: ‘Good job there, what you’re doing back home. Keep it up.’ While there were many people overseas who firmly supported the anti-apartheid movement, there were also tons who thought apartheid sounded like a pretty solid plan. We know now from released FBI cables that when Nelson Mandela first toured the United States after his release from prison, there were death threats phoned in to every city he visited. And not all of them were made by South Africans phoning longdistance from a crackly tickey-box. But for sections of the international community who are not diehard racists, the descriptor ‘white South African’ does not, realistically speaking, always glow with feel-good vibes. Even with all the white South Africans who supported apartheid miraculously having disappeared overnight 20 years ago, as if the Rapture happened in 1994 and it turned out God only really liked racists. Notwithstanding my drunk Scottish barfly, it is my experience that when people hear ‘I am a white South African’, their automatic impulse is often not to clap you on the shoulder and hand you a foamy beer, the way they might if you’d said ‘I am a bobsledding Jamaican’. To many sections of the local and global population, ‘white South African’ is still synonymous with cartoonish evil and a penchant for khaki: sepia TV footage of heavily moustached men in too-short shorts barking orders at downtrodden black people. Like it or not, the lingering reputation of white South Africans is not ‘hardworking people who pay their taxes and are quite good at swimming’.
To many sections of the local and global population, ‘white South African’ is still synonymous with cartoonish evil and a penchant for khaki: sepia TV footage of heavily moustached men in tooshort shorts barking orders at downtrodden black people.
It is ‘people who created and sustained a society that systematically stripped black people of their personhood’. Is this fair? These days there is a growing resentment among young white South Africans who have been lumped into this unflattering tribe. They remain on the wrong side of a history they weren’t even alive for. It wasn’t them who did all those horrible things to blacks. It wasn’t me, for God’s sake. I never asked a black person for their pass book, or stripped them of property rights, or herded them into Bantustans, or even voted for the people who did do that stuff. Other than visibly and magnificently prospering from a political system that oppressed them for centuries, the most demeaning thing I have knowingly done to a black person is force my friend Osiame to dance with me after too much wine at a dinner party. But the pesky thing about history is that you can’t just take it off and hang it up like a coat. Most white South Africans have jobs. Their unemployment rate is around 5%. That is sweet. That’s like Iceland, which only has about 500 000 people in it to start with. It is as if Oprah made white South Africa and put a job under 95% of the studio audience’s seats. You get a job and you get a job and you get a job! And when you get that job, on average you’re paid higher than pretty much anyone else in the country – four times higher, according to recent statistics. You’re more likely to be well educated. You’ll live longer. If you are born a white South African, by virtually every standard internationally, you are winning in life’s lottery. That’s the plus side of being a white South African. The downside is that you walk around carrying the burden of being one of history’s baddies on your back. And sometimes it feels crushing, but then you can always go for a swim in your giant money-pool to console yourself. We’re like cautionary characters in a fairy tale with a sledgehammer moral about trading your soul for gold.