On Complicity: some thoughts about growing up in South Africa

In law an infant, and in years a boy,
In mind a slave to every vicious joy;

Lord Byron

I did my first somersault on a trampoline when I was 20 on a friend’s farm, blind drunk at two in the morning during his 21st celebrations. I landed one meter or so to the left of the trampoline and destroyed my ankle. Nonplussed, I jumped in my car and drove three hours to the nearest hospital. This kind of recklessness probably sums up what it was like growing up in South Africa during Apartheid’s August years. When there was a gnawing fear that this could all come crashing down overnight, many of the usual consequences circuit-breakers don’t function. You also get illegal capital flight, but that’s another story.

We all begin believe that the countries of our birth are special and, as white South African children, we weren’t conscious how much the memetics of institutionalized racism and it’s language affected us. It took a conscious effort from my earliest moments of self-awareness to reframe my view of South Africa, of black people, and of my place in history. Indeed, to see the history of South Africa from another vantage point required great effort. Living in the diaspora, as I do now, it is generally easier to survey the political and social landscape. It is easier to disavow, too. It is a country I still long for, though mostly via bouts of nostalgia. One day I hope to free My Traitor’s Heart.

In 1990, Allister Sparks published The Mind of South Africa: a sweeping state of the nation, a deep look into a country on the brink of enormous change – its history, conflicts, injustices, insecurities, and future. He began with the story of the wild almond hedge, planted by in 1660 Jan van Riebeeck – celebrated leader of the first Dutch settler – to keep the Khoikhoi cattle herders, and whomever else lay beyond, separate from the small group of settlers. Over time this hedge became a schism between whites and blacks; wars were fought, peoples were conquered, and eventually it was institutionalised in the Byzantine laws of Apartheid. What began as a few trees planted on the slopes of Table Mountain, ended in the Group Areas Act, which fooled my childhood self into thinking he lived in a white country where blacks made the passage of our economically cosseted lives even easier. Where they lived, the “townships” and “homelands”, were a mystery and a wellspring of great fear. And whilst we had wonderful domestic servants whom we loved as children, the pressing cultural weight of history, and the torrent of racist language my hyperplastic young mind had assimilated, meant that we could never trust them. At some stage they would turn; so against their black faces we projected our worst fears, our most nebulous hopes, and looked no further. Despite being a product of English liberals, I was born into the do-nothing white complicity. When I came to understand the vile social construct that I had allowed me to flourish, Nelson Mandela was free and the first democratic elections in South African history were upon us. I was delivered from the inevitable nexus where I would have to choose between disruption and collusion.

And then the unthinkable happened: a peaceful transition of power to the majority, and no transfer of wealth. Apartheid was dismantled, but the gulf between rich and poor – most evident in the leafy white enclaves of the cities – was left unbridged. White economic power has remained entrenched, despite some change at the margins – a growing black middle class, and small black billionaire cohort. Perhaps it was the timing of the transition that led nelson Mandela to abandon his long-held socialist ideals and move the ANC away from the South African Communist Party. After Perestroika, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the failure of socialism in post-colonial Africa, the fear of the flight of white capital created an economically pragmatic Mandela. The confluence of the pragmatism with his extraordinary depths of forgiveness gave white South Africans a freedom from reparations and reserves of hope that scarcely seemed possible. Therein the love for the great man was born: like an indulgent grandfather, he allowed the privileged minority to drift blamelessly into the new South Africa, a new flag and new black faces in parliament being the only points of difference in their lives.

Recklessness became tempered after that; it reappeared in unbridled optimism, in expansive entrepreneurship, and in public levels of politeness that gave the impression everyone was on Prozac. And the white population carried on blithely, entrenched their socioeconomic ascendancy, remaining unaware that the colour of their skin made the complicit. Whilst they might never have held a truncheon, or fired teargas or rubber bullets, they were silent perpetrators of Apartheid, just as millions of blacks who had never been felt state-sponsored violence were the silent victims. Residential segregation has survived the death of its legislated imperatives. Healthcare and education inequality follow from this, and while the wealthy have access to some of the best medical care in the world, poor children die from preventable diarrhoeal diseases (21% of child deaths under 5 years old).

You won’t go very long into a conversation in South Africa before the self-attribution fallacy amongst whites becomes evident. If only poor blacks could start pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and stop being dependent on welfare. Vigorous complaints about rising municipal rates and utility bills are all variously blamed on crumbling infrastructure and subsidising the poor who are given services for free. Yet it was infrastructure that was built for white communities by a multitude who would never get to experience the benefit. South Africa needs profound socioeconomic change, not just a transfer of political power, before it can move out of Apartheid’s long shadow.

My ankle still aches on cold days, it clicks when I walk down stairs, it is an reminder that I barely escaped my university years with my life. Yet as I survey my surroundings in Sydney – my life, my home and my possessions – it is clear that this 36 year-old, this conflicted product of of South Africa, is not just made of atoms. He is a formed by love, and by two things denied to millions of his former fellow citizens: education and capital. It is the latter that is the well-spring of his guilt, that thankfully hasn't been his undoing, that has stifled his potential. You may transport yourself and your capital to new countries, build greater wealth, but these are not blameless gains, and perhaps you become the worst kind of escape artist. The wealthy economic migrant: take the money and run.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.