Revisiting the white privilege debate: an open letter*

Gabriel Crouse | Jun 29, 2019
I address this open letter to Kevin Leathem, the deputy principal of Jeppe High School in Johannesburg, whose speech about white privilege went viral a year ago – though I missed it at the time.

I’d like to look about what you said about white privilege, especially in light of this year’s ‘Youth Month’ of June having as its theme ‘25 Years of Democracy:  A celebration of youth activism’. It is a good time to think about schools and childhood.

I didn’t go to Jeppe, but met Jeppe boys on sports fields. By grade 6, I’d achieved my brown belt in karate together with some Jeppe boys.

Training at 5am on Saturday mornings, we’d run past Jeppe’s grounds and as a pre-teen, cold and exhilarated by the effort, I’d think, Wow, look at that!

It is a privilege to study and work in such a beautiful and historic school as Jeppe. In your speech you told the boys that it is a privilege to be white, too.

You recognised that ‘privilege is not the same thing as wealth’. Privilege can come in all shapes and sizes based on perceived status. You said ‘whatever you do don’t deny’ your white privilege.

You told the impressionable teenagers trusted in your care, ‘when you are white, you enjoy the privilege of being presumed innocent’.

You echoed Thuli Madonsela’s claim that ‘white privilege is universal’, everywhere, always. But let’s consider facts from four particular cases.

One is the Coligny case of farm-workers, Pieter Doorewaard and Philip Schutte – ‘fat white men’, as Bendel Pakisi called them. He then called them ‘killers’. Pakisi was the chief witness against the two men. 

In 2017 Pakisi accused Doorewaard and Schutte of murdering Mohamolu Moshoeu, who was old enough to be a Jeppe boy, for stealing sunflowers. Coligny was ransacked and torched in the ensuing outrage against the white ‘Coligny killers’. Media across the country and around the world presumed Doorewaard and Schutte guilty before the evidence was gathered. The judge ultimately found them guilty and sent them to prison for 18 and 23 years respectively.

And yet, Pakisi recanted after the trial, according to four witnesses, saying he made it all up. His evidence in court was self-contradictory. It was also contradicted by forensic evidence. And hard evidence from cell-phone towers. The judge not only overlooked these bases for ‘reasonable doubt’ but also denied them leave to appeal the guilty verdict (Read about it herehere, and here).

You said being white gives you the privilege of being presumed innocent’. Would you tell that to the ‘fat white men’ in Coligny, too? 

Another case of alleged racism hit every front page at the start of 2019 when grade R teacher Elsabie Olivier was denounced as racist after a photo was leaked of her classroom, showing black and white children sitting at different tables. The presumption against Olivier was so strong that no one even bothered to find out her name before making their judgement against ‘that racist white teacher’. 

In the race to ‘make heads roll’, the wrong (white) teacher was suspended, namely Elana Barkhuizen. No one thought to ask black parents who had had their children in Olivier’s class in previous years what their experience was. But a little investigation revealed glowing reports of open-hearted care for all her students from black parents, and hundreds of Whatsapped photos to parent-groups to back it up.

You said ‘when you are white, you enjoy the privilege of being presumed innocent’. Would you say that to fellow educators Olivier or Barkhuizen?

What about the protests against farm murders in 2017 called ‘Black Monday’? A spontaneous protest erupted around the country. An eNCA journalist tweeted a picture of the old (apartheid) flag and the protesters were roundly denounced as guilty of calling to bring back apartheid. Then the journalist, Nickolaus Bauer, admitted that the picture was fake news – but the presumption of guilt stuck and grew.

The Coligny case, Schweizer-Reneke, Black Monday illustrate some ironic good news. White skin is no longer a shield of impunity; we are all potential victims of the mob’s version of justice, might is right.

This has damned the innocent while the venal walk free. The ANC considers Zuma innocent of all corruption allegations, for now. They point to the courts which after decades have not been able to translate mountains of evidence into a guilty verdict against Zuma. Why? Because he had the power to turn the Scorpions, the NPA, SARS and the state intelligence services against themselves. 

But how did he wield such awesome power? The ‘front line’ of the ‘President’s Keepers’ was, according to writer Jacques Pauw, those who peddled a black-first narrative according to which the central focus must be combating ‘white monopoly capital’, a sometime-synonym for white privilege, rather than prosecuting the blatantly corrupt. Zuma is not alone in enjoying the presumption of innocence stretched to this absurdity within the ANC.

If Jeppe boys struggle to find work after matriculating it will largely be because the country’s economy is shrinking in the longest business contraction since World War 2. Zuma’s ‘lost decade’ was partly made possible by universalist extrapolations of white privilege such as yours, according to which all allegations against black people must be products of a racist mentality.

After Zuma went in 2018, the ANC took on the line that all white people are land thieves while the ‘new dawn’ president talked up congenital race-based guilt through the doctrine of ‘original sin’. Whether Ramaphosa believes this or not, the country is on its way to slashing the Bill of Rights on the back of that Nasrec resolution. One result is that the economy is doing even worse now than before Zuma’s replacement.

The greatest victims of the anti-white rhetoric that kept Zuma in power (all the while enriching a rainbow clutch of elite networkers) have been poor black people, 20 million of whom live on state-owned land where unemployment numbers approach Zimbabwean levels. These people cannot buy, sell, loan or invest to accumulate te generational wealth you talked so lucidly about in your speech, because the state won’t release the land’s titles of ownership. To own fixed property is basically a privilege in South Africa that is directly denied by the state to almost half the population, and because of Marxist race-nationalist policy, this proportion is rising. If you want your students to conscientise themselves to injustice in this country, why not mention that? 

Different rooms come with different rules – there are rooms in which to be white is to get some unearned privilege. But those rooms don’t include the courts described above or even the Constitutional Court, which ruled that it can be better to hire nobody at all than hire a fully qualified white person. 

The workplaces where your charges will seek work will be dictated to by the laws of Black Economic Empowerment, which also don’t privilege white people.

Some have been all too ready to believe accusations ranging from racism to murder against white people, while stretching the benefit of the doubt for powerful black elites beyond breaking point. Your claim that white skin will serve as a shield of presumed innocence and a key to open doors in all rooms is irresponsible and misleading. Your claim that black skin will serve as a stigma of presumed guilt and obstruction is, if anything, more irresponsible.

The Institute of Race Relations’ most recent survey shows that over 60% of people of all races believe that ‘talk of racism/colonialism is from politicians seeking excuses for their own failures’.

It might have been a well-intentioned accident but your speech furthered the politicians’ agenda. We need to work together to add value and rid society of the corrupt rather than peddle disinformation that alienates, excuses and falsely elevates people ‘universally’ based on race.

You said that you wanted vigorous debate at Jeppe to stretch your boys’ minds, just as we grew our bodies training outside Jeppe all those years ago.

Perhaps you will consider inviting me to speak to them about our 2019 report: Reasons for Hope, Unite the Middle. It would be an honour. And a privilege.

 

Gabriel Crouse is the George F D Palmer Financial Journalist Trust Fellow at the IRR.

 

*This article is an abridged version of one that first appeared in Rational Standard Revisiting the white privilege debate: an open letter, 22 June 2019

 

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