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Dear White People

by Keitu Reid, illustration by Jason Bronkhorst / 30.06.2011

Rest assured we are not about to heed Julius Malema’s call and eradicate you (though the thought of settling scores has crossed many of our minds). But try to think about the reality behind Malema’s recognition – he appeals to the growing anger of the fastest growing social category in this country – impoverished black youth. And does that poor black youth hate you? Yup. They do.

Africa’s history tells you why. Slavery; colonisation; apartheid. Underdevelopment. Racism. Exploitation. Unequal terms of trade, World Bank structural adjustment, IMF debt financing. I know you’ve heard all of this before. But you really need to know how much history has broken us and goes on breaking us. And understandably you can’t. It isn’t your history, it’s mine.

And that history is very much alive in black lives. Even Sunday lunch isn’t free of the apartheid legacy. You tell your parents you want to be a dancer instead of a lawyer and they lose their shit. “Do you know how many kids would have been lucky to have your education? We did not suffer so you can throw your life away.” The inheritance of suffering often means we need to put aside our own dreams and possibilities. The struggle for freedom makes so many claims on the Children of ’94.

Here in Johannesburg, I love movies, fashion, parties. I have sunny brunches at 44 Stanley and dine at the latest restaurants. One half of me is Cosmo. The other is a litte girl who grew up hearing her mother’s stories about how she lived for decades in mortal terror of being arrested. My father wanted to be an actor but couldn’t go out at night to rehearsals because of the Emergency and its curfews. My aunt had to stand the whole journey on a near-empty train with her daughter on her back and her son on her hip. Just for being black. I carry that pain.

Even when freedom came I felt it. The change was superficial. We are still poor. We are still uneducated. We are still materially unfree.

White people, we do not have your automatic confidence – your uncomplicated sense of entitlement. History calls us names like savage and barbaric. Biko and Sobukwe once tried to get all that out of our thinking, to free us in our own self-relation, but it runs deep.

So we hate you sometimes. You seem to have it so good. Seems like you won an unfair fight. The game seems lost before we’re even born. Rigged and boobytrapped. Going way back to when you replaced our ancestors with the King James Bible.

We envy how lovely it must be to live in a Top-Billing dream-house. Your holidays to the tip of the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China. How awesome it must be to have rocket ships to see stars up close and undersea adventures where you play with multicoloured creatures. This is the fantasy life we suspect you live while millions of African children can’t even spell the name of their own country. Why, we wonder, is blackness so synonymous with disease and poverty? And whiteness on the cover of magazines.

Africa is rich in resources but its people are amongst the poorest on earth. This is not an “accident of history” or entirely about the pitfalls of post-liberation states. It is by design. There are agents behind this. It is not a mystery. But what is done is done. We don’t hate you for it. All the time. White people can’t return us to ourselves. We have made each other who we are. Dialectically.

And right now in this country, we face a mutual enemy.

Too many of our “leaders” routinely choose selfish greed over the national good. This betrayal almost makes us equal. We may occupy the same space yet live worlds apart, but the threat to our democracy that the corrupt elite poses, transcends race, and threatens us all.

*Illustration © Jason Bronkhorst.

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