Ferial Haffajee and Xolela Mangcu Engage in a Fiery Debate at the Launch of What If There Were No Whites In South Africa?
The launch of What If There Were No Whites In South Africa? by Ferial Haffajee was a high point in a busy month at The Book Lounge, where a number of hard-hitting books have been launched and topics of gravity aired.
Haffajee was joined in conversation by Xolela Mangcu, author of The Colour of Our Future: Race and Identity in South Africa. Mangcu said he’d thought Haffajee’s title was a metaphorical expression and was surprised to find that she was being quite literal. He cited some of the statistics that Haffajee uses in her book to illustrate that even if you took all the white wealth in South Africa and gave it to black people, it would not be enough.
“The problem with that analysis is that no serious black scholar makes that argument. It’s a straw argument that’s put up, that then becomes the basis of a counter argument. No serious black scholar I know is saying that the problems can be solved by shifting around the resources,” Mangcu said. He proposed that the most incisive black thinkers are saying that the entire system is problematic: “We have to ask ourselves how to unlock the potential of the four million black young people. It’s not helpful to put them into a dysfunctional system.”
“Numbers matter,” Haffajee replied, saying that she was responding to the narrative she had been hearing from the young generation. They seem to believe that if only the white-owned pot of gold were redistributed, everything would be fine in the country. “The didactic take with the numbers shows that our real challenges of 43 percent unemployment, of where wealth is owned, the 67 percent of commercial land that is still largely white owned. I don’t think the whiteness debate, or the white supremacy debate, is going to give us answers to push forward into better development,” she said.
A second set of numbers pertaining to the black middle class also disturbed Mangcu. “The argument you’re making is: ‘Why is there so much complaining when the number of black people in the middle class equals the number of whites?’ You argue that parity is being reached, but those numbers tell you the problem of inequality. We cannot do social analysis by numbers. The proportions matter. These numbers mean that white people, some eight percent of the population, have the same position in the middle class as black people, who constitute 80 percent of the population. That’s inequality to the factor of 10. Proportions matter because they tell you about the most important value factor in politics – inequality, not poverty,” Mangcu said.
“This is what informs the anger of the black middle class: official statistics showed 27 percent for unemployment in the black community, unofficially, 40 percent. Unemployment in the white community was a mere seven percent. These are vastly different worlds! Do you know that consumption expenditure above R100 000 in the black community exists at eight percent? In the white community, this figure is at 80 percent. These vastly different experiences where 54 percent live below R600 per month, whereas 0.8 percent of white people live at that level. I don’t want us to get into a sense of comfort …”
Haffajee challenged him, saying that this was the theme she was writing about. “Does the growth and development of one group lie in the hands of the other? Many groups of people, when asked, assumed that the grouping of white people was far higher than it was. This comes from our history, the voice, the networks, the positions of white people in the corporate sector, but the numbers are nowhere near equal. We bring American style discussion to the table, but that’s not the case,” she said. “Our challenges are different when it’s a black majority we’re talking about.”
Mangcu continued: “All social revolutions – forget what the Marxists tell you! – are started by the middle class. The middle class are the ones who are closest to the glass ceiling. The Black Consciousness movement was formed at the University of Natal by a group of black medical students. It’s a mistake to focus on incomes and class as a sign that we’re moving towards parity. Philosophically and historically, class does not explain the social experiences that anger the black middle class. You can be a member of the black middle class as much as you like, but if you come to the University of Cape Town and are treated like rubbish, it makes you angry. It doesn’t make you the first person in history to be angered like this. My problem with the book is the focus on incomes and the growing middle class. I think it’s a mistaken analysis and race comes into the picture, precisely because of this.
“It took me a relocation to Cape Town to start writing about race! I keep all my columns. I’ve never written about race as I’ve done in the past two years, because you can have all the Harvard PhDs you like, but if you’re treated like dirt … I’m not ‘grateful’ for being around the table.” Mangcu reflected on his recent appointment as full professor at UCT: “I’ve had to work twice or thrice as hard as people who haven’t come close to what I’ve done. Those things have nothing to do with class. They have to do with the way one is treated in the world. It makes people angry …”
At this point a white woman in the audience inserted herself into the discussion. In an unrepentant tone, she said: “I’m sorry, what you’re saying is extremely interesting and challenging, but we’re here for Ferial Haffajee’s book.”
A resounding “Hear, hear!” rang out. “Ferial, they don’t want to hear what I have to say,” Mangcu said, with good grace. What was not said is that the interlocutors at these discussions are invited by the publisher, usually at the specific request of the author. One must presume that Haffajee had invited Mangcu, knowing full well that he would offer her a robust critique of her text.
Later, in the question and answer session, Mangcu again reflected on the general unwillingness to address the problems of racism. “I think it’s irresponsible. I worry about my children, that we don’t talk about this. We’re going to leave our children with things that haven’t been spoken about, so when we talk about racism, we should be told to shut up and concentrate on corruption in government.”
A young man introduced himself as one of the angry black middle class, interested in the tone of the conversation. He said, “The conversations we’ve had with young people is that we’re told that we need to relax a little, to change our tone. The everyday violence of black life is totally different to the conversation we’re having right now. I’m really interested in the reaction of white people.” He noted how hard people try to protect “white fragility”. When young black people talk about the problems of structural inequality and racism, the first thing that comes to the defense of whiteness is white fragility. That’s an example of white fragility when a black man is sitting down, narrating his experience, and he is told, “We don’t want to listen to that.”
“That’s what happens every time we have this conversation. It’s fine for us to be sitting here with 95 percent of the audience white. We’re not having an honest conversation about what it means to be South African and listening to the experience.”
This fascinating and multifaceted discussion covered many topics which are not fully represented in this report. Those present had very different reactions to the author and her interviewer, and the Q and A session positively sizzled with articulate, insightful, astute commentary. While there were those in the audience who were acutely embarrassed by the silencing of Mangcu by the white woman, it is heartening that such a disruption could itself come under the spotlight and be examined in a civil public forum.
There is no doubt that this important book that raises a discomforting question will provoke much more discussion of a vital nature if South Africans are to move beyond “the enraged debate” that prompted Haffajee to write What If There Were No Whites In South Africa?
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