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How the Hell Do All These White Students Have Cars? – Excerpt from What If There Were No Whites In South Africa?

When black fury meets white denial, you have the combustible and fundamentally changed race relations we live in today.

- Ferial Haffajee, What If There Were No Whites In South Africa?

Ferial HaffajeeWhat If There Were No Whites In South Africa?Pan Macmillan has shared an excerpt from Ferial Haffajee’s new book, What If There Were No Whites In South Africa?

In the extract, Haffajee recalls how she first truly became aware of unearned privilege at university, when all the white students around her seemed to have cars at the age of just 18.

Haffajee says these rituals of privilege “and are still unrecognised as factors of catapulting privilege in how we understand South Africa”.

Haffajee is the editor-in-chief of the City Press and sits on the boards of the International Women’s Media Foundation, the World Editors Forum, the International Press Institute and the Inter Press Service. What If There Were No Whites In South Africa?, her first book, examines our history and our present. It yields some thought-provoking and topical analysis.

Read the excerpt:

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There is an entire world of white privilege that was invisible to me and that was made visible only once I integrated into it – my first collision was at university. With a generation of young black people, this is happening much sooner at school now. At Wits, I was perplexed that all the white students had cars. How the hell was that possible, I remember 18-year-old me, belched from a yucky Putco bus in Braamfontein, asking myself.

Cars. When you get them and how you learn to drive them could be a whole book on their own. My dad learnt to drive because his factory-owner employer needed someone to lock up the factory. And, so, by default, we had a small delivery car. I grew up with having a car parked at the open parking underneath our block of flats, but the cars were always headaches. Often they were second hand. They were always in the backyard of a neighbourhood mechanic and barely got my mom and dad to work.

My first car came when I got a job at a university library. It cost me R5 000 paid in instalments; and R25 000 in repairs until a kind boyfriend said, ‘Give it up, Fer.’ I recognised my luck later when among the intake of Weekly Mail trainees I was the only one with that car, which took us about when it wasn’t stuck. And I guess it’s because I grew up coloured and my father’s pitiful wages were more than the average black worker.

So, how 18-year-olds could afford brand-new cars was an absolute mystery to me until I learnt of the privileged rituals of many of my white compatriots’ lives, which were unbelievable and are still unrecognised as factors of catapulting privilege in how we understand South Africa.

They got dropped and fetched at school. They got braces to fix dental imperfections (this was a real learning curve for me as the only time I got taken to someone I still consider a horse dentist was when things were really sore). They had extra tuition if needed. University was not the hit and miss of my generation (very few of us at my secondary school made it to university) but a thing of certainty. They went on overseas holidays. Every year. Their families had second homes. This one really hit me in the gut as a kid whose parents didn’t own a home until 1987 when my brother could pitch in. Two houses!

After university, you could take a gap year. The only thing I would have got is a gap tooth if my plans were not to find work immediately after university. Truth be told, I had to work all the way through university as everything from shop assistant to a butcher to pay my own way. So, a gap year? No such.

When you marry, you get a deposit on a home. There is often a trust fund and bequeathals to grandchildren. This passage of wealth through the generations is a massive failsafe in an uncertain world. The networks of privilege enable easy access into the private sector or the world of the entrepreneur. They continue to smooth lives and careers, creating access and opportunity.

When I finally earned enough to make a will, the consultant asked me about a trust fund? I stared blankly and only after she explained did I learn what all the estate planning I read about in personal finance pages was about. Again, it was a rude wake-up call to the lingering impacts of racial capital in South Africa and to all I did not take for granted. All of this natural white privilege is almost completely foreign to black people coming into a white world – save for a small and happily growing part of upper middle-class black South Africans.

* * * * *

If my response was that of disbelief and a tinge of envy, if I am to be honest, for a new generation of young black people who collide with all they don’t have much sooner than my generation did, the response is furious.

When black fury meets white denial, you have the combustible and fundamentally changed race relations we live in today.

#OpenStellenbosch is a students’ movement to alter power relations at Stellenbosch University. It exploded into national consciousness through a documentary called Luister launched on YouTube.

It was an excoriating account of the experiences of black students both on campus and off. A powerful documentary, it was followed by a week of enhanced activism as the nation sat up and listened to deeply worrying accounts of students’ pain at a language policy that continued to favour Afrikaans speakers although the academy is officially bilingual, with English as the second language.

Off campus, students said they faced overt racism in social and commercial relationships: who you can dance with; where you can eat; and how many black people are allowed into spaces.

It feels as if the harsh reality a young Tiyani encountered has not shifted in 12 years. The harsher reality is the documentary was made 21 years after apartheid ended. Ended. Now there’s a complex concept, because did it? Really?

Because pretty and quaint Stellenbosch, with its linked histories of elite Afrikaners and French Huguenot lineage, is possibly one of the most popular tourist spots in South Africa, the story went global. Finally, the black experience was being heard.

To which some white Maties (Stellenbosch students) responded with #WhereIsTheLove, based on the song. Asked to explain, a student who had started the hashtag contra-protest and march said it was all being blown out of proportion and that race didn’t matter. He was all long haired, very bru and faux hippy, talking Woodstock and the Beatles but without any sense of history or the present. I wanted to cuff him through the TV screen – and could only imagine his denialist impact on a movement finding its voice.

The clash between #OpenStellenbosch and #WhereIsTheLove is a microcosm: people lost in translation to each other with one crew failing to hear properly what the other is trying to tell them.

Tiyani’s earlier words come to mind again: ‘[If there were no whites] … we wouldn’t be playing this catch-up game …’

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