Maimane and the big flat lie about white privilege
Like flat-earthers, the mad lot who took aim at the DA leader were bellowing from a safe ideological niche
When the Sunday press reported that Mmusi Maimane was facing a backlash from his party for claiming on Freedom Day that white people remain privileged in South Africa, I smelled spin.
After all, Freedom Day was also the day on which Maimane claimed that some refer to him as a “mini-Mandela”, a statement that prompted the whole country to picture a homunculus version of Maimane frantically humping the leg of greatness.
The DA, I thought, would be anxious to delete that image from the public consciousness, and a hastily arranged fight against shadowy racists within the party – a small minority the DA doesn’t want anyway – would be the perfect distraction.
I duly went in search of evidence to back up my suspicion. I read reports in which Maimane doubled down on his position, hammering home the fact that South Africa remains grossly unequal and that white privilege is undeniable. I read denials by senior colleagues saying that the alleged backlash was really just a debate. I read posts on the DA’s Facebook page.
And I found that I had been wrong. I can’t vouch for any acrimony between senior DA officials, but out on the mean streets of the Internet the backlash was real.
It seethed in hundreds of comments on Facebook. It railed and cursed and hissed below every news report that allowed users to comment. It made a lot of claims, for example, that discussing race is racist, that it had to work part-time to pay for its university education, and that it isn’t rich, unlike all those black guys in their BMWs.
But mostly what it said was this: the idea of white privilege is a vicious lie cooked up by self-hating white liberals and corrupt black communists to take our stuff.
As I read these comments, each so angrily self-righteous and insular, I began to get a strange sense that I had read them before, and quite recently. And soon I realised I had.A few months ago I was researching a column about people who believe that the Earth is flat, and I had found myself on a forum, gazing with a mix of admiration and terror, at people going to extraordinary ends to deny the most basic aspects of reality; refusing to believe what was in front of their eyeballs because it did not agree with the ideological niche in which they felt safe.
It was their tone that I was hearing now, that mad, self-pitying hubbub that gets more insistent the further it drifts from reality; but instead of shouting at astronomers they were shouting at Mmusi Maimane.
Of course, flat-earthers are relatively harmless. South Africans who deny the existence of white privilege are not.
If you can look out of your car window and still genuinely believe that white people and black people start from the same base and enjoy the same economic and social opportunities, then you are like someone walking into a blood-spattered room and not seeing anything amiss. You are unable to see that a crime has been committed, and you are likely to dismiss appeals for justice because you don’t think an injustice has been done. No matter how kind and generous you might consider yourself, if you deny that a crime has occurred then you are subtly working to defeat the ends of justice.
So where does this intense self-delusion come from?
To be fair, some of it might be human nature. A 2017 survey by the financial services giant UBS found that only those American investors with assets greater than $5-million felt that they had put aside enough to secure their futures. Everyone else – which includes people with R50-millon in the bank – felt unsafe.This deep mammalian fear of not having enough – the instinct that winter is coming and you haven’t got enough nuts – is why you can earn R35,000 a month and believe that you are doing okay but certainly not rich, despite the fact that earning R35,000 a month puts you in the top 1% of the wealthiest people on Earth.
This is simply how humans are. Most rich people don’t feel rich, and most privileged people don’t feel privileged.
But is this enough to explain the denial of those who have vowed never to vote for the DA again?
Anger, outrage and despair were common themes in most of the comments I read this week, but something much stronger and more potent ran through all of them like an invisible electric current: fear.
I suspect that the white people who are angry with Maimane are angry because he has reneged on a deal they thought they’d made with the DA: to never speak about race and history, or how race and opportunity remain brutally entwined. They thought they’d found a party that was entirely focused on moving blindly forward into some vague, undefined future of inexplicable wholesomeness.
And now there is fear, because when you talk about an evil past, you are compelled to speak of how that evil infests and infects the present; how it hollows out the future. You must, by definition, speak of redress, of justice, or debts repaid.
Maimane was quick to explain that justice for one group does not imply injustice meted out to another, but that would have been of little comfort to the privilege-deniers.
When your worldview is one of bitter extremes – where white wealth is earned through hard work but black wealth is the product of “BEE corruption”; where crimes must be punished with death; where God and government belong together; where you want to be “First World” but the “Third World” keeps dragging you back; where a vague, bad past should be erased in favour of a vague, utopian future – it must be frighteningly easy to assume that a loss of privilege will mean a loss of everything.
After all, if the Earth is actually round, how are we all going to stay on it without falling off the bottom?