Oh, what it is to be white and middle class in present-day South Africa! The struggle is real. People, do not brush aside my pain. You do not understand my hardship in trying to convince people I have not benefited from my low-level melanin casing.
Okay, perhaps I need to admit that denial is not just a river in Egypt. I may not like to say it, but hi, I’m Robyn, and I’m a member of the white privileged elite in this country. Luckily, I am not alone in my plight. You’ll see a lot of us around. We’re generally hanging out in places like Sandton City, getting ridiculously over-priced haircuts.
Don’t believe me? Clap your hands if you’ve heard a variation of this argument before:
“I’m tired of hearing about apartheid. I’m tired of feeling guilty for being white, and being made to feel like racism is my fault. I didn’t cause it, why should I suffer through affirmative action/Black Economic Empowerment/*insert other complaint here* in order to fix it? It’s time to move on from the past.”
This statement is an amalgam of conversations I’ve had with many people over the years, and is even an echo of what I used to believe myself. It is also completely and utterly wrong.
When I say that white privilege is still prevalent in South Africa, please try to understand why I say it before you sharpen your pitchforks. I know white privilege exists because I probably wouldn’t be here if it didn’t. Perhaps it’s easier to see the privilege entwined with my skin colour because my roots aren’t as deeply entrenched in this country as other people’s.
I am first generation South African, the daughter of Irish immigrants. My father sometimes tells the story of how our family got here. He was working at a textiles factory in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, 40 years ago. There was a man there named Greg, working as a machine operator, and my father started up a conversation with this man.
“Oh, you’re an electrician?” Greg said. “So am I. I can’t find any of that kind of work though, which is why I’m doing this. There aren’t enough jobs in this country for us … Do you know where there is work, though? South Africa.”
And so, to South Africa Brian Kirk came. He worked on six-month contracts during the 1970s, doing electrical work here for half the year, and returning home for the other.
In 1982, he and my mother got married in Ireland and moved out here a few months later. They’re still here 32 years later with four daughters and one grandson.
They gave us a good life. We grew up in a nice house, went to excellent private schools and had the opportunity and funding to go to university. I don’t mean to take anything away from their love and devotion – they worked hard to provide.
But did they work harder than a domestic worker, who left home at 4am to get to the madam’s house to cook and clean? My parents’ hard work had more material reward because my dad was a white, skilled worker at a time when the “white” part mattered an awful lot.
“I know white privilege exists because I probably wouldn’t be here if it didn’t.”
My story may not be exactly the same as other white South Africans’ stories but, if you look at them critically, you’ll see a common thread running through them all.
Not so long ago, race was a deciding factor in the work and pay you could expect, the humanity you were shown and the standard at which you could take care of your family. We, as the children of those who went before, need to realise and admit this.
Yes, it is not mine or any other young white person’s “fault” that apartheid happened, but we need to accept that we have benefited from it, in small ways and in big.As a country, we need to keep talking about the wrongs and hatred of the past, not in order to assign blame, but rather to create understanding and move forward. I will quote William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Everything exists now because of what was before.
We need to understand where we’ve come from to find the right path to where we want to go. Sometimes this means admitting we’re complicit in something we wish we weren’t, but if that’s the only way to move forward then I think it’s worth the pain.
One of the two Metrobuses which runs on dual fuel, a form of fuel that produces 90% less carbon emissions. Photo: Robyn Kirk
In a bid to save money and reduce carbon emissions, Johannesburg bus company, Metrobus has started the process of running their fleet of buses on environmentally-friendly dual fuel.
So far two Metrobus buses have been fitted with new engines that use dual fuel, a fuel that produces 90% less carbon emissions than regular diesel. Dual fuel is a mixture of natural gas and diesel. The ‘green’ buses are currently running routes in Johannesburg in order to test run the technology.
“The executive mayor [of Johannesburg, Parks Tau] is into the green concept, and wants us [Metrobus] to use alternative fuel,” said Esther Dreyer of Metrobus. “I think it’s an excellent idea.”
In addition to the two buses already on the road, a further 150 new buses using dual fuel technology will be purchased by Metrobus within the next year, the tender for which is currently being advertised.
“In this city, carbon emissions are too high and need to be reduced”
A member of the Metrobus technical team that fitted the two buses, who asked not to be named because of company policy, explained that the drive for greener fleets was for environmental and financial reasons.
Environmental and economic sustainability
“In this city, carbon emissions are too high and need to be reduced,” the technician said. “The government needs to start the initiative, and they started with us.”
“Another concern is financial. The biggest cost in transport [businesses] is diesel and tires” he added. “A lease bus needs 500 litres of diesel per tank, and diesel is currently R14 per litre – that’s R7 000 every few days.”
This is the third time that Metrobus has experimented with employing cleaner fuel methods. The first bus they purchased, which only used natural gas, was fraught with technical problems. Their second attempt with a bus using ethanol gas came to halt as they struggled to access a reliable supplier of the fuel.
It is hoped that when all the new dual fuel vehicles are operational, they will eventually half the current fuel costs for Metrobus.
HEAVY THOUGHTS: The Wits Transformation Office held a round table discussion on race which stirred up a heated debate amongst the audience.
Photo: Lameez Omarjee
By Robyn Kirk and Lameez Omarjee
Race continues to be an issue in South Africa, even in the apparently transformed halls of higher education.
This was the predominant view of the audience at the Wits Transformation Office roundtable discussion on campus earlier today. The discussion looked at the relevance of race in the 20 year old democracy of South Africa but focused on the issue of transformation in higher education.
The Wits Transformation Office maintains that Wits University has transformed in terms of both race and gender over the last 20 years. But speakers at the discussion felt otherwise.
Athi-Nangamso Nkopo, a Master’s student in Political Science and founder of the Feminist Forum said that “although Wits University has improved in the racial representation of students enrolled, not enough systems are in place to ensure non-white students succeed and graduate. She argued that “in higher education, not enough is being done for women to advance,” and added that the improvements on campus are not an accurate representation of the demographics of the country.
Michlene Mongae, the Secretary General of the Wits SRC (Students Representatives Council), pointed out that within the space of the university different racial groups tolerated one another, however this was not the case within private spaces such as at home or with friends. She also indicated that actively trying to look beyond race clearly shows that race still matters.
Mongae argued that in the past, white students were the most politically active on campus and over 20 years, black students have become the more politically dominant group on campus. “White students do not protest because they do not have to,” responded Mashele.
The comment sparked interest from the audience, where one audience member noting that the lack of white students at a discussion about race is an indication of the aparthy towards the issue.
I enter the lift, push my floor number and wait. Another girl, a stranger to me, stares at me for a while.“You know, you look kind of funny” she says conversationally.
Well, I had noticed that as a matter of fact, thank you very much. I am Robyn, and I am disabled. I have Möbius Syndrome something to do with cranial nerves and my development in the womb and shit (as a BA kid, I reserve the right to not know what doctors and so-called experts are talking about when they get into the biology of it all).
[pullquote]As I got older I finally realised things were the way they were, and I could either spend the rest of my life being miserable, or face the facts and try to find a way to move on.[/pullquote]
Basically, my face looks funny because my muscles didn’t develop properly before I was born. It led to partial facial paralysis, meaning I can’t make all the same facial movements as you, and my speech can be unclear at times. Only about one in every 275 000 people are born with it, but I guess I was just really, really lucky. My whole life, I’ve received the funny looks, snide comments and unbearable staring. It used to upset me. (It still can sometimes, if I’m honest.)
When I was 10 I cried for an entire night after some jerks in a line at an amusement park laughed and called me “some sort of Pokémon”. And then I grew up and decided that, in the immortal words of Popeye: “I yam what I yam”. As I got older I finally realised things were the way they were, and I could either spend the rest of my life being miserable, or face the facts and try to find a way to move on. God knows I would change it if I could, but these are the cards I was dealt, and I have to play them as best I can. But isn’t that something that all people do, not just the disabled ones?
Everyone is born to a set of circumstances they didn’t choose. Everyone spends their life fighting a battle against how people see them versus how they really are. I don’t want your sympathy, or expect you not to blink the first time you see me, or to be a model for Vogue magazine. All I want is for you to take my experience and use it to inform your own.
People aren’t all that different from one another really. The next time you see someone who is disabled, or comes from a different race or socio-economic class, or has some other little thing that we, as humans, use to draw a line between us and them, take a moment to remember that you are more than likely united in more things than you are divided.
Yes I am Robyn, and I am disabled. I’m also left-handed, and heartily dislike olives, and can sing all the words to the Frozen theme song with my little sister. Being disabled is a part of me, but I will not let it define me any more than my green eyes or my hairy toes do. Be careful of the aspects of people that you allow to define them.
By Zelmarie Goosen and Robyn Kirk
THE RICH AND THE DUBIOUS: (from left) Obett Motaung, Campbell Jessica Meas, Michelle Schewitz, Jonathan Young with Peter Terry (foreground) in Jessica Friedan’s Government Inspector at the Wits Theatre. Photo: supplied
The wealthy vying for the favour of the powerful, people giving gifts in order to gain something and a society in which greed conquers all. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
These are the central themes of the play Government Inspector that opened this week at the Wits Theatre.
Written more than 150 years ago the play is clearly still relevant to modern-day South African audiences.
For South African audiences
“It’s a satire set in Russia, not in South Africa, but I think we’ll see a lot of ourselves,” says director Jessica Friedan, a former Witsie. Friedan feels that through laughter, people look at issues differently. “I think we’re feeling a little brutalised with the country right now … we have enough commentary that’s very direct and very blunt and very harsh and we have enough depressing stuff.”
With the struggles South Africa is facing 20 years into democracy and the fallout from the Nkandla report fresh on our minds, Government Inspector takes a light-hearted look at what the elite will do to stay rich and powerful through the deeds of a string of unlikable characters produced (or performed?) by talented actors.
“I think it sort of brings out the universal themes of awful people using their positions to get lots of money and get lots of opportunities, which is as true in imperial Russia as it is here and anywhere else,” says Friedan.
The play sees guest performers Peter Terry and Matthew Lotter (both leading South African entertainers) acting alongside Wits School of Arts students. Friedan said she was “very delighted” to have Terry and Lotter work with them.
“I think they bring a professionalism and an insight and also a perspective of what it is to work and what matters and doesn’t matter. The students have learnt a lot from them”.
Government Inspector is showing at the Wits Theatre on west campus, Braamfontein from till 30 April.
By Zelmarie Goosen and Robyn Kirk
Barbed wire stretched across a portion of wall and a ceiling-high “bouquet of security cameras” are just some of the installations produced by Amber-Jade Geldenhuys.
A piece in Amber-Jade’s collection, CCTV cameras showing how security plays a big role in our every day lives. Photo by: Zelmarie Goosen
At her Masters exhibition, opened at the Substation on the Wits Campus on Thursday, Geldenhuys, a fine art student at Wits focused on the issue of “securitization” of the homes that South Africans have come to think of as normal.
In the exhibition running until 18 March, she hopes to make visitors aware of the South African obsession with safety.
“We create these elaborate constructions, and they always go without any questioning [or] second thought, so it’s interesting to start to think of ways to push those boundaries and maybe… find a way over the walls,” Geldenhuys said of her work.
Crime in South Africa
According to official South African Police Service statistics released by the Institute for Security Studies, incidences of robbery increased 4.6% (or by 4 685 cases) from 2012 to 2013 and instances of residential burglary increased 6.8% to a total of 262 113 incidents, meaning there was an average of 720 house burglaries each day.
Jeremy Wafer, Geldenhuys’ supervisor described the exhibition as interesting because it attempted to display something so often considered threatening into something beautiful.
“I think she’s working with really interesting themes, themes that depict all of us living in a big city like Johannesburg, with issues of what it means to be in secure homes, of security and at the same time overturning that to some degree,” Wafer said.
“[Her work] is a bit like our homes: spaces of comfort, and in these spaces you also always feel anxious whenever you hear a noise and you rush out to see what’s going on, and it isn’t just a class thing, everyone experiences what’s going on and has anxiety, ” he added.