White youth as part of a larger community

Waldimar Pelser
Waldimar Pelser
Waldimar Pelser

This is a speech given by journalist Waldimar Pelser at an Ndifuna Ukwazi seminar on 16 June.

You can tell a lot about how people define the word “community” by looking at fans of sports teams. On big game days in our cities and towns we often see people go quite crazy for Swallows or Pirates or Ajax, but not so often for Bafana. In Pretoria we see grown men hang blue balls from their bakkies’ tow bars and put horns on their heads to show they would die for the Blue Bulls. The same passion is rarely displayed when the Springboks, our national team, play. Living in Nigeria a few years ago I was amazed that fans of Chelsea or Arsenal would come to blows in the street over the score but not even notice when the Super Eagles, the national team, compete at international level. In Europe it’s pretty much the same thing; fans travel across continents to see their Premier League teams play while national teams often play second fiddle.

What does this tell us about the communities we feel part of?

Communities can be very small —some neighbours on your street who you like to hang out with over weekends, or your church group, or Ndifuna Ukwazi— or really large, like the community of Manchester United fans. The Man U community often consists of people who hardly know one another. They are of all races and all countries, and they are bound together by a passion for a team of men who run around in shorts and earn a lot of money. Quite strange! But it doesn’t make the bonds less strong.

When we feel we belong to a community we are happy to make sacrifices for that community. We open our front doors and wallets for other members of that community, and often we become willing to participate in struggles on behalf of that community. We heard earlier how in 1976 youths from all race groups, some of them minorities, joined what became a community of activists to fight for a common, just cause.

When I was asked to join this discussion about the role of white youth in South Africa and South African struggles, the first question that came to mind was how do young white people define the word community. Who and what are they willing to struggle for. Because just as in sport, it is easier to identify with the struggles of people who we regard as part of our community than those who we believe fall outside of it. There are struggles on the other side of the planet we don’t particularly care for, just as there are struggles that happen right next to us that we prefer not to see. But community is a positive force too because it does and can mobilise people near and far around causes.

So what can we say about the struggle of white young people?

I know young white people who have struggled particularly with a question that affects deeply how they feel about their future. They ask themselves: What if I do really well at school and still don’t get a job because of the colour of my skin? My parents voted for the apartheid government but I didn’t, so why must I pay? They struggle often with an uneasy sense of guilt mixed with perceived powerlessness: I know my fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers designed and supported a system that was morally indefensible, yet I don’t see a role for myself in politics or social activism. They say we are victims of violent crime, of corruption, of failures in service delivery, of affirmative action.

These struggles are very real struggles for some white youth, and I don’t think they are soon going to go away, but they are also selfish struggles that take place within “community circles” that are narrowly drawn.

Our challenge as white young people is to ask ourselves critically which communities we are part of, and for which communities are we willing to struggle.

If we define “community” too narrowly, we are in deep trouble. If white young people feel they belong only to a community that consists of other white people, we’re in trouble. These circles of community need to be made bigger. The most meaningful struggles in history have occurred when people stopped fighting only for their narrow self-interest, and started fighting in principle for people with whom they once thought they had little in common. The battle for the recognition of human rights is strongest when straight people fight alongside gay people for gay rights from which the straight people might not directly benefit. It was stronger in 1976 when white people joined a political struggle against a system that was designed for their own benefit. Imagine if only women fought for women’s rights, only children for children’s rights? The world only changes for the better when we include in our struggles people who do not look like us, sound like us, love like us, walk like us, and vote like us.

That is a personal challenge for every person and it is the challenge of white young people, most of whom have a very real desire to play an active role in building a future in South Africa. But many of us have become very good at building futures for ourselves and our narrowly defined communities. The future of South African communities is instead intimately entangled.

We must start, as a friend suggested on Facebook, with a recognition of privilege, which must not and cannot paralyze us into guilt and inaction, but which must spur us into more active citizenship. One of the reasons apartheid was so vile is that the system, and the people who ran it, regarded some South Africans as burdens to be hidden away rather than as people who could make a valuable contribution to building a prosperous and just society. White youth must show their willingness to be part of building just and prosperous communities outside their own familiar neighbourhoods. I doubt that a genuine attempt to do that will easily be turned down.

Pelser is a journalist.

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