Recently, among friends and colleagues, I’ve seen and been involved in a lot of discussion on the issue of white privilege in South Africa. This discussion seems to have come to the forefront after the events in Ferguson in the U.S. I’m not going to comment on Ferguson, but I am going to talk about some of the South African discussion.
Meanwhile Stephen Murray, on Facebook, stirred up the same conversation when posting this:
Reading posts by Anthony Bradley it seems evangelicalism failed in the US during the civil rights movement in the same way that it failed here during apartheid. The formal structures of apartheid are now gone but the effects are still powerfully in play, ensuring ongoing racism and unchallenged privilege. I feel like we’re at another key point in our country’s history. Will evangelicalism fail again?
Out of all this I’ve had one question and one observation. My question has basically been this: why is it, in my church, have our strongest and most keen black leaders not been South African but from other African countries? My observation, in an attempt to answer this question, is that South Africans have bought into the Western individualistic, market-driven narrative in a big way. I actually think we’ve bought into it a great deal more than other African countries who are doing well, such as Botswana.
At the risk of generalising, I have found that many born frees (for those outside of South Africa, this refers to the generation of people who were born after apartheid was dismantled) are very individualistic in the way they approach their life. In fact, I find myself often feeling a little out-westernised by born frees. While they’re listening to Beyonce or rappers from the U.S., I’m listening to African roots and world music. (I’m a big world music fan. But I won’t deny that I still enjoy my British rock!) On Twitter most of the born frees I follow talk a lot about their career and what they’re doing, following the general millennial American trend of creating an online “brand”. They also talk a lot about iPhones and fashion and so forth. In short, the marketers have done their job well: we really believe them about having stuff.
I also find it interesting that our malls are full but our museums are not. The biggest and most important conversations seem to always be about economics. We seem to view ‘empowering’ as the same thing as ‘enriching materially’. We don’t talk much about art at all in South Africa and seem very uninterested in much of our heritage. (So much so that we had to make a day to remember it!) Modern liberals continue to insist that Western problems are our problems too. Identity politics have become the big thing at the expense of the actual community.
Western culture’s highly individualised, market-driven narrative where economical power is the point of life is failing us at every level – but yet South Africans are lapping it up. At precisely the time when we’ve needed uniquely South African solutions to South African problems, we think that importing solutions is a far better idea.
But the church isn’t helping in this respect. In fact, by and large, the church – or the evangelical church – is perpetuating the problem. On the conservative side there seems to a keenness to adopt the American culture war here. On the liberal side I feel like we’re often just speaking about American identity politics and economics. Poverty appears to be our biggest evil, but actually materialism is a far worse evil – yet we don’t address it directly. I mean, materialism leads to poverty in the long run, a fact that I don’t think I need to demonstrate. Common sense tells us it does. On a church level, it seems the most successful churches filled with people who aren’t white are the prosperity churches – or those churches who only ever teach on personal growth, personal success, and personal prosperity. By all accounts, a very American gospel. (Please forgive me, my American friends, for putting it like that!)
I’m okay with speaking about personal growth, but not to the detriment of everything else. Anthony Bradley, who by the way is a black American guy, wrote a recent blog post on how even the great commission has become too individualised. I found it insightful.
The reality of an individualised narrative is that it strips away any actual grounding for work. In other words, work becomes a means to an end for personal enrichment, mostly in the form of material enrichment. Without a work ethic that’s grounded in the reality that what we do every day has actual consequences for others, we’re really not going to think further than our nose.
This is part of why those who were colonised are now perpetuating colonial principles. Years ago I wrote an article for The Star that highlighted this point: for all our talk of colonisation, we’ve adopted the founding principles of colonisation of self-enrichment at all costs. This is not Christian and, interestingly enough, not really African either.
As a white guy I’ve dealt with my white guilt largely by noting that this has nothing to do with who’s white and who’s black but has to do with sin and ideology. We can’t talk about white privilege and how bad white attitudes are without noting that right now we’re trying to create a new privileged elite and we’re trying to ensure we’re going to be a part of it. The whole Zuma situation is a case in point: here we have a struggle hero who fought for the people and now seems to live for nothing but self-enrichment. So much so that I wonder if this wasn’t his plan from the beginning! If Nkandla isn’t a picture of colonial, white western materialistic ideologies in play in the heart of a man whose blood is as African as old Shaka himself, then I don’t know what is.
White privilege sucks and I can’t deny that power still lies in the hands of white people in South Africa – but if political and economical power matters that much to us we ought to question why we think we’ll build any differently and how we won’t just create some new injustice with some new elite. From a Christian perspective neither political or economic power is anything. We are called out of that into something far more glorious – the Kingdom. When Christians want to talk about white privilege I honestly wonder if we haven’t just bought into the wrong narrative. Since when was Jesus concerned about who had power? He was far more concerned about who knew that they were loved and valuable and he was far more concerned with how we ought to build for the future.
I guess the question of “white privilege” also just doesn’t affect me any more in the way it used to as I lost my privileges a long time ago. The first half of my adult life I felt what it was like to have no economic power and to be abused by those who do. Both the first and the second half has been full of financial insecurity and career instability. I know the powerlessness most of our country feels in the face of a government which doesn’t seem to care for anything except its ruling party and its president.
How individualistic is your theology / ideology? And why? This for me is an important question. Because it seems, by and large, from liberal to conservative churches across our country the message is the same: me.