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Who’s got the power? And what kind? Jennifer Platt reviews Ferial Haffajee’s What if There Were No Whites in South Africa

By Jennifer Platt for the Sunday Times

What If There Were No Whites In South Africa?What if There Were No Whites in South Africa?
Ferial Haffajee (Pan Macmillan)

One doesn’t expect a considered book with such a contentious title — but City Press editor Ferial Haffajee’s tone is consistently thoughtful. She is not angry; she is looking for answers to the pressing questions about race in South Africa. Her view is that we should move forward from the premise that whites are a minority and that great political and economic power lies with the black majority.

She writes: “This majority, believing it is a minority, cascades into a pool of problems. We underestimate black progress all the time — egged on by political leaders who use race as a neat deflection from the failing state.”

In asking the title question, Haffajee takes us on her own journey, from her childhood in Bosmont to her Wits student days, where she first confronted white privilege: “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.”

But now she says: “I live in a black country from Cape Point to Musina. I feel this as much as I did when I travelled to the newly freed Harare as a kid and understood what freedom would feel like one day.”

Haffajee wants to find out why there is “a simmering resentment about a perceived white cultural and financial domination that has replaced formal apartheid”. So she involves a range of commentators in debate. Many, like Andile Mngxitama, challenge her: “I don’t know this world of yours, where you feel SA is so black. I mean, really. I mean we’re speaking in English now. If you look at television, the people who now get employed are black people who must sound white.”

Haffajee admits that things haven’t changed enough. “And the pattern in workplaces is the same. It is the cappuccino – mixed to a good brown at the bottom, a layer of thick white froth and sprinkles of chocolate. The impetus for change I tracked at the start of the century has slowed. I speak to boardrooms fairly often. And, yes, if they are not in sectors with high regulation or owned and part-owned by the state, the grooves worn by our past have not changed sufficiently.”

Her book has been slammed by other thought leaders who believe her views are simplistic and idealistic. Some of her arguments are valid: we do need to acknowledge how far we’ve come and use that momentum to move forward.

Other arguments are dated: she suggests that since legal equality is won and black economic upliftment is afoot, the battle against racism is almost won, and a post-racial society beckons.

That notion should be filed with the fading glimmer of the rainbow nation. But her book does spark dialogue on a way forward, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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