Oscar Van Heerden: The ugliness of memory – white privilege under scrutiny

When white privilege is placed under the spotlight and causes such a furore in the Democratic Alliance, one must ask what it is exactly that the party wants to achieve in South Africa. The country is among the most unequal in the world, yet the leader of the DA cannot talk about privilege and where it is located in our society. It boggles the mind.

Memory can be both liberating in some respects and ugly in others, but one thing it almost never is, is dead.

Former President Thabo Mbeki once remarked in 1979, Ottawa, Canada:

Modern political science recognises the fact that social systems are founded on definite historical origins. If the saying ‘out of nothing nothing comes’ is true, then it must follow that the future is formed and derives its first impulse in the womb of the present. All societies therefore necessarily bear the imprint, the birth-marks of their own past. Whether to a greater or lesser extent, must depend on a whole concatenation of factors, both internal and external to each particular society.”

The rise of capitalism and colonial expansion suggest that at its very core we are dealing with a class society in which the bourgeoisie are the dominant class at the expense of the working class. The arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1652 represented the embryo of the emergence of class society with the bourgeoisie in its infancy.

Karl Marx wrote:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in the mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”

Marx continues:

The transformation of the individualised and scattered means of production into socially concentrated ones, of the pigmy property of the many into the huge property of the few, the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence and from the means of labour, this fearful and painful expropriation of the mass of the people forms the prelude to the history of capital. It comprises a series — of forcible methods... The expropriation of the immediate producers was accomplished with merciless vandalism, and under the stimulus of passions the most infamous, the most sordid, the pettiest, the most meanly odious.”

No one dare deny that Marx might as well have been speaking of South Africa with the discovery of gold and the rush that ensued thereafter. White Europeans’ lust for wealth and profit through merciless vandalism and under the stimulus of passions are the most infamous, the most sordid, the pettiest, and the most meanly odious.

Soon after the arrival of the Dutch we see the arrival of the first group of slaves in the Cape colony.

Mbeki goes further and introduces his audience in Canada to Calvin’s Doctrine and how religion was used and abused by the Afrikaners to justify their wayward racist acts against the black population. Looking at their European counterparts they observed first-hand:

Why Europe carried out this early accumulation at home and abroad with such merciless enthusiasm and passion — because the process assured men of property stupendous and immediate profit. Brought up in this European hothouse of rapine, the settlers in South Africa could not but continue this process in their colony. The result was that when England abolished the slave trade in 1834, nearly two centuries after the arrival of the first batch of slaves, the descendants of the original colonists rebelled against this decision. Judging themselves too weak to reimpose slavery by arms, the Boers resolved to take themselves out of the area of British jurisdiction. Thus began the so-called Great Trek of the Boers into the interior of our country.”


We see therefore that the methods and practices of primitive accumulation which represented a transitional phase in the development of capital in Europe, assumed permanence in the South African economy and life-style of the Boers. They acquired a fixity characteristic of feudal society, legitimised by the use of force and sanctified by a supposedly Calvinist Christianity.

The South African settlers of 1652 had themselves been the expropriated of Europe.

But, as in America, here in Canada, in Australia and elsewhere, after a little while they were able to re-establish themselves as independent producers, acquiring land in the manner we have described, on the basis of the expropriation of our people, despite the most fierce resistance of the indigenous people.

It was exactly the blissful regaining of their status as masters of their own house, their re-emergence as independent producers, that froze the Boer community at a particular moment of historic time and thereby guaranteed their regression

Thrown up by the birth of a higher social system, they reverted precisely to that natural economy which capital was so vengefully breaking up. But capital had already taught them that in the pursuit of a better life, everything, including murder, was permissible and legitimate.”

The British involvement in all of this comes to the fore in 1910 with the social contract between them and the Boers, in which the Briton undertook to help ease the Boer out of the Dark Ages while promising to respect his traditions.

Between them, Boer and Briton agreed that they would share political power and, finally, that the indigenous African population would not be party to this contract but would be kept under the domination and at the disposal of the signatories, to be used by them in whatever manner they saw fit.”

And though slavery was outlawed and you could no longer bring slaves into the Cape Colony, the British Authority introduced the vagrancy act directed specifically at the Khoi people. Under this law, all Khoi people not in the employ of a white person were declared vagrants. Vagrancy was made an offence. To prove that one was not a vagrant one had to produce a pass. To get the pass, you had to enter into a written labour contract with a white person. This measure was introduced to meet the labour shortfall created by the non-importation of slaves. This sounds awfully familiar, does it not?

Mbeki goes on,

In the end, it was the British armies which defeated the African people, the British who drove us off our lands, broke up the natural economy and social systems of the indigenous people. It was they who imposed taxes on the African peasants and, starting with the Masters and Servant’s’ Act of 1856, laid down the labour laws which govern the black worker in South Africa today.

The historic compromise between the British bourgeoisie and the Boer peasantry represented hence not an historical aberration but the continued pursuit of maximum profit in conditions of absolute freedom for capital to pursue its inherent purposes.”

In other words, better put, to pursue and protect white privilege.

In Britain on the other hand, the authorities knew that a compromise had to be struck between their working class and the political elite. In return for recognising private property rights as the corner stone of capitalism, they were given political freedom which they could exercise through a vote every five years or so. This compromise was not extended to the black workers on the southern tip of Africa, for obvious reasons.

The white South African Member of Parliament GF Froneman translates it into the concrete when he says:

The black worker is the repository of the commodity labour power, which can and must be quantified in a profit and loss account to the point of the very ‘negation of life itself’. In that very real sense the African therefore belongs to the category of commodities to an equal extent as gold, diamonds and any other commodity you care to mention, to be bought and sold. Hoarded and even destroyed depending exclusively on the state of the market. That rationality demands that to ensure maximum profit that portion of the national wealth which accrues to the black people as consume should be kept at the barest minimum.”

The speech goes further to state that:

The capitalist class, to whom everything has a cash value, has never considered moral incentives as very dependable. As part of the arrangement, it therefore decided that material incentives must play a prominent part. It consequently bought out the whole white population. It offered a price to the white workers and the Afrikaner farmers in exchange for an undertaking that they would shed their blood in defence of capital. Both worker and farmer, like Faustus, took the devil’s offering and, like Faustus, they will have to pay on the appointed day.”

The Freedom Charter at its very core informs us that:

In the physical world, black might indeed be the opposite of white. But in the world of social systems, social theory and practice have as much to do with skin pigmentation as has the birth of children with the stork. To connect the two is to invent a fable with the conscious or unconscious purpose of hiding reality."

It seems to me that the white leaders in the DA party have cottoned on to the undeniable fact that the fable no longer holds and that within the next year or two their precious party will be all consumed by their black members. No longer able to avoid this tide, there are discussions in smoke-filled rooms about what the future of the party should look like. Whether indeed white privilege is being threatened, look at the land expropriation issue, hence the absolute disgust at their very own leader for uttering such words as white privilege.

Mbeki concludes with:

We must, by liberating ourselves, make our own history. Such a process by its very nature imposes on the activist the necessity to plan and therefore requires the ability to measure cause and effect, the necessity to strike in correct directions and hence the requirement to distinguish between essence and phenomenon; the necessity to move millions of people as one man to actual victory and consequently the development of the skill of combining the necessary and the possible.”

These are the facts and they are undeniable. These are the truths and they remain our memories. Which part of these will you have us deny? The leadership of the Democratic Alliance must take heed of these facts for the very survival of the party hangs in the balance if you choose to deny the historical injustice the majority of our people have suffered at the hands of their white compatriots. All to preserve and protect what? White privilege! DM