P1040139I considered starting a series of blog posts called “My Life With Didi”. Unfortunately, I cannot commit myself to writing regularly about it: too busy living it! Didi is my Capetonian housemate, she is the same age as me (27), does the job I would want to do (Project manager for cultural projects), and decorates her home with inspiring quotes and poems (inset photos). She is a blogger who cares about the environment, people, and feminism, amongst other things. She lived in the forest of Sweden for a year and was at Dam square when Occupy occupied Amsterdam. Didi and I have a lot to talk about and, best of all, she makes my stomach hurt with laughter.

Didi is black and I am white.

Didintle Ntsie, Didi, is black and I am white. There. I said it. We are alike in curiosity and open-mindedness but do not get the same experiences out of these characteristics, since her interactions with the world are that of a black female and mine those of a white female. Yes, it matters. White privilege is hardly a new topic on my mind: I have spent many a thoughtful moment and conversation on how it is possible that everywhere I go in the world white seems to be the dominant colour in business, ruling power and media. (The answer to the Why-question seems multi-faceted and ultimately incomprehensible) The point is that I thought I was pretty good at changing lenses to view the world with, but Didi has given me a whole new pair of binoculars. Living with her has made me see that my white, western-European background influences my perspective on things much more subtly and pervasively than I ever realised.

Didi has also showed me something else, something that I have been looking for since I first set foot on South African soil five years ago: rage, indignation and emotion over the South African situation. The situation being that South Africa is a country that became a democracy inclusive of the majority of its people only twenty years ago. It is a country in which day-to-day life is still tainted by the consequences of apartheid – a regime that expelled black South Africans from their country of birth (by way of ‘homelands’) and rearranged their future for the worse in terms of education, spatial organisation and relations.¹

One night I was telling Didi how I could not understand that so many (sympathetic) white South Africans I have spoken to would at some point utter the words “I am not saying apartheid was good, but…”. Then the white South African would generally continue in a spirit of despair over the current government. Some of the more extravagant conversations would even have a hint of defensiveness (and longing?) for the prosperous years spent under apartheid. I cannot understand the ‘but’ in that sentence. In our conversation about this, Didi got visibly upset, saying that anyone uttering a “but” in relation to the blameworthiness of the implications of apartheid demonstrates a deep-seated lack of transformation, remorse and empathy towards the black experience during apartheid. Not to mention the racist implications.

Racism, a box of Pandora

Racism, it’s the lid to a box of Pandora I find infinitely interesting and horrifying. All of Didi’s friends that I have met so far have showed me a whole new world of activism, self-consciousness, and argument about race-relations. “Racism has members of one racial group, usually whites, dominating members of a different racial group, usually blacks, for material or expressive reasons.”² Is it racist to force a white Western way of living upon people who are not white or Western, when the imposing culture does it under the guise of equality? Didi told me that she spent most of her life trying to be less black than she is. “I always have to be accommodating to Western culture and values. I never fit in. Literally. When I go to buy a jeans my ass does not fit. I have to get it custom made.” (NB: these were words used in the heat of the moment. I think they need to be heard.) To try and be more white is the message Didi received through various mediums such as television, radio, literature, movies, in which white is the norm. A message that is also present in everyday life: “speaking my native language of Setswana was frowned-upon by others around me who didn’t understand. I am often being told to “speak softer” whilst out at restaurants – even during broad daylight…The food I ate at home was and still is considered to be “African food” and not just “food” as I have always known it to be. It is only in the last few years that I am consciously working towards self-love, pride and self-acceptance with this skin, something that is quite a task, particularly living in Cape Town city centre.”

What is white and what is black?

But what is white and what is black in this discussion? I believe the two colours signify cultural difference, “black” cultures are rooted in a different heritage and (cultural) history than “white”, and thus have different values, norms and customs with which to shape life. Eighty percent of South Africa’s population is black African, ten percent is white. By no means do I want to imply that the two colours cannot mix to beautiful shades of grey. What I mean to say it that I think it’s crazy that in a predominantly black country skinny jeans are the fashion and magazine displays show rows of white faces. How can it be that in this beautiful black country white still is the colour to conform to?

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¹ For those who are interested in reading more about Apartheid (what was it, how did it start and come to end?): in chapter 1 of my RMA thesis I give a brief overview of what was apartheid and what is post-apartheid. This link takes you to the downloadable PDF.

²  Michael MacDonald, Why Race Matters in South Africa, 2006.