Recently I was in a pub in Johannesburg’s leafy suburbs of Parkhurst. My friend and I were the only two black people there and everyone else inside this popular pub was white. I overheard a conversation taking place across from us where young white people were discussing how trust funds their parents had set up were helping them get started in life. Another also spoke of the property his parents had bought for him.
I later had a conversation with a white friend of mine who acknowledged that a lot of benefits white people have come as a result of apartheid and other policies that existed before apartheid was formalised which ensured that black people would be near-slaves for white people. My white friend mentioned that he has a grandfather who owns a fruit farm in the Eastern Cape and knows that those that work on the farm are uneducated black people, who are uneducated because policies of the past made sure of that. He mentioned that his grandfather would never find labour that cheap if he was in Europe as that kind of exploitation would never happen there.
Previous generations who owned farms, like my friend’s grandfather’s generation, would then have enough money to give their children the best education. Their black workers would not be able to afford such an education for their children and thus their children would also most likely grow up poor, so would future generations. Even if they could afford such an education, the apartheid government made sure that there would be laws limiting the number of black people entering university.
This was confirmed to me in a conversation I once had with South African journalist and author Fred Khumalo. Khumalo said he was refused a place to study journalism at Technikon Natal as they only allowed a maximum of two non-white people to study at the institution. Khumalo said he also had to get written permission from then Minister of Education, FW de Klerk, who granted this permission. When Technikon Natal refused they told him to go to a black institution like Mangosuthu Technikon which did not offer the programme he wanted to study. After many fights, Fred Khumalo, was eventually allowed to study journalism at the Technikon. These are fights no white person would ever know. I also believe that for every Fred Khumalo who persisted to be one of two black people in class, there were many others who would have given up and opted to be delivery or garden boys for white families.
My father has shared similar stories for his struggle to get an education. He once told me that he would work as a gardener (or garden boy) for a white lady on weekends. On a particular weekend he said he told her he had an academic function to attend and she responded by telling him that her garden was more important than his academic studies and he should not bother returning should he attend to his academic needs. He never returned to her garden, but I often wonder how many people would have opted to earn that small salary and not attend the academic function and perhaps never complete their studies as a result.
As I sat in the Parkhurst pub listening to stories of trust funds, houses white parents are buying for their kids and those that have uncles giving apprenticeships they never have to apply for, I thought of students I lectured at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria. Many of my black students would have stories of how they are the first people in their families to get a university education. Many have to feed their families on completion of studies and would never know what it’s like to go on holiday, enjoy a trust fund or even not to worry about living from pay cheque to pay cheque.
I then thought about the many stories I have read when organisations like trade union, Solidarity, which say policies to correct the faults of the past like Black Economic Empowerment are discriminatory and thus should be dealt away with. If that was to happen then those who have been given a good living on a platter for generations would continue to enjoy rewards for generations to come as generations before them did.
Many young black people have to take out student loans to be at university, that is a debt they have to repay when they start working. While they are repaying loans, those with trust funds manage to get ahead and overtake them as they would buy property early, perhaps get help to buy this property. Many white students also have cars bought for them by their parents and they don’t have to buy their first car and thus would have a better chance of getting and internship that requires someone with a car. These are benefits that come from being in a family that built wealth from generations of black oppression.
Young white South Africans should then understand that and if they really are worried about everyone being on the same level in the country, they should allow laws that ensure everyone is then brought to that level and not protest against them. They should also understand that this will not happen in two decades.