Help! I became white

Just the other day , when I posted the latest video of Die Antwoord I mused:

In the west a case can certainly be made that whites are blissfully unaware of their whiteness, for the most part.

Perhaps Die Antwoord and movies like District 9 with its bumbling Wikus as hero, is changing all that.

My woorde was skaars koud, and in dropped an email from a Dutch friend. He had just read a book about South Africa and it had changed his opinion about South Africa he said. Jaa? Tell me more I replied.

Well he said the book is called, “Help, Ik Ben Blank Geworden”. It is written by a certain Bram Vermeulen, correspondent for seven years in South Africa for NRC Handelsblad.

And here’s a video of Vermeulen explaining his book.

Coming from the left Vermeulen claims that he wanted to integrate with black South Africa. He wanted to be a white Obama. He wanted to do what right wing Dutch politicians expect of immigrants to the Netherlands, namely to assimilate. But try as he might he couldn’t.

The reason for this? Partly the problem is that integration can not come from one side he says. And because South Africa is not the kind of society that helps this process.

He would arrange social meetings, and then never get invited again. (This used to be a common complaint of my white progressive friends in South Africa – that they could not make real black friends.)

He was a victim of crime at the hands of young black men. He asks that if you are constantly feeling threatened by individuals from another group, how is it possible not to habour feelings of fear for the group as a whole? South Africa made him understand racism.

But the why of the racist killing spree of Johan Nel forms the backbone of much of the book. He compares Nel to the Muslim Fundamentalist Mohammed Bouyeri who killed film maker Theo van Gogh, and asks if Nel wasn’t isolated, very insecure and a victim of racism himself.

At the Nel trial, Vermeulen asks how black South Africans could have behaved so threateningly towards all whites – who after all are a minority? How could they tar all whites with the same racist brush? He asks why politicians claimed that this is South Africa original sin. And not poverty, corruption, or crime?

The book also deals with the xenophobic violence South Africa experienced recently.

In Europe he says, he never felt white but “in Afrika was ik ongeneeslijk blank geworden”. He became incurably white.

Vermeulen is of course not the first foreign correspondent of a quality left newspaper that came to South Africa and had his lefty values soiled. Upon leaving South Africa Rory Carroll, correspondent for the Guardian lamented:

This can be a raw society and it took a sledgehammer to some cherished liberal views on race, sex and crime. I did not enjoy their bashing, though those that survived are stronger for it. Imagine a boot camp for progressive ideals.

Vermeulen ends the video on a positive note. He says that – after the politicians left – the families of the victims wanted to meet Nel’s family, to reconcile. And that this need for reconciliation was genuine.

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9 Responses

  1. Sophia says:

    Very interesting (although I couldn’t watch the video).

    “He would arrange social meetings, and then never get invited again. (This used to be a common complaint of my white progressive friends in South Africa – that they could not make real black friends.)”

    I do think things have changed somewhat, especially among the younger generations. We have finally managed to form some good interracial friendships here in Cape Town as well as Jo’burg. These friendships are based on similar interests, not on an urge for black and white to mingle, so things have progressed rather spontaneously.

    For the younger generations that were/are educated in Model C schools, integration isn’t such an issue.

    But as older Saffas who still had to attend all-white state schools, we’ve been lucky: we’ve been able to work in environments where integration and meeting new people come naturally. In the (older) South African society, I guess that still doesn’t happen a lot.

  2. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    Yeah, the video does not always play for me either. It’s worth persisting with it though because the interview is good, and you can get the gist of a lot of it if you understand Afrikaans.

    I agree with comments Sophia. My impression is that things have progressed somewhat as well. I also think it helps when you have the kind of interests that you guys have.

    I have not spoken to these friends about this recently, so I the situation might have changed for them in the mean time.

    Another recent anecdote: A black gay friend of mine who has a boyfriend in Cape Town has said to me that he felt scared of black South Africans. That he feels more at ease in white society. What an identity mindfield!

  3. Sean says:

    The “white Obama”. Come on. He lost me there.

  4. You are not the first to mention that to me.

    The only thing I can think he means is that Obama is Westernised, and he wanted to Africanise?

  5. AttieS says:

    Boot camp for progressives! LOL. There is a social joke in SA to illustrate this. Q: What is the difference between a tourist and a racist? A: about 6 Months! This will crack many white South-Africans up with laughter. It comes from years of experiencing European whites occasionally settling here (French/German/English), they would condemn what they perceived as our racism and pretend to be morally superior to us, after 6months to a year later they would be extremely racist sometimes even shocking us, not only because of the transition but also because they have not fully integrated culturally with SA white society (which they always eventually do) and therefore express themselves in ways that is sometimes unacceptable to us.

  6. Dustin says:

    Huh? This is a crazy thing to read as an American. First, it makes me weirded out that some Dutchmen would go anywhere and try and live anything other than what he is. That is the phoniest thing I have ever heard. I live in Irish Boston if he came here to act Boston Irish we’d laugh in face racism has nothing to do with it.

    South Africa is the only country in the world with more race hang-ups than the United States.

  7. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    You might be right, except perhaps for Malaysia. They’re also pretty race obsessed.

    One other observation. His comments have to be seen in the light of Dutch debate about integration vs multiculturalism. In countries like the Netherlands there was a hands-off approach to immigrants for a long time. That is now seen as a mistake after the murder of Theo van Gogh. Immigrants are now forced to learn Dutch, and even watch videos of gay men kissing, bear breasted women cavorting on a beach. The inference is, if you don’t like this, if you don’t want to be Dutch, then don’t come. Vermeulen is arguing that after his visit to SA he now thinks this is a mistake. That people should be left alone to practise their own culture. Odd if your from a multi-cultural country like the USA no doubt.

  8. B J M-L says:

    bear breasted women —- not a grizzly sight—at all

  9. Tito says:

    One thing for foreigners to keep in mind before trying to “label”or “understand” South Africa is that they often confuse cultural prejudice as being racist or simply the sense of belonging to one’s linguistic or cultural identity as being racist.

    My Swiss friend who has been here for six months was shocked to find out on his visit to the South Western Free State(Gariep) that traditional Boere would drink and share the same humour with the Griquas(Afrikaans-speaking Coloureds) more easily than they would with an English-speaking white. He found out pretty soon that it was culture and not colour that the Boere there were defensive about.