Students protest outside the African National Congress headquarters, Luthuli House, in Johannesburg on Thursday. Picture: THULANI MBELE
Students protest outside the African National Congress headquarters, Luthuli House, in Johannesburg in October. Picture: THULANI MBELE

WHEN President Jacob Zuma removed Nhlanhla Nene, white pearl-clutching Perth packers, Zimbabwe analogists and apartheid apologists took to the internet, newspapers and all other places to voice their discontent.

Falling under the rubric of #ZumaMustFall as a concept, a march and a hashtag, cynically appropriated from #FeesMustFall, much of the white commentary has ranged from explicit racism to the curated dog-whistle racism that often characterises white narratives about black governance.

The last-straw-end-of-days-apartheid-nostalgia in much of the commentary reveals a myopic focus on white interests. While investor confidence and a depreciating rand are surely concerning, it is indicative that white commentary has predominantly focused on effects on the market, and the proverbial price of a latte in dollars, with little consideration of how this affects the country’s poorest. It is unthinkable in a country in which 34 black workers were killed in Marikana that the removal of Nene is delineated as the turning point in democratic SA, or as Mike Schüssler argued, "SA’s 9/11".

Indeed, white enthusiasm for #ZumaMustFall aligns with white South Africans’ love for uniting around causes that serve our narrow interests, while absolving ourselves of responsibility for SA’s sociopolitical and economic malaise.

White South Africans especially love the rainbowy throwback that happens when our black compatriots are also incensed about an issue, so, in co-opting grievance, we can fallaciously imagine that we are all equally affected by a single cause divorced from ourselves. This is an exploitative practice; a dubious effort at seeking legitimation for narrow interests. This is hardly a new development. It is part of a trajectory of white constructions of how to be white after 1994. In the aftermath of apartheid, white South Africans expressed disgust at perpetrators of apartheid henchmen’s human rights violations, while denuding ourselves of accountability, despite our complicity with and benefit from apartheid. As Mahmood Mamdani argues, "the more beneficiaries were outraged at gross violations, the less they felt responsible for them".

White derision for Eugene de Kock and his ilk, whether earnest or performative, allowed whites to pretend the single locus of apartheid’s criminality was its egregious political perpetrators. White South Africans have, consequently, never had to contend genuinely with culpability.

In investing so zealously in #ZumaMustFall, white South Africans are thus continuing a tradition of disinvesting from examination of our own complicity for SA’s issues. In defining Zuma as the focal point of SA’s economic woes, white South Africans are choosing to ignore the fact that the economy is built on black oppression, and the role of vast inequality as a defining feature of our unsustainable economy. We are choosing to whitewash the role of the structures created by apartheid and their entrenchment since 1994 in bringing us to this point.

It allows white South Africans to pretend that the unequal distribution of ownership, land and wealth that we foster and benefit from are not central to the undermining of the South African economy, that the social and economic exclusion in which we are so invested isn't the crux of the problem, and that corruption is the mainstay of black government, black business, one man and his big house.

In focusing singly on Zuma, white South Africans expediently ignore the role of unsurpassed privilege — and their refusal to relinquish those alienable components of it — in explicitly marginalising black South Africans.

We ignore the role that white supremacy plays in structuring the economy and society.

Thus, while there is much reason to be concerned about Zuma, much of the white conversation around #ZumaMustFall is a sinister and self-interested deflection, a reconstellation of the racist myths whites tell themselves to avoid the difficult conversations we need to have about our responsibility, historical and contemporary, for where SA is.

• Bluen is the project leader for international justice at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She writes in her personal capacity