People giving out food and drinks for students, sing songs of encouragement at the University of Cape Town. Picture: AFP / RODGER BOSCH
People giving out food and drinks for students, sing songs of encouragement at the University of Cape Town. Picture: AFP / RODGER BOSCH

WHEN students burnt paintings at the University of Cape Town last week, many white people voiced horrified outrage at what they saw as a line crossed and an act of violence.

The focus on the paintings as the pinnacle of violence eliminates a consideration of the structural violence that precipitated the burnt paintings, the systemic racism, the politics of exclusion, the police brutality, the everyday oppression of a society premised on white supremacy. As #RhodesMustFall has argued, it is a selectivity that privileges paintings over black bodies.

This selectivity of outrage was startling in the muted response to the violence at the University of the Free State, in which white students brutally attacked black students who were protesting the plight of outsourced workers.

Danielle Bowler, a columnist at Eyewitness News, argues that racist violence is not new, white violence on black bodies is a 400-year-old tradition in SA. She notes that "racist utterances on social media, the events on our campuses and daily violence surface the seething underbelly of a country where the non-racial centre cannot hold. Where it has never truly held." In so doing, Bowler speaks to the paucity of the rainbow narrative.

One of the consequences of the rainbow is that it allows white people to believe in the sustained importance of our voices as arbiters of black action, and as definers of what constitutes violence, without compelling us to recriminate our complicity in the very violence that defines SA.

It is this narrative that allows us to construe the push for a dual-language policy at the University of Pretoria, when only 13% of students wish to be taught in Afrikaans, as an assault on white humanity. It is this policing self-importance that allows us to believe we are entitled to opine about the ways in which black people resist the oppression we create without interrogating that very oppression.

And it is an expansive spectrum of critique. It is also a continuum of racism to which we make frequent recourse. Indeed, in some respects, even for those who do condemn the explicit acts of racist violence, be they physical or psychological, be they University of the Free State or Penny Sparrow, there is a bemoaning of a particular kind of racist violence, which permits those of us who do not support it to absolve ourselves of complicity. We position ourselves on a continuum of racism and tell ourselves we’re okay.

As Institute for Security Studies senior researcher Ottilia Anna Maunganidze argued, with reference to Penny Sparrow’s racist social media post: "In seeking to dismantle racism, it is imperative to first acknowledge that these manifestations of racism don’t happen just because of a few social miscreants. They occur because the environment of racism nurtured and still promoted by a culture rooted in apartheid didn’t end with the casting of ballots."

White violence is the extensive and pervasive bedrock of South African society. It is physical, it is economic, it is social, it is psychological and we consistently refuse to take accountability for it. It is manifest in white University of the Free State students’ abuse of black students. It is manifest in the violence of the everyday politics of exclusion in all spaces in SA. It is manifest in white ownership of the majority of land and capital despite our significant demographic minority.

When we so self-importantly critique violence, when we design frames of reference regarding whose suffering is deplorable and whose isn’t, and whose violence is justified and whose isn’t, we do little more than absolve ourselves. We choose, then, to ignore the role we play in violence, every single day, in a society premised on white supremacy, while castigating those who live under its yoke.

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