Wednesday, September 19, 2007

White liberals

When I first came to South Africa, I was struck by the often aggressive derision with which the term 'liberal' was greeted. I mean in Canada and Switzerland, 'liberal' belonged to the political landscape like salt and vinegar to chips and it did not attract much debate beyond the usual. After all, any democracy espoused liberal values, such as freedom of expression.

Yet, in South Africa, 'liberal' has a specific historical meaning. Reading the memoirs of Colin Eglin, long-time leader of the Liberal Party during apartheid, it becomes clear that the liberals often advocated among white people the cause of black people. This was due to the gripping effect of apartheid racial separation. But it also took agency away from black people and handed it over to white brokers.

This sort of speaking for black people still lingers on today in many ways. Often, white people write what black people may think and feel yet they have not checked their assumptions by speaking to black people - an honest dialogue across the colour line is largely absent (In contrast, in my experience, black people seem to be much more clued in how white people think). Or, they pick one black individual that suits them and assume he represents the entire black population - the 'good' black who fits white expectations.

Nevertheless, face-to-face dialogue, as equals, is crucial. It is the only way that bit by bit, through hard work, the legacy of apartheid can be pushed back.

3 comments:

brendan.chan said...

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Week Released: September 17-21, 2007

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Steve Hayes said...

Colin Eglin was never a leader of the Liberal Party.

Thomas Blaser said...

Steve, thanks for your comment. I should have written that he was a leading figure of the Liberal Party or that he was a leader of a liberal party.