Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

Lines of privilege

“I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” These are the words that played over and over in my mind while I was at the Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) this past weekend. Two friends and I attended two sessions on the festival’s final day “It’s News to Me” and “The Colonial Aftermath“. The blurb of the first event read as follows: “Ray Hartley gathers with journalists Stephen Grootes, Simon Pearson, Martin Welz and Janet Heard to talk about press freedom versus the exigencies of declining readership, cost-cutting and challenging ownership.” The topic was a curious one and I was more interested in the questions around readership.

The panel itself was curious: an all-white panel in a hall full of white people except my two friends and I. The discussion among the panellists made me uncomfortable when the issue of readership was skirted and not dealt with sufficiently. The readership that was assumed in the discussion was a white, middle-class audience. The panellists were more concerned about the newspapers’ white middle-class readers (together with the fringe of black middle-class readers, as one of the panellists put it). The symbolic annihilation of black people as readers and consumers of print media made me ask a question about the role the Daily Sun has played in terms of providing news for what was understood as a working-class audience that reads the Daily Sun. The answer to the question was somewhat garbled and unsatisfactory because I realised as the panellists spoke they were only speaking about themselves and their experience of consuming and producing news relevant to their class and race.

The unintended consequence of a literary festival in the heart of the winelands in the Western Cape is that white people will gather en masse. While walking around Franschhoek (and even analysing the festival programme and literally counting the number of “brown” faces of the speakers) I realised that in the cultural space of the festival there is always a cultural majority and cultural minority operating whenever people gather to exchange ideas. I couldn’t help but wonder, if the white audience at the festival realised there’s something wrong about cultural spaces that represent the views of a privileged minority and therefore limiting the possibility of a diversity of ideas from across racial, class and gendered perspectives?

More importantly, I wondered whether white people realise the politics of space in relation to places like the Franschhoek Literary Festival? There wasn’t a sign anywhere that said “whites only” but there might as well have been along with the tagline: “Of course middle-class people of other races are welcome too” (when I spoke to a speaker who was part of another panel on Saturday, he reflected that the audience at his event was largely white as well).

This year wasn’t my first encounter with the FLF. Last year I was invited along with a group of Grade 11 students from my school. I didn’t have a chance to focus on the politics of space because I was more concerned with the students who were attending with me (getting to venues on time etc). My students enjoyed the festival (as any teenager would as they were not at school for the day) and that’s what mattered last year. This year, I had the chance to consider the festival from a different perspective especially because I recently read about Peggy McIntosh who wrote a paper titled “White privilege and male privilege: a personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies”.

I was lead to the paper through the article “The origins of ‘privilege’” which explores the relevance of the work McIntosh began in the 1980s when she wrote a list of the everyday experiences that she had as a white women (in the US) that are largely “unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages aren’t discriminatory”. In this paper she writes a list of what privilege has meant for her and the everyday events that confirmed and affirmed that she formed part of the cultural majority in spite of the criticism that came with the work she was doing. Number one on the list: “I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”

The list she writes is still relevant today especially in spaces and institutions that are seen as culturally and socially significant. The session I mention above had the unintended consequence of implying that certain voices don’t matter. In a country with robust opinions from diverse voices, how is it that there were panels that represented only the views of white, middle-classness? A panel without black/coloured/Indian women or men sends the message that the ideas of these people may not matter. Of course the presence of such people wouldn’t mean that they are speaking on behalf of their race or gender, but rather there needs to be recognition that in every issue, all voices and experiences matter.

In reflecting about a single session at the FLF one might say that perhaps this was the only session that may have had this problem of symbolic annihilation. When looking at the FLF programme in its entirety, most of the panels were peppered with people from speakers of other races, age and gender (but all middle-class) but it’s not a mistake that such a festival attracts a certain kind of audience. One with radical race politics might question my concerns about FLF and ask me: so what? So what if white people find spaces that they can gather together to pontificate on all things political and literary? Why don’t other races simply do the same? This isn’t an easy question to answer given that in the Western Cape, the FLF isn’t the only space that highlights the gulf between the races and the classes that still needs to be traversed. Cultural spaces need to be more inclusive and mindful of the history we have in South Africa.

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  • 12 Responses to “Lines of privilege”

    1. Momma Cyndi #

      Isn’t this a tiny bit like wondering why white faces are conspicuously absent from ANC rallies? I presume the festival isn’t one of those ‘by invitation only’.

      The Cape is a strange place. Every time I visit there, it is always a little bit of a shock and I have to keep reminding myself that it really is a part of South Africa. Having said that, the old adage about ‘lyk soek lyk’ still rings true. My friends (of all colours) have very similar education and interests to mine.

      May 19, 2014 at 6:06 pm
    2. Cam Cameron #

      If a black person had organised the same festival and held it in a community hall in a black township, you won’t find the white participants loudly resenting the venue as being something which caused them discomfiture.

      There’s an article in the same paper about an annual film festival being held in a pretty wretched refugee camp somewhere in the Sahara and which draws nevertheless hundreds of movie-buffs every year. You don’t hear them griping about the venue.

      The grizzlers are invariably the ones who won’t get off their chumps and organise anything that ideally suits their own tastes best. They’ll snipe at other’s efforts.

      May 20, 2014 at 1:27 am
    3. Not news #

      Perhaps a solution would be to include other race groups on the various panels and programmes to get things moving in the right direction. But this is not a whites only issue. I regularly attend meetings, addresses and conferences that have a certain ideological character, to find that I am the only white person (woman) present. Black people, and black men in particular, have claimed/inherited these spaces and I am tolerated but largely lignored. I have never been invited to participate despite my experience and qualification to do so or my evident interest. Of greater concern to me though, is the attitude of black males in these spaces. Black women are treated in a cavalier fashion and rarely feature on the programmes either. Why? I also experienced this as an English speaker in in an conservative Afrikaans community. I was largely ingored and never once invited out socially – despite the fact that I invited people to my home. That was their choice and I had to live with it. When you work or move in spaces that are dominated by other cultures you will always be the minority. It is pointless taking offence because change is more often than not, a long and tedious process and if you want to particpate in the spaces, and create the momentum for change, you sometimes have to have a very thick skin. I don’t believe that people go out deliberately to offend. They are simply not interested in what I represent.

      May 20, 2014 at 9:23 am
    4. Suntosh Pillay

      Post-colonial Fanonian practices in a “post” apartheid South Africa.

      Nice piece.

      May 20, 2014 at 9:45 am
    5. Neuren Pietersen #

      I will feel more comfortable when the demographics of the Woolworths queue and checkout tills match the demographics of SA. (Serious statement)

      May 20, 2014 at 9:49 am
    6. Not news #

      @ Neuren – Hey Neuren – perhaps you should come to my neck of the woods :0). The Gym is even more impressive ! True story. LOL.

      May 20, 2014 at 2:52 pm
    7. Peter #

      Athambile, why don`t you simply do your own thing? It`s a free country, no-one will mind if there are no “white” faces, I promise.

      May 20, 2014 at 4:30 pm
    8. I presume people attend the FLF by choice not coercion. It is therefore surely the case that the contents and structure of FLF are planned to attract people. The fact that mainly white middle class people were attracted is the result of that as I presume that there was no bar on other people attending.

      May 20, 2014 at 9:08 pm
    9. ian shaw #

      Not to mention about the reaction of English-speaking South Africans when they encounter a foreigner with an accent even though speaking perfect English. I found Afrikaans speakers much more accepting even if my Afrikaans was imperfect.

      May 21, 2014 at 10:42 am
    10. Elinor Sisulu #

      Having attended the Franschoek Literary Festival for the past four years, I can identify with Athambile’s experience. It is largely dominated by a white middle class audience, some of whom do have the attitudes that made her uncomfortable. On the other hand, I know of the great efforts the founder of the festival, Jenny Hobbs has made to make it a festival for everyone. I attended the session that featured Herman Mashaba, PJ Powers and Sonwabiso Gcowa and chaired the session for Mrs Connie Ngcaba. I left feeling inspired and empowered. Herman Mashaba said “I did not know about this festival. Next year I am coming with my wife. I say to Athambile, you will find that the festival organisers will be very happy to have more black writers and a bigger black audience. I certainly will do my part to get more of my friends to attend.

      May 23, 2014 at 10:25 am
    11. Rameus #

      Brilliant piece Athambile!

      I couldn’t have summed it better! Especially true and sad in the Western Cape. We need to integrate more as a society and make concerted attepts individually to do so!

      Looking forward to your next piece.

      May 25, 2014 at 11:05 am
    12. Lady T #

      1. Do not presume that i work there because I am black and standing there.
      2. Do not pretend that you did not hear me the first time and ask me to repeat myself even though I will be doing it in the same pitch.

      May 28, 2014 at 2:00 pm

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