The Story of a White Liberal

I have just had my ideas about myself and my identity altered and alienated by Christopher Hope’s “My Mother’s Lovers”. Quite frankly, his truths are rather bitter and I want to resist them. But my mantra for life has always been to be truthful to myself and to not be afraid to confront anything and everything that can contribute to that thing that happens to all of us – growth. So his book has really spoken to me because he does just that; he confronts and explores what it means to be a White, liberal South African.

I have often dismissed the idea that I benefitted from Apartheid, simply because I had no active role to play within it. I have felt soothed by the active role I now believe I play in being a white liberal; bound to a dream to do something good with my life. I refuse to downplay the extent of my privilege, but attribute it not to a government whose sole aim was to create the perfect life for a minority, but to my own family and my own talents. You would have to know and understand the life I have lived in order to assess whether there is any truth in that. We were poor and white and I attended the same schools as poor blacks, ate cheap stews because we had no money, wore hand-me-downs and battled the demons that children of alcoholics do. In a nutshell, I struggled as much as I see some people around me struggle.

I believe that the fact that today I attend a privileged university and drive a car has nothing to do with Apartheid and everything to do with the small gifts that shaped my life along the way. I have a strong and determined mother and a brain which got me bursaries. But perhaps what really got me this far is that there is no place for poor whites in the new South Africa. Perhaps it was the understanding that I cannot count on government to fulfil my life needs, but that I need to provide for myself. We, being the whites, don’t get a level of service to which we are accustomed. So, if we want good health care, good schooling and a nice house, we need to emerge unscathed from poverty and provide all it is that we feel we have the right to.

Yet, as I write this, I can feel the hypercriticism, the unalterable lies in my story. Christopher Hope taught me that. He said that there is no such thing as a white liberal. Although we want to feel attuned to fellow South Africans, and we feel bad that they live in a world worse than we can imagine, we don’t ever want to be them; the poor, the lost and the different. We want the same freedom as them, we pray for them the same prayers that they pray for themselves, but we are happier in suburban bliss than we are in the rot of the informal settlements. The most we do is look on, sadly shaking our heads at the atrocities that confront other people, and deny all allegations of the part we played in creating them.

The central character in “My Mother’s Lovers” is a man who has spent his whole life running from South Africa and the colour-blind mother who neglected him as a child and then did everything in her power to bring him back. Having been brought up by someone who saw Africa as one country, who lived out her life in the company of every colour, creed and nationality of man, who is loved by everyone and loves no one, one could consider him to have grown up the ultimate liberal. Yet he rejects the idea of belonging to South Africa. He has a best friend who grows up in his household, who he considers his brother, but who is black. This friendship shows him how different he is to this African man, how his dreams are not the dreams of those freedom fighters, and that his thoughts will never be those of his friend. His childhood separates and divides him from South Africa, until he no longer believes in home.

Eventually, the character becomes a gardener for his own home, living in the back yard in a very basic way. He takes on the life that his mother’s previous gardener had left behind. Perhaps the message is that in order to truly be liberated, and in this way liberal, one has to confront and accept the life that many in South Africa already live. Yet, this burdensome life, which seems to overflow with death, as much as the community toilets overflow with the excretions, is not something which any white person wants to confront. Even within the life that the character eventually chooses, there is something safe and humble within. It is a private life, a simple one, which he can hide from the rest of the world. It is life with little thought, but it is a life which he embraces when it all becomes too much.

I long too for that simple life, where I don’t have to prove myself to anyone, not even to myself. I would like a life in service to others, but not devoted to any one government, or any one deity, but a life devoted to acquiring those things that are simply, but harmoniously crucial for life; a space that is my own. 

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