Despite the tempting simplicity of reductionist approaches to making sense of our world, many of us are beginning to grapple with the irreducible complexity of life.
It is rightly, if slowly, becoming less fashionable to persist in looking at humanity and society through only one lens.
That is how it should be. We do not live single-story lives, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us, which is an invitation to us all to go beyond seeking to validate our personal and settled views and to move through the world with a curiosity to see what lies beyond them.
This is hard work because it means we must be willing to challenge our own convictions, which can be unsettling, not least because the world contains so much danger and uncertainty and we are socialised to seek comfort from it rather than adventure and novelty.
I was thinking about all this as I worked my way through Professor Christi van der Westhuizen’s latest book, Sitting Pretty: White Afrikaans Women in Postapartheid South Africa.
White, heterosexual, middle-class Afrikaner women are a fascinating lot. They are, on the one hand, victims and survivors of patriarchy and, on the other, beneficiaries of white privilege and, more specifically in the context of South African political history, the apartheid state’s racist accumulation of resources for the chief benefit of the Afrikaner.
The proximity of white women to white men means access to resources not available to other race groups and that means one cannot reduce white women to their gender. There is an irreducible complexity in how sex, gender, race, language and class play out on the position of white Afrikaner women.
This group finds itself struggling to fit comfortably into a post-apartheid society in which the political power their brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins and sons wielded previously has been ruptured. These women still have intergenerational economic and social power but this comes with the simultaneous struggle of surviving toxic masculinity in and out of their homes, which mimics the experiences of other women.
But not all women’s experiences of patriarchy are the same because not all women are equally oppressed or not oppressed in the same way. One caller on my radio show this week identified herself as an Afrikaans-speaking, white, middle-class woman. She recalled growing up outside Kimberley and of having many coloured friends as a child.
Now, as an adult in post-apartheid South Africa, she claims it is tough for women like her because economic opportunities have become scarce. She was not rich as a child and now, as an adult, she is not entirely certain of her prospects.
She meant well but her story reveals precisely the nature of life at the intersection of oppression and being oppressed. Her story reveals how dangerous it is to view ourselves and the world around us through a single lens.
She is a journalist and an author. She survived her childhood and moved through apartheid into a post-apartheid world with much of her livelihood intact, with a career and a sense of purpose. Her name and voice were instantly recognised by my in-studio guest, Van der Westhuizen.
What this caller to my show did not consider is the fate of the coloured children she befriended.
Does she know what happened to them? Does she know if any of them became journalists and authors? Has she reflected on what it says about her mobility that those childhood friendships that she reflects on with nostalgia are frozen in time? Are they still friends? What of the statistical reality that white women enjoy single-digit unemployment but coloured people like her childhood friends must bear the burden of very high double-digit unemployment levels?
The complex truth is that, although this Afrikaner woman may not have a maximally happy life (does anyone?), she has far more privileges, luck, opportunities and resources than many black women, white lesbian women, white working-class women and even black men.
One is not either oppressed or an oppressor. One is not either a survivor of systemic discrimination or a beneficiary of it. The particularities of an irreducibly complex social identity mean that many of us can be all of these at the same time. That is why we need to reject reductionist tools of analysis.
It struck me that the same dangerous reductionism applies to the experiences of many black men, especially black middle-class men.
They struggle with the multiple realities of being victims and survivors of anti-black racism on the one hand and possessing and wielding enormous patriarchal powers on the other.
Some are aware of this irreducible complexity but pretend to be ignorant of issues other than racism, because a discussion about sex, gender, sexuality and class opens the possibility for them having to move from being a victim to being a beneficiary. This can be discombobulating when you fear losing some of the power and privileges that derive from patriarchy.
Many black men in politics, for example, spuriously pretend that
all society’s injustices can be eliminated if we focus exclusively on dismantling white supremacy. This, of course, is a convenient lie.
Many black men in suits in corporate South Africa, on the boards of civil society organisations and in the management structures of academic institutions and professional bodies often behave no differently from their white counterparts in the performance and reproduction of male hegemony.
To take a small example from my own industry: I am losing count of how many conversations I have had with black journalists about whether it is better or worse to work in media houses run and owned by black men or ones run and owned by white men.
The truth is that black men, riding the wave of black empowerment, often benefit from cheap debt and political connections with black male politicians, and so quickly become black capitalists enjoying the spoils of an undemocratic economy, but they can also be very regressive in their politics.
That is not to say that white Afrikaner women — or men, for that matter — do not experience vulnerability. An uncomfortable film like Skoonheid showed how many white Afrikaner men have internalised similar kinds of unhealthy conceptions of masculinity as black men, leading to insincere heteronormativity while secretly seeking the loving embrace of another man outside of the dominant Afrikaner conception of what it means to be “an Afrikaner man”.
This means that even heterosexual white Afrikaner men can be deeply wounded.
Afrikaner women within these communities can find themselves not always “sitting pretty” but sitting stock-still, with less room to comport than in a world in which they did not need to be, in the framework of Van der Westhuizen, “ordentlik” [decent].
Similarly, many black men have it hard, too. It is easy to look like a happy capitalist pig in a suit in Sandton. But if you ripped that suit off, you would often see a body that is deeply insecure, struggling with anxieties like impostor syndrome, sick from the relentless pressure to show up white folks and to break a cycle of hundreds of years of racial subjugation.
Access to debt — or even the accumulation of genuine wealth — does not always fill the psychosocial gaps in the lives of black men, who feel like outsiders in spaces that were not created for and by them.
It would help, certainly, if white women and black men began to think about what it means to be complex creatures in a world that cannot be understood wholly in racial or gender terms.
Beyond race and gender, there are a cluster of other defining concepts and principles that we must draw on to sketch more accurate phenomenological accounts of our place in this weird and wonderful country of ours.
A good starting point is to reject the false dichotomy of the oppressed and the oppressor. Mercifully, we are all far more interesting than that as we simultaneously enjoy privileges and survive oppression.