09 Sep Dear White Man in Namibia: You Are Not Oppressed
This post is written by a cis-gender woman speaking of her own experience.
If you haven’t heard of the story of how a middle-aged white man by the name of Alwyn Strauss – the only geotechnical engineer qualified to teach trainees in Namibia – has disparaged a fellow human being of access to information because of her “blackness” and for being a woman (I am not assuming), then be prepared to get livid.
I am angry. I’m angry at this man for claiming he owns the knowledge that has been imparted to him by an institution only to refuse to share it with Ankita. As he said to Ankita in a recorded telephone call:
“Because you are a black person, you are a black lady. I am not racist, but the fact is the country does not want to give work to white people; that is the bottom line.”
Contrary to Strauss, white people in Namibia are certainly not oppressed – not even with the new The New Equitable Economic Empowerment Bill (NEEEB) regulations which are akin to South Africa’s Broad-Based Black Economic (B-BBEE) Act. In fact Namibia is known to have one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world.
“Here [in Namibia] you are forced to give 25% of your company away to previously disadvantaged persons. I am forced by law,” Strauss says as if levelling the playing field is something laborious which disfranchises him personally. Never mind the fact that as a woman of colour Ankita already earns less than a man of colour, now she has to face a white man who is unwilling to share with her what he has learnt (through education afforded to him because of his whiteness). One of the most troublesome aspects of Strauss’s behaviour is the entitlement – that he should possess this knowledge and no-one else. Especially not a person of colour, a person who originated from Namibia, whose ancestors were forcibly removed from their homeland by white men just like Strauss.
There is a saying that goes “you’re black before you’re a man” which implies that a person’s blackness is often perceived as being their most dominant identity regardless of class, nationality or gender. Ngobeni Joja, a well-known South African street artist, explains this concept well stating that: “Civil society – legal, education, everything that is part of the civil space – is in its essence anti-black. That space of civil society – the police, education – is space that white people own. Practically NGOs are white people; universities are white people; police are white people in the sense that even those guys wearing blue are here to guard that we don’t disrupt white people; security, same thing; law, same thing; constitution, property rights. We are given all sorts of rights but these rights don’t matter in social reality in any way. Even if you might have a right not to be poor but you’re not going to get an education, in any case. These rights are not for us. So civil society in essence is an aesthetic of white supremacy as a democratic possibility.”
Institutionalized Apartheid Is Still Alive
Much like in South Africa, in Namibia apartheid was a very real thing. On paper, it ended in 1990 and begun way back when the Germans decided to claim their spot in the sun circa 1800. Instead of working together with the indigenous Namibian people, the invaders set out to annihilate and enslave the inhabitants of South West Africa. I only recently learnt that concentration camps were a stark reality in Namibia during that time. Shark Island was one of the death camps where thousands of indigenous Herero, Nama, Damara and San people were taken for the express purpose of being murdered.
Growing up in Africa and being raised as a German did lead to something of an identity crisis for me. My dad’s mother-tongue was German so we went to German primary and high schools. We listened to German music, ate German foods; we visited the Karneval in Windhoek sometimes and of course the ostentatious (or should I say pretentious?) Oktoberfest. Apparently German-Namibians are a dying race. According to Welt Magazine, we’re a population of 25 000 and dropping. A part of me feels like saying thank goodness; another part of me is reaching for the tissues to dab at my white tears.
I love my home, Namibia, and when I visited foreign Germany for the first time I thoroughly despised it. I don’t want to deny my heritage but with a history that is so deeply problematic, how can I not be skeptical of my roots? I know that I am part of an oppressive system from which I have benefitted all of my life. I also know that we must never lose sight of the existing hierarchical caste system which ‘favours’ some people above others.
“In the US, 400 rich people have more money than 149 Million people.” Michael Cooke
Racism is undeniably a system of oppression which is held in place by the kyriarchy.
Kyriarchy is defined as: A system of “ruling and oppression” in which many people may interact and act as oppressor or oppressed.
This oppressive system aims to divide humanity further and further apart; and today I believe we are at a tipping point. As Oliver Meth of the Daily Vox said: “If we have learned anything, it is this: there exist in this country custodians of an oppressive system – those who fear us and those who hate us – who will gladly kill us. And they are emboldened by a racist system that will tell them they’re justified and that black lives don’t matter!”
As a white person it’s easy to lose sight of how severely embedded racism is in our society because it is so normalised. I am quite certain that Strauss has not taken the time to put himself in Ankita’s shoes or any person of colour’s shoes for that matter. I wish I could tell Ankita that it’s him – he’s the problem! – not her, but deep down I believe she already knows.
Though I don’t have all the answers as to how we can dismantle the systems of oppression which keep marginalised people in chains, I feel that the least we can do is have empathy for our fellow human beings. I want to look Strauss in the eye, and I want to ask him a question:
Do you see what I see?
It seems to me that he does not see it: the girls, as young as 16, who are fighting for the right to own their natural hair. Or, the qualified people who are being turned down for jobs due to the colour of their skin or being denied the right to education. Or, the young men arriving on construction sites owned by millionaires to leave for homes made of corrugated iron sheets. Or, the many black women who work all day long and earn less than they can live on.
Indeed, our privilege is blinding. But it is never so toxic as when those with privilege believe that we are the victims. When in fact, we continue to benefit from these glaring inequalities day in and day out.
Sorry, Strauss, but you are no victim.