Unpacking white privilege in South Africa

Vhutsilo Masibigiri
5 min readApr 10, 2023

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I was giving a talk at the 13th Shop Steward Conference 2023 on 23 February 2023. My topic was, ‘how to use skills development to improve your career’. The talk was on the South African Skills Development Act no. 97 of 1998, and how participants can use that to advance the careers. The slides that I presented were on the purpose, the fundamentals of skills development, and what the Act covers. I order to explain the rationale behind the Skills Development Act no. 97 of 1998, I had to explain what was there before it. It was one slide and to the point. This slide covered how the nationalist government did skills development, which led to a brief talk on job reservations for white people, which led to how blacks were only allowed to do unskilled work for low wages. On another slide I covered the challenges that the companies face today in the workplace. The challenges highlighted were lack of skilled workers, high levels of unemployment especially youth unemployment, poor quality of the schooling system, and massive imbalances in the skills of Blacks and Whites as a result of the apartheid’s job reservation. After the challenges, it was a slide on what the employers and the trade union movement can do about it.

During the question-and-answer session, most participants were interested in what they can do and how they can do it to remedy the situation. And or if it was possible to breach the gap between the two education systems. A white woman raised her hand. She didn’t have a question but a comment. She sounded like someone who was annoyed or angry even as she started talking. After explaining a little bit and mentioning that she does not agree with the fact that the imbalances in the education system was created by apartheid. She went on to say that white kids did better because their parents played a role in their education and black kids did badly because their parents didn’t participate in their children ‘s education. There was an uproar. Most of the participants (mostly Blacks) were not happy with that assumption. I guessed that she was answering in response to the quality of schooling which hadn’t changed in rural and township schools from the apartheid times to the present moment. I had to unpack the concept of white privilege before I answered the other questions from the other participants.

In dealing with the comment, I explained that there hasn’t been any investment in township and rural schools for black children. They still go to the same schools that their parents went to. And such schools had a shortage of classes, overcrowded classes, no sports grounds, no libraries, no science laboratories, no gyms, no swimming pools, and sometimes up to 60 kids in one classroom. I went on explain that white children go to what is called Afrikaans Model C schools that are equipped with everything, and that, does not make the parents better. It makes the school better. It makes the quality of education better. It means they have the foundation to start on a better footing.

Township and rural Black schools do not have all the things that white schools have. They do not have up-to-date computer laboratories, no gyms or gym teachers, no janitors or grounds staff, no psychologists, no administrators, no Olympic-size swimming pools, no finance, and no administration departments. In the township schools, the teachers and the students do all that is required and more, and they are overwhelmed. Whereas the white schools have all the above-mentioned and more — Olympic swimming pools, school libraries with books and librarians, science laboratories, gyms, gym teachers and equipment, and enough classes and office buildings to accommodate all that. As if that is not enough, most of the township school hardly see their parents during the day because they work far away from home (which is a result of the apartheid’s separate development policy).

For all the white people who still think like the lady at the conference. And all those who think they made it because their parents were involved in their education, this is what white privilege is all about in the context of skills development and what we were discussing at the conference;

  1. The lady was probably raised by a Mavis who worked as a domestic worker living in a tiny room at the back of her parents’ house. Mavis did everything in the house from cleaning, taking care of kids, cooking, washing dishes, and being a sounding board for the children in the main house. The parents came back from work to check the homework that Mavis supervised during the day. Mavis only went home for three weeks in a year to see her kids. That was the maximum allowable from this household per year.
  2. The lady commenting probably went to a school that was around the corner from her house. She either walked to school (because it was too close), or cycled (because she had a bicycle and wanted the freedom), or she was dropped off because her mom who was a stay-at-home mom whose only responsibility was to take care of the children. With Mavis’s help of course.

3. She probably went to an Afrikaans-medium school because her home language is Afrikaans or she went to an English-medium school because her home language was English. Either way, you went to a school that taught in her own language. And that language was the language that was used everywhere including signposts and labels on prescription medication.

4. Even if her parents did not have too much money, they had a house in a white only suburbs, a car, a decent job, and protection from the state. They knew someone who knew someone with money or a high-profile job.

5. When she walks into a grocery, she is greeted with a smile. Even if she does not have the money to pay for what she wants to buy, she is given the benefit of doubt, taken to the office so that you do not get embarrassed, and assisted from there.

Have you ever stopped and thought of what is happening to Mavis’s children. Who is taking care of them? How they manage schoolwork without their parents? What schools they go to? And what language they are learning in. How does Mavis help her children, when she is allowed to go home for three weeks only in any given year. What I highlighted above is only a tip of the iceberg as far as ‘white privilege’ is concerned. If you know what I am talking about, let us chat some more. And if you have no idea what ‘white privilege’, lets sit down and unpack it further. Especially if you would like to use your privilege to help others who are less fortunate. Like Mavis’ children.

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Vhutsilo Masibigiri

Speaker, Writer, HR Consultant with over 25 years of work experience. She is a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategist, and writes for Diversity SA