Not-seeing and whiteness

Not-seeing and whiteness

A powerful early book of literary theory by JM Coetzee – White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa – writes of the silences of whiteness, its privileges in the South African context, including the ability to write and speak the world as though blackness was not there, did not exist. Such things abound in letters included in the WWW research. A notable example is provided by the several hundred long letters that the politician Jan Smuts wrote over c15 years to a close woman friend in Britain. These don’t mention anyone black or anything to do with South Africa’s racial order apart from 3 times, and even then the race aspect is implicit in jobs and names. If any one person was responsible for solidifying the worst tendencies in South Africa into a binary racial order it was Smuts. He knew about race, he thought in racial terms, and he enacted policies about this over a 50 year high-profile political career. And yet, just fancy, his fields at his farm Irene planted themselves, his cattle and sheep looked after themselves, his food cooked itself and his clothes cleaned themselves, his car drove itself while he read official papers, and so on and so on.

It’s tempting to see such things, as Coetzee back in 1988 did, as a matter not speaking and not writing but nonetheless seeing and knowing perfectly well that there was the omnipresence of the people, black people, doing all these things. Yes, certainly this is importantly involved. But sometimes there is perhaps something more going on, a not-seeing and not just a not-speaking. To put it in simple terms, there is also sometimes a strance kind of transmutation of what is before people’s eyes, that shifts it from bad to being seen as good. An example.

There is a fairly well-known letter dated 2 February 1893 written by doctor and missionary Jane Waterson to Cecil Rhodes (Rhodes Papers s228, 27/29). In it, she waxes lyrical about Rhodes, his great gifts including the attraction of ‘the black man’ to him, and his capacity to be ‘the great White Chief’ so long as he led and governed ‘the natives’ with justice. And so on, for several pages, regarding the wonders of the White Chief.

Waterson was no fool and would have been aware of not just the general grubbiness of the scandals about Rhodes regarding money and his abuses of position that were current, but also controversies occurring from 1890 and particularly in 1892/3 about the Mashonaland and Matabeleland invasions then wars that were provoked by Rhodes’ Chartered Company troopers, and the reports of massacres and summary hangings. Her letter, unsolicited, was written in this context because they rarely met and she wanted to convey her thoughts to him. Perhaps rather like British journalist and editor WT Stead, Waterson may have swollowed Rhodes’ protestations that these things were done in Jesus’s name, and that spreading the gospel required the removal of the evil King Lobengula of the Ndebele and his ruling oligarchy. But whatever, the result was that her letter is written in a not-seeing way that transmutes Rhodes as a person and as representing a set of imperialist expansionist activities into something benign, with these other aspects not-seen, become something else.

A way of seeing is also a way of not-seeing, of course. And in her letter Waterson goes out of her way to express her not-seeing admiration. While we now might hope she was smarming Rhodes with unctuous flattery in hopes he might behave better, rather than being serious, it is unlikely. This letter exists on its own and there is no other by her in the collection, and also the letter itself contains no clues that it might be read against the grain. What this  reminds me of is WT STead seeing RHodes and the Chartered Company in entirely positive terms because saving souls for Jesus and Christianity, such that as Olive Schreiner pointed out to him he failed to see the huge number of deaths that were occurring throufg the activities carried out.

Last updated: 19 December 2015


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