on complex white saviours

by S’nothile Gumede.

The South African history of colonialism and the continuing effects of apartheid on popular cultural makes identity and representation a pressing but multifaceted issue – one that always needs to be analysed within the intersecting parameters of race, gender and power (Barnard, 1999). The Constitution[1] of South Africa has led to debates around who in this new consensus – a consensus driven by the perception of the ‘non-racialized’ country or ‘Rainbow nation’ (Barnard, 1999) – has the right to represent marginalised identities, as well as who is allowed to make decisions as to how cultural subjecthood is represented. History has been known to place white men in positions of power, allowing them to be the custodians and narrators[2] of history. Furthermore, the fallacy that white people have done black people a (cultural) favour by colonizing them (Sassen, 2017) remains entrenched. To address this, we can ask: what is the value of continuing to allow white men to represent, narrate and interpret the stories of previously and/or currently disadvantaged minorities? The notion of whether or not there is room for white people to restore the dignity of black minorities in the world of art, film and literature – by being the voice of the marginalized – is under contestation. This idea suggests the use of white privilege for the greater good – being a complex white saviour, instead of having a white saviour complex – and the resultant transformation of a system that benefits all white people – white people too.

To understand the white saviour complex, we need to understand the fundamentals of privilege, particularly ‘white privilege’ in conjunction with ‘male privilege’. This provides context concerning emerging questions about representation in the context of the film Inxeba. Although the notion of privilege’ is complex,[3] symbolically both white and male privilege is associated with ability, heterosexuality, and patriarchy, as well as with being middle class (Gennrich, 2013). Privilege is a ‘birth right’, implying that a person is born into such systems and automatically ushered into the benefits of a life with access to resources, power and other opportunities that people, who do not belong to the same designation (particularly whiteness), do not possess (Battle & Barnes, 2010). The idea of privilege speaks to the ability (the injunction, even?) to create and authorize – in other words, the ability to write and visualize something outside of one’s own experience.

Being able to take part in (and, indeed, direct) the creation of a movie centered around black subjects is indicative of the high degree of privilege afforded more generally to white artists in South Africa.

Based on this logic, it can be contended that privilege is something outside an individual’s willpower, as it is granted at birth. However, the inevitability of a continuous circle of privilege does not imply that one need not acknowledge the systematic conferral and possession of unearned authority, power and resources. In the context of this piece, and for the purpose of this argument, it is significant that the movie’s director states how conscious he is about how he is a beneficiary of an oppressive and rigid system that seeks to exclude black minorities (Trengove, 2018). He consequently takes a utilitarian approach[4] by making it apparent in his interviews that he is an ally of black Xhosa homosexual and traditional men (Mill & Gray, 1991).

He arguably ensures this by using his privilege to facilitate dialogue between black Xhosa homosexual men, broader South African society and the world at large.

Although there has been a global filmic conversation pertaining to gender and race-related issues in mainstream media that crosses societal boundaries, it can be argued that the participation of South Africa in this global revolution has resulted in more divisions based on ethnicity and patriarchy has become more visible than before.[5]

Black gay people have been discursively and practically demanding a paradigm shift in discourses surrounding homosexuality and queerness. This shift necessarily involves the acknowledgment and inclusion of queer identities, lives and struggles in mainstream culture. The idea is for homosexual bodies and other identities existing within the queer margins to be “taken as a starting point rather than as footnotes”[6] in mainstream narratives (Henderson & Johnson, 2007:23).

It can be argued that the director attempts to do this through Inxeba as he challenges traditional patterned heterosexual behaviourial markers. He achieves this aim by inserting homosexual characters within a traditional scope to question the notion of what constitutes masculinity in the South African black, Xhosa, traditional context – and the idea of who does and does not belong within this traditional space (Trengove, 2018).

However, his directorial feat, to reconcile tradition and black homosexuality, necessitates some more scrutiny given the history tied to race and representation in this country.

Given South Africa’s historical context, it might have been expected that Trengove’s authorship was questioned so vocally. Ijeoma Olou (2018), in So you want to talk about race, maintains that when individuals recognize the point of intersection between their privilege and someone else’s subjugation, an opportunity to make authentic changes is created. It is suggested here that Trengove attempts to do precisely this with Inxeba as his recognition of the point of intersection between his (cultural-structural) privilege as a white man and the (national-collective) subjugation of gay black men allowed him to create. Trengove uses his voice in conjunction with those of other South African, traditional, Xhosa minorities – allowing him to create a refined, solid and accurate storyline.

The collision of perspectives involved in narrating the story reflects how well researched the movie is; furthermore, the movie incorporates critical thinkers such as protagonist Nakhane Touré who identify with the fabrics (here connoting that which makes up the marginal identity), and producer Batana Vundla. In other words, it refers to the attributes of living within the margins, of living as the margin – of creating from that margin, of a given marginal identity to have both practical and lived experience concerning what it means to be gay and have experienced Ulwaluko.

In the ruckus surrounding the film, it may not be Trengove who is being attacked but rather the system of entrenched privileges which allows him to facilitate and narrate stories and experiences that are thought to ‘belong’ (in every sense of the word) to minorities – see, for example, Candice Atkinson and Brenda Breitz’s (1999) argument on this in Grey Areas: Representation, Identity and Politics in Contemporary South African Art. This criticism is predicated on the fact that as a white, non-Xhosa subject, he cannot identify with the movie’s central symbolic narrative and thematic concern of Ulwaluko, as it covers experiences that lie outside the limits of his identity.

That he then defends, in what has become a rather common refrain in interviews and in promotional material for the movie, himself by being explicit about how he ‘maintained awareness’ of his positionality whilst making the movie and enacted a series of collaborations to ensure its ‘authenticity’ (Trengove, 2018) simply does not cut the mustard. Indeed, he seems willingly unwilling to be perceived a white saviour-of-sorts, someone who ‘speaks truth’ to traditional power. This stance negates to a large degree how the telling of black stories by a white director can – and has oftentimes in SA’s history – led to radical uncomfort.

In broader terms, the question is whether white South Africans indeed use their privilege to advocate for justice for those living at the margins of whiteness and privilege, or if this is simply a useful strategy of false atonement.

This false atonement is predicated on fostering a legacy of silence: ‘We didn’t know’ has become ‘We aren’t all like that’. The idea of being a silent citizen is reflected in the occurrence of apartheid, and how white people can be interpreted to have submitted to apartheid as a system of rule because they greatly benefited from it (Graham et al., 2016). Questions around Trengove’s intention and allowance to speak for and on behalf of a whole generation of Xhosa men – and the fact that the traditionally white press in SA kept did not question this approach – speaks to how SA society does not afford them room to be allies: that white voices are always either silent(ly supporting) or dominating, because the joining of forces is always under co-scrutiny, because of an inability to understand the magnitude and the complexity of the issues being dealt with by black citizens.

No, the lack of first-hand experience does not imply the absence of empathy – but we are sorely in need of more complex white saviours, and less white saviour complexes.


Atkinson, C. & Breitz, B. 1999. Grey areas: Representation, Identity and Politics in Contemporary South African Art. Rivonia, Johannesburg, South Africa: Chalkham Hill Press.

Barnard, I. 1999. Queer race. Social Semiotics 9(2):199-212.

Gennrich, D. 2013. Men and Masculinities in South Africa. PACSA.

Graham, V., Jager, N., Gumede, V., Mangcu, X., Neethling, T., Steyn Kotze, J. & Welsh, D. 2016. South African politics. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Mill, J. & Gray, J. 1991. On liberty and other essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oluo, I. 2018. So you want to talk about race. Unitet. Hachette UK. Seal publishers.

Sassen, R. 2017. Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B knots up London knickers. [Online] Available: https://mg.co.za/article/2014-09-04-brett-baileys-exhibit-b-knots-up-london-knickers  [2018, August 29].

Trengove, J. 2018. Writer-director John Trengove talks about Inxeba (The Wound), [Online] Available: https://writingstudio.co.za/writer-director-john-trengove-talks-about-inxeba-the-wound [2018, August 30].

[1] The Constitution states that all humans are equal before the eyes of the law and should not by any means be discriminated against on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, ability and so forth (Constitution of the Republic of South Africa bill, 1993)   This piece suggests that while the Constitution espouses these idealistic values, practical realities prove otherwise.

[2] Chinua Achebe maintains that history is faulty because it is written by victors – he acclaims that “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” (Quinn, 2013:1).

[3] The complex nature of privilege implies that within the arena of privilege, there are other debates brewing concerning who has privilege and who does not. This extends to the complete denial of privilege, as some people perceive it to be a personal attack. Furthermore, it can be argued that it is complex because black people can have privilege too, such as acquired class privilege, which implies that this term is relative.

[4] John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian theory maintains that any action done must maximize happiness and be done for the greater good (Mill & Gray 1991).

[5] It can be argued that this division is caused by the realization that South Africa is more divided and unequal beyond how it is framed by rainbow nationalism.

[6] The idea of gay persons as footnotes signifies that they are rarely included as victors (in the sense of Achebe, quoted early) and their behavioural pattern is always clouded with prejudice or presented in a manner that seeks to ridicule and mock homosexual identity, with the intention of creating glaring differences that make heterosexual identity superior.