Zipho: So, I am going to start asking you questions from the very get go – and let’s start from the beginning. Who are you?
Lars: Okay, name is Lars Espeter. I was born in Germany, where I grew up most of my life in a typical middle class family. I studied English and German language and literature as well as Cultural Studies. Due to my interest in movies, storytelling and computer games, I change my career into Game Design in the early 90ies and since 8 years have been visiting SA frequently. In 2014 I officially moved to Cape Town to work at a Digital Arts Academy as a course manager and lecturer.
Zipho: Fascinating, to say the least! There’s so much noise in the world right now and you obviously have an interesting geographic identity. So, with all the crazy turbulent times right now politically (Trump, world’s reactions to Trump, military for SONA, corruption, killing of black people because they are black) – where do you think as an individual you stand?
Lars: What I like about the past few weeks is the resistance that Trump runs into. He seems to bring out the best in people, which is somehow ironic. The ‘sane’ people stand up against him. But there is also the sad realization that we do not speak up before it is too late.
The deaths of black Americans caused by cops in America … sadly they are a sign of how xenophobic and fearful society has become of ‘the others’ and how little a life counts these days. Fear is what drives a lot of people today and this the main reason why those who promise quick and easy solutions and protection from ‘the others’ get voted into office (German AFD, Putin, Trump, Marie Le Pen getting stronger, just to name a few).
Zipho: Let’s come back home. How would you sum up your opinion about South Africa, in general?
Lars: It’s a country of incredible potential. When I first got here and saw the talent, especially with the young people, I was absolutely keen on working with them. This is what I see still going on and it is shaping a future for the country that is very positive.
Yes, we have still problems with education and corruption, but other countries have that too. One thing that South Africans need to stop is seeing their country as a failed state. We cannot achieve anything, stuff does not work, we are worse than everyone in Europe, Asia or America. That is absolutely not the case. Especially in my field, digital art and game technology, I can state that we are on the same level as Europe. We just do not have that many people working in that industry and our infrastructure is a little bit behind. But South Africans find ways around that nonetheless.
Zipho: I’ve been producing for a tech show for eight months now, and I think young people are the future. I think technology is one of the things that allows us access at times (although sometimes it’s not that accessible to everyone), Would you agree? Why or why not?
Lars: I am of the same opinion. As I wrote earlier the open mindedness when it comes to new tech and using it is very strong with the youth in this country. There has been a study by the World Economic Forum in 2016 that concluded with the prediction that 65% of kids starting primary school this year will be in a job that does not exist right now. With the local governments pushing the new media and digital industries by funding and special programs (they started to do so) South Africa will catch up quickly, in my opinion, to other more advanced countries. We have a lot of entrepreneurs and talented young students that will make the best of those new technologies and turn them into jobs.
Zipho: What are some of the most futuristic stories that give you hope in the world right now?
Lars: A lot of ‘free’ energy projects happening, a lot of what Elon Musk is trying to set up is very promising, the advent of 3D printing making production more effective, cheaper and impact our environment far less. And, as said before, that the more liberal people start to stand up against the fear mongers and ‘us-vs-the-others’ people who have almost taken over in all societies and communities.
Zipho: What do you think being white in Africa means? Good and bad? How do people perceive your existence?
Lars: To me it is a relatively new experience. As a German I encounter that a lot of people expect me to have attributes like being very productive, being on time all the time, highly educated in every field and all those things that ‘Germans’ stand for J In some cases it could not be further from the truth. As a white guy I sometimes get accused of being a ‘white cunt’ or a ‘racist’ if I do not agree with someone of different colour. But that is rare. I really do not take it personally. And then there is the issue of being addressed by black or coloured people as if I am a person of higher importance, standing or importance than themselves which makes me feel uncomfortable. I am not a successful or intelligent person because of my skin. What makes every human being intelligent, uneducated, racist, caring, hateful or anything is how we educate and use our brain. It is NOT coded into us by the colour of our skin.Nature has found a funny way of telling us ‘Take a hint, kids!’ by giving that thing between our ears a greyish colour.
But those are very minor things, in general. I work within a very diverse team of lecturers from a lot of countries and I feel absolutely at home here and amongst friends.
Zipho: Personally, I think a majority of white people have a superiority complex, by default – the same way that any rich urban and literate person perceives themselves in relation to those in the village and illiterate. What’s your take on that? Please explain…
Lars: I actually think they a lot of them, deep down, see themselves as insufficient. Not only white people suffer from that. Which is why they try to group up with people who are ‘like them’ and see themselves threatened or infringed by others. It is very easy to distract yourself from your own short comings when you can point at others because they are different. I have seen this quite a lot. If we would remove all refugees from Europe, all white people from Africa, all Mexicans from the Us of A … who would they point at next, the guys in the other country, because they speak differently? If those would be gone, they would find someone else: the people in the other province, the people in the neighbouring town, then the neighbours down the street … other religions … there can always be the others.
When it comes to judging South African whites, I myself have not perceived that that often. We somehow had the same situation in Germany after the reunification. Some West Germans felt superior to the East Germans a generation. It is a generations thing. Society programmed that into us: The East Germans whose communism failed totally and we had to send them care packages. With the generation that was born after the divided Germany most of that has gone away. The ‘old’ thinking still lingers with many of the older Germans though.
Zipho: Looking at our reform governments all over the world, what do you think is being done right? You can focus on any countries you wish?
Lars: I am very interested in how Canada and Scandinavia do things right now. It is a very bold and courageous way of treating minorities respectfully, as far as I can tell. And they try not to allow fear to take over by addressing those issues. I have high hopes for that approach.
And we need a strong push in education. It needs to get better and modernized.
Zipho: Do you have “white guilt”? And, what do you think about this Bantu Hour Sketch?
Lars: No, I don’t. As a German I was told in school I should feel guilty about the Holocaust. That is a whole different topic, but I was born 40 years after the war. But I strongly feel that my responsibility is to make sure something like that will never happen again. The same is true when it comes to my approach to black people or Africa in general. I came here to educate South African kids to give them a good chance to start a promising career. Just as I did with my students back in Germany. I did not do it to help the ‘poor Africans’ so I can feel good about myself and pat myself on the shoulder, as it is so often perceived by people who heard that I moved to Africa and working in education. I came here because of the potential and the challenge to create something new and maybe contribute to levelling the international competition a little bit. What I absolutely am aware of is that African countries still suffer from the aftermath of colonial impact and Apartheid when it comes to competition with ‘First World countries’.
I help black and white homeless people when I can, just as I did with homeless in Germany (we have many of them, mostly white German decent, as that is our demographic). Do I try to change the world into a more-fair-for-everyone type of environment? Yes. At least I am trying and I think everybody should.
The video is interesting. I actually find it a bit racist towards black and white people, because it uses the old clichés again. However, there is some truth in its message. Talking about how ashamed one feels does not mean anything, it is the actions that we take that count. If one treats others with respect, in a fair fashion and helps because of really wanting to help (no matter what colour of skin that person has) why would one have to feel guilty?
Zipho: Now, let’s play “imagination” – tell me in not more than ten lines what a white person who lived in a world without pre-existing privileges (real or perceived) would be like?
Lars: That depends entirely on the person itself. I cannot say anything about what a white South African person that grew up here would think or feel like – or would respond. But maybe it helps to tell what I perceived with underprivileged people in Germany. I have seen something like this with my students, family members and other people I just met by accident. Some of them blame others (especially the government) for their situation, some blame themselves for not having made the right decision, some give up and others try their best to get jobs, start a business and get every help they can. There is no real pattern there, as it really depends on the individual and how you see the world.
Privileged in Africa … I guess a lot of privileged people (White, Asian or whoever) would really be annoyed by that a claim.
Zipho: If I had to re-imagine a black person without inferiority and lack of resources who has no past of being colonised, The first thing is that there would be no black person staying in a “township” because of the colour of their skin. Many would afford education, and would also not be on “survival mode” with what’s now called “black tax” The brutal killings in USA based on skin colour would not happen, and so, black parents would not have to tell their kids to be extra cautious because cops might shoot at them. And and and. But, okay – let’s move on.
Zipho: What are some of the things you hope you will have done for South Africa before you die?
Lars: Gave as many South African kids a fair education and a really good start into their careers.
Treated everyone with the same respect and appreciation that they deserve.
Developed the job market a little bit by creating new businesses and guiding my ex-students building theirs.
Helped to make the rest of the world aware of the great designers, developers, artists and products that this country has to offer.
Having taught as many people outside Africa who do not know it that SA is not a dangerous country were you get raped, mugged or shot as soon as you step outside your hotel – and that we do not have Giraffes and Zebras roaming the streets.
I firmly believe that over the next generation we can change this country and large parts of Africa into something that a lot of Africans themselves right now do not believe possible.