White People I Applaud You!- A Reflection On TEDxStellenbosch And Other Gwaans/WATER

About a week ago, I was having doubts about whether or not to accept and utilize the TEDxStellenbosch platform, or reject it. I did not know how or why I would/could bring attention to the LUISTER movement (which is and should be at the centre) of the town’s focus. After much whatsapping and emails with my close tribe of people who I always run to when my head is a bit of a jungle, I decided to use my 8-12 minutes to have an honest conversation through my work. Keeping in mind the agenda of what my work seeks to do. The nature or reason behind the TEDx plattform is to spread ideas, and how I do that is through poems. My medium of articulation is through the spoken word- I was invited to be in that auditorium as a speaker to deliver a talk utilising my medium of expression, right…


One thing I was not prepared to do was to censor or dilute the work. What I performed there would be something I’d perform at Parliament or at the White House or on some tiny stage in some coffee shop in Observatory. Nobody is exempt from what I feel is my truth (which is relative of course), nobody and especially not whiteness.

I was the last speaker scheduled to talk for the day. I don’t want to say much about the performance and the in-betweens of it. But, I will say that I could sense that I was engulfed by the audience’s rage and unease. The auditorium was silent, some people were turning red in front of my eyes (as if their glares would move me to stillness). The last poem particularly is what unsettled and sent them (the white people) (of Stellenbosch) (in 2015) off the edge.

There was an awkward and stiff applause at the end. And of course, without fail, they turned the conversation around to be about their uncomfortably, the inappropriateness of the 12 minutes, how they felt violated etc (the list of comments I heard post performance is endless) comments pertaining to the agitation and disruption of their space and their precious TEDx, by my poems. Of course you would police me.

Of Course I was not there to express and talk openly about Black pain. Of course I was not there to share an idea that still needs honesty in a democratic what-what. Of Course my TEDx talk was designed to unnerve you and infringe on your comfortability. Of course those whole twelve minutes were about you!!! Like. Why would you actually listen? Unless it’s some Gumbaya tune that you can sing along and dance to. As long as it does not expose what you are avoiding, we cool right?

The last poem I shared “Water” (included below) validates some of the ways that white people (still) don’t recognise and see the ways in which they are still oppressive and traumatic for our existence. Again, I wish I could purchase boredom or indifference somewhere, to activate every time I step into these kind of spaces, every time a white person flips the conversation or gaze around to be about them being victimised, but unfortunately I can’t afford boredom or indifference. What I can afford and will continue to invest in, is the mother*** truth.  In how many languages or ways are we going to have to ask you to Listen, cause even in Afrikaans, you can’t hear it.


I am at peace shame.

Water © Koleka Putuma

The memory of going to the beach every New Year’s eve

Is one I share with cousins, and most people raised black

How the elders would forbid us from going in too deep

To giggle, to splash, in our black tights and Shoprite plastic bags wrapped around our new weaves, forbid us from riding the wave,

for fear that we would be  a mass of blackness swept by the tide

And never to return

Like litter

The elders forbid us as if the ocean has food poisoning

I often wonder why I feel as if I am drowning every time I look out into the sea

This and feeling incredibly small

I often hear this joke

About Black people not being able to swim

Or being scared of water

We are mocked

And we have often mocked ourselves

For wiping our faces the way that we do when we come out of the water

Compare it to how they do it all bay watch like

And how we so ratchet like with our postures and kink

Every time our skin goes under

The reeds remember that they were once chains

And the water, restless, wishes it could spew all of the slaves and ships onto shore

Whole as they had boarded, sailed and sunk

Their tears are what have turned the ocean salty

This is why our irises burn every time we go under

Every December sixteenth, December 24th and December 31st

Our skin traumatises the sea

They mock us

For not being able to throw ourselves into something that was instrumental in trying to execute our extinction

For you, the ocean is for surf boards, boats and tans

And all the cool stuff you do under there in your suits and goggles

But we, we come to be baptised here

We have come to stir the other world here

We have come to cleanse ourselves here

We have come to connect our living to the dead here

Our respect for water is what you have termed fear

The audacity to trade and murder us over water

Then mock us for being scared of it

The audacity to arrive by water and invade us

If the land was really yours then resurrect the bones of the colonisers and use them as a compass

Then quit using black bodies as tour guides or the site for your authentic African experience

Are we not tired of dancing for you?

Gyrating and singing on cue

Are we not tired of gathering as a mass of blackness to atone for just being here

To beg God to save us from a war we never started

To March for a cause caused by the intolerance for our existence

Raise our hands so we don’t get shot

Raise our hands in church to pray for protection

And we still get shot there too

With our hands raised

Invasion comes naturally for your people

So you have come to rob us of our places of worship too

Come to murder us in prisons too

That is not new either

Too many white people out here acting God

Too many white people out here doing the work of God,

Too many white people out here period

And this God of theirs has my tummy in knots

Him and I have always had a complicated relationship


This blue eyed and blond haired homophobic Jesus I followed in Sunday school

Has had my kind bowing to a white and patriarchal heaven

Bowing to a Christ, his son, and 12 disciples

For all we know The disciples could have been queer, the holy trinity some weird twisted love triangle

and the Holy Ghost transgendered

But you will only choose to understand the scriptures that suit your agenda

You have taken the liberty to colonize the concept of God

gave god a gender, a skin color and a name in a language

we had to twist our mouths around

Blasphemy is wrapping Slavery in the Gospel and calling it freedom

Blasphemy is having to watch my kind use the same gospel to enslave each other

Since the days of Elijah We have been engineered kneel to whiteness

And we are not even sure if the days of Elijah even existed

Because whoever wrote the bible did not include us

But I would rather exist in that god-less holy book than in the history books that did not tell truth

About us

For us

On behalf of us

If you really had to write our stories

Then you ought to have done it in our mother’s tongues

The ones you cut off when you fed them a new language

We never consent

Yet we are asked to dine with the oppressors

And Serve them forgiveness

How, when I have no other ingredient but rage

Another one (who looks like me) died today

Another one (who looks like me) was murdered today

By your kind

May that be the conversation at the table

And we can all thereafter wash this bitter meal with amnesia

And go for a swim after that

Just for fun.

Just for fun.


53 thoughts on “White People I Applaud You!- A Reflection On TEDxStellenbosch And Other Gwaans/WATER

  1. Koleka, I was one of the white people at TEDx Stellenbosch. Yes, your poems made me feel uncomfortable, especially the last one. But not because I felt attacked or blamed or victimised. Your poem made me realise that I have not, until now, fully understood the desperate need for dialogue, for understanding, for me as a white to say to you who are black: “I see your pain, I see your rage, and it is justified.” Your anger and frustration, which you so beautifully worded, finally made me understand. Your brutal honesty exposed what is so often hidden by the desire to not offend. I am sorry that it took me so long to realise how important it is for me to listen to you. I am sorry that I was blind for so long. I am sorry your poem fell on several deaf ears, but I want you to know that there are a few of us whites who did listen. And now will listen more, and with more compassion.

  2. Koleka, I have read your work and I commend you for being so open and honest about who ou are and how you and your friends feel. I still feel honored to know that you are the same person whom I taught and that you have not been silenced but your convictions have grown. I pray that you will, through the spoken word, which is a gift from our Father, be able to reach far and wide. It is good for one to feel uncomfortable and uneasy, it is good to feel as if you are smothering in your own spittle because you are outraged. It is only when you feel like this that you have actually listened and heard what is being said and then you are actually beginning to feel others pain. It is only then that we as whites will be more understanding and compassionate. I thank God every day for the privilege of having worked with people like yourself. You have no idea how you have enriched my life.

  3. Very well written and constructed, though extremely racist. People are not abstract groups eg. white, black, male, female. People are individuals who are responsible for their own actions, therefore to group all white people together and collectively blame them and demonize them all for the actions of their ancestors forms part of the very definition of racism. That’s why the white people in the audience took offence. With regards to the white colonialists and slaver of the past on the other hand, your poem is on point

    • Racism has always at the core, been based on a belief by “racists” that they are superior in all aspects of their existence then all other man of all colours around them, this led to them feeling the need to conquer, colonise, dominate and enslave certain populations of the world in the quest of proclaiming their superiority.

      Unfortunately at times racism has been justified by exploiting biblical and and other religious Scriptures which they believe to be affirming their belief of their superiority.

      In order for black people to be racist against white people, they would have to feel the need to conquer, colonise, dominate and enslave white people in the quest of proclaiming their superiority as black people.

      They would further have to create standards of what constitutes beauty on the basis of their own skin colour and appearance and force such standards of beauty on white people.

      They would have to create systems which enable only people of colour to benefit people economicaly, socially and on any other basis on an extremely large scale to the exclusion of white people, and subject white people to slavery for the next four hundred years.

      For as long as black people cannot and will not do all the evil actions stated above, black people cannot be racist.

      As I have said, racism is primarily premised on a belief of the superiority of one’s race. how can black people, who have been degraded, subjected to humiliation, enslaved and abused for centuries, and stripped of all self-esteem, think of themselves as being superior? And therefore qualify to be racist?

      It is clear that black people, particularly black South Africans cannot be racist, and therefore reverse racism is a myth.

      It should be stated also that any talk about racism in this country is not to stir up guilt among white people about what happened in the past as this belief seems to be gaining momentum in South African white communities.

      Talks about racism are meant to drive ignorant people to recognise the injustices of the country’s past and drive such individuals to act against racial injustices.

      Trying to shift the blame and asserting that it’s black people who are now racist because of the policies aimed at uplifting them from the shackles of perpetual poverty as a result of our past, is mischievous to say the least.

      Siphokuhle Dludla

      • The reply on this comment is beautiful, it sounds exactly like what Khailid Mohhamad said on an interview with Phil Donahue in 1994.

      • I hear what you are saying and agree on most counts but not this one: that is not the definition of racism. It is possible for black people to be racist. I may be mistaken but if what you are saying were true, then by duality what Israel is doing in Gaza and the West Bank is also perfectly fine. It seems like an oversimplification to me. I do agree that what most (white) people mean when talking of reverse racism is simply rubbish..

      • It is clear that black people, particularly black South Africans cannot be racist, and therefore reverse racism is a myth.
        Listen to yourself

    • Hi John. The way we arrive at healing is if both parties have the chance to say how they feel. That is how you sort out conflict, how you start healing pain. Pain that might never be healed properly, ever: you listen. You let the person speak and speak and speak. You sit back and let it wash over you and you’re grateful that we live in a society where everyone has the chance to say how they feel and what causes them pain, even if it makes other people uncomfortable.

      You don’t have to feel responsible or incriminated or judged (though it’s hard not to). Just remember, this poem is not aimed at an individual person, and so it will group people together. It’s a history-and-politics poem, a bigger-picture poem.

      Perhaps when the healing has started, new language will form outside the race way of thinking of things. Years from now. But at the moment a large part of our country is still in massive pain, trying to deal (or forget, like the title of her collection) about what happened to them, and their parents, and grandparents, and so on. Apartheid and race have ended, but it hasn’t taken away what happened. We can’t un-invent it. It hasn’t taken away the fact that people are angry and bitter and extremely sad about what was taken from them and the people before them.

  4. Your poem is harrowing, also very necessary.
    Never ever fear for people’s feelings. Don’t censor your work because some may not be able to handle the message. Continue to shine.

  5. Love at first poem. I’ve read a lot of poems before and I do admit; none with such power in it’s words; each line. @Koleka, anyone who reads this piece of your work can feel the passion in which you speak. I don’t think you were racists at all, you are just passionate about your race. It’s been decades now that black people feel offended when they are referred to as blacks by whites (usually I would say “white folk”); but your use of the words “whiteness and whites” has empowered me to use the word as it is without making sound less hostile. I shall no longer think of myself as inferior to whites and I thank you for your inspirational writing.

    Kind Regards
    New Fan
    P.S – Until we meet, keep on grinding.

  6. Koleka, uyangimangazi ntokazi, uyishaye khona impela sisi. Usho konke ebengikucabanga kodwa ngingenawo amazwi yokuwaphimisa. Qhubheka Sisi nemisebenzi yakho emihle, kuyanginjabulisa ukwazi wena nokuba bakhona abantu abafana nawe la emhlabeni. Ngiyabonga Sisi.

  7. I don’t understand what you are doing because what you saying here isn’t right you need to get your facts right before you start pointing fingers at “white people ” not everyone is racist some of us want to live in peace with each other and people like you are making it difficult, always pulling out the race card and spreading a disease of hatred between black and white, if it’s a war you want to start keep going hate each other more its going to happen again and it’s scary because everyone will suffer from it, if it happens again. Why can’t we build one another up and not down, we would be a stronger country if we fought together and not against each other, it really breaks my heart. We need more people like Nelson Mandela because he fought to make our country a better place for all races not just white and black. You have to see what you doing you are putting a lot of anger into people why can’t we all just get along I don’t see the point in being horrible to one another we all have something great we can offer to one another and I strongly feel our government should do something about racist people! Why should they be allowed to get away with being so f’d up. I just wish our country could change for the better it really is a beautiful place with so many different people, animals and cultures I’m just so sad that we can’t get along and that there is so many racist people.. Why should the non racist people have to suffer with this shit I’m really really getting so sick of it. I absolutely hate a racist white or black person. I have to say in your comments you say black people can’t be racist, that’s a lie I have had black people be racist to me and you know what I don’t care because I don’t bother myself over people like that. God sees what they do and their turn will come in the future, but there should be a punishment for racist people because it’s starting to go too far we all need help with this racist issue, it’s hurting and destroying allot of our people and it needs to stop I can’t stand it anymore! Please let’s work together and stop the racist people, put them on their places and put an end to all this hatred that the devil loves to feed on. If you see someone mistreating someone else you must stand up for that person no matter what’s the colour of their skin, and if we can all stand up for that one person whose getting picked on it will really mean allot to that person to know that there is someone out there that will not allow that to happen. Just remember you are already better than the one who is humiliating you as they are jealous of who you are and what you got to offer the world. We are all beautiful and special we all have a road to walk just make sure you walk it right without being too selfish and feeling sorry for yourself, there is people out there that’s having it worse than you don’t go blaming a generation that wasn’t even born during apartheid really we all need to grow up and stop pointing fingers at everyone else. Don’t add fuel to a fire that is already burning out of control you only going to make the fire bigger try put it out with allot of help from the right people.

  8. I’m not saying what you doing is wrong, we do need to change with how we treat one another but you should of done it in a better way and not say something along the lines that all white people are bad because fact is you get racist people in all colours not just white.

  9. Lol so many people are waiting for a war that is going to start.. We ready and waiting you want to bring back the past, bring it lets all live like animals again it’s what you asking for.. Not all white people are gonna sit back and all

    • As an inherent aspect of your privilege, you choose to take up space on my blog, on a post that speaks to black pain, to defend yourself and call me, no actually dictate to me the action I need to take. I am not available for what you are doing.

      • Well personally I am very offended by your so called poem, I think it’s very rude and disrespectful to me as a white person, because first of all that stuff you speaking of happened many years ago and it’s not happening anymore.. obviously you are very smart in the way you write but also dumb because you cannot see your future. You forget who helped you black people to build your country, you forget us whites helped you build schools for your people to get an education, now you want to take over the schools our white people built for us Wtf when will you guys just give it a break leave some stuff for us whites as well we did build it for ourselves and we built schools for you that you guys decided to destroy and now you want all the fuckin schools when will you stop being so greedy!, it’s not like we go into your townships and say hey give us all your free land, cattle, goats and chicken, us whites go out and get it ourselves we don’t play the feel sorry for us game we are STRONGER than that and by the way Who the fuck pays taxes every month so your people can get free housing and free hospital.. Wake the fuck up go do your research properly what happened in the apartheid is nothing compared to what’s happening in Rwanda and that’s between black and black so don’t come and write fuckin bullshit here your stupidty is making me highly annoyed. You just a little girl that sees what she only wants to see and all us whites are fucked up. Your black people kill us whites all the time, look how many farm murders there are each year and most of those white families are killed in the most horrific ways just put yourself in their shoes imagine having to die that way and watch your family die in those ways and if they shoot the robbers they must go to jail for defending themselves you black people actually have it easy and us white people are like YES black people have whatever you want .. The farmers are the people supplying our country with food.. Why do you think food prices are going up so much????? Because all our WHITE FARMERS are getting murdered, not for money but just because the blacks hate the whites and it’s because of people like you! Just do yourselves a favour go Google everything I mentioned then come back and tune me shit on defending the white race because I’m not going to sit here and let you slam the white people for trying to help, being a slave and travelling the world for free is way better than dying a horrific way and guess what all your ancestors children are living well overseas they way better off there than here in any ways so stop being so silly. Please next time you post something about white people please get your facts straight because we are not what you are making us out to be. You are very very inconsiderate. I am so angry by this you are bringing out the worst in me I’m starting to see you black people and this Web page is starting to make me racist and all you white people on here agreeing with this girl you disgust me! Learn to stick up for your own rather than a black girl hating against white people for no good reason you all so blind to what’s happening here, you should be stopping it not encouraging it we also have rights as white people don’t forget that! We also human and have feelings and this fucked up post is hurting my feelings big time, I mean I had allot of black friends growing up and it hurts me to think that they most probably think of me like this and was only my friend because maybe they felt sorry for me? I don’t know all I know is I don’t like this poem and want to stop this racism because everyone is so blind in this world, you only get a few who understand what it is to be a good person and you are not one of them you just spreading hatred like this.

        Your new racist black hater, how does it feel?

    • Lol, “free travel”, that made me laugh, I can honestly say I’ve never heard the slave trade described like that. I know your mind isn’t drastically going to change because any comment here in response to yours, but I pray that one day you can begin to understand. It is clear from your comments that you don’t.

      • If only listening or reading with an open mind allowed you to reach a level understanding our pain as a people. If you spent as much time defending as much you listened and understood, we could be having a different conversation going forward. I hope you evolve at some point in your life.

  10. Ls Qamata wayekhonzwa ngooYise mkhulu nooKhokho bethu usaphila namamhlanje. Undipha amandla amatsha ntomb’yasekhaya. Indlela zakho mazikhanye, ubenempumelelo esikelelekileyo.

  11. And asking Afrikaans people to stop teaching Afrikaans at an Afrikaans school is like asking you black people to stop speaking your mother tongue language at home how unfair is that, if you don’t want to be taught in Afrikaans then why do you apply to an Afrikaans school!? Get fuckin rich Jacob Zuma to build you a fancy Zulu school for black people only.. If he can spend 20 million or whatever the amount on a fuckin stupid party then he can build his black people their own fancy shit! But he doesn’t care about anyone but himself the peoples monies his wives and children. I would understand if you black people built the schools and us whites came and took over but it’s not like that we were separated in the apartheid because our white people could see that we could never get along we are all too different there fore we had to be separated because of stuff like this! Go watch a bit of Shaka Zulu

  12. I am black and I find this poem and the energy behind it to be influenced by pure racism and hatred for the white race. I have no problem with one shedding light to the injustice committed by cruel human beings in the past or present towards black people. However, to point out to white people as a whole and accuse them of all being prejudiced towards us is just wrong. The manner in which you responded to Bridget above just proves that this is a message of hate and in no way do you want unity among the races. I have seen lowly and poor white people with the most humble and kind hearts, I have white brothers and sisters, Indian brothers and sisters, Chinese brothers and sisters…and when I am around them I never feel ‘black’. Just loved. I have had white friends who disassociated themselves from fellow whites who had racist tendencies because they could not allow themselves to be close to people who are so low as to treat someone based on the colour of their skin. There are many good white people in the world, in as much as there are bad ones and bad black people and bad asian people…etc. There are also racists in every race and you have clearly proven that. So much hate….no…too much hate. Hate is what you are promoting not love, not unity. The black race is not the only race to ever face persecution(eg Jews in holocaust…and more if you just Google). And even as I am writing this I have seen how arrogant you have been in your replies and so you might arrogantly respond towards me, regardless of if I’m black right? Because if I choose to love all other races and express love towards both who love and hate me then i am betraying my race right? Then I have been brain washed or I live in fear viewing myself inferior and kissing up to other races right? What is racism to you? Is it only a word that can be used in relation to black people? Do only black lives matter? I say no! All lives matter. Shame on all the injustice towards not just blacks but to the white people, to the Indian people, the korean people…etc. No one deserves to be killed or tortured. No one. Outside we have colour, but inside we are just the same-human. We all have life and that matters. Don’t let an entire race be blamed for the sins of sick twisted men among them, we too have been murdered by our own race, raped by our own race, judged by our own race, persecuted by our own race. How about you shed the light on that too if it truly is injustice that you are against. I dont speak in defense of white people but in defense of all. I am not racist and yes i am proudly tolerant of all kinds of people, infact i choose to love all and be kind to all. Whether or not my message means anything to you I am okay with that. Just like u felt the need to speak up about your beliefs, so did I. After all as u said it is a democratic what what. So if u are going to put racism on blast in attempt to educate people, make sure you too are not a racist because what you are basically promoting is another apartheid era with just the roles reversed. If you feel no need to change your attitude towards all whites then thats okay as you are entitled to your own views but dont incite hate in people and yes i just called you to action on your own blog and yes I am proud not to be racist. I am proud to be a black who does not allow herself to be crippled by the negative views shared by a group of people who consider themselves superior to me just because of the colour of their skin. I wear my natural hair with pride, i take pride in all that i have accomplished, i take pride in the fact that i speak my mother tongue, i have white friends, Chinese friends, other black cultures who speak it fluently too because they want to communicate with people of my culture, i take pride in being able to speak chinese and french bringing me closer to people of that culture and gaining full understanding of the misconceptions i heard of them. I take pride in being married to someone from another country, I take pride in having white, Mexican, Chinese sister and brother in laws; and being an aunt to their beautiful children who are a product of love with no boundaries. Should I be shot in the streets tomorrow by a “white” person, well then shame on ‘injustice’ not on a race and I will be mourned by those of other races who just like I view them, also view me as their sister, friend, daughter…etc.

  13. Word!!!!
    This poem came alive on stage yesterday.
    We shall keep writing , especially about things that disturb people and don’t sit well with society the most… They can go swim 🙂
    This is art. This is poetry..

    Love this poem Pakama

  14. Pingback: water (part 2): “…we have come to be baptised here…” | theDustySoulDiary

  15. Pingback: VIDEO: ‘Water’ by Koleka Putuma | Word N Sound Live Literature Co.

  16. I read this poem back in 2015 and it’s a poem, after watching your performance at WordNSound , and today 2 years later after searching on my mailbox because I subscribed to your blog, I sent the link to a close black friend whose currently in China and I just had to read it again, the feeling I get when I read this poem , I cannot describe 💕 Amazing work

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