Sunday, 13 April 2008

Let's keep tackling racism - taking the medicine is necessary

On racism, South Africa is a bit like the TB patient who, because the medicine has started to kick in, presumes he is cured, celebrates early and stops taking his medicine. Just because so many things were better, many of us somehow imagined that centuries of racism was no longer a problem in Mzansi (South Africa).

But in recent times – at long last – there has been a ringing wake up call. The UFS incident – the racist and sadistic form of the loutish student behavior at that university – has shocked the nation. And it has revealed how racism, like the eggs and infant offspring of Godzille, is alive and seething below the urbane surface of South Africa. This weekend, apart from additional racist attacks (such as the skinhead-type attack on a DA leader and his wife), Afrikaner writers confirm the existence and vibrancy of racism (see below).

There seemed to be little appetite to discuss race and racial issues in the last 10 to 13 years. Those who tried to foreground the issue often walked a gauntlet of abuse – including accusations that they themselves were being racist.

Thus, in the post 1994 period:
a)The Democratic Alliance equated any discussion of racism and racist attitudes with the playing of “the race card”. Their stance was matched by responses from certain volk artists and some Afrikaner rightwing parties who believed the real issue was the marginalization of Afrikaners and their language in the new SA. How pathetic can (some) former oppressors be? As Max du Preez says: “Meneer en mevrou, haal ten minste die witbrood (of sale ek eerder se die BMW en vakansiehuis) onder jou arm uit voordat jy jou lot so bitterlik bekla …” Despite crime which affects us all, he tells Afrikaners in effect to “get a life”: “(D)ie verlies aan mag is die onafwendbare gevolg van die einde van wit oorheersing” (Beeld, 12/04/08).

b) There was skepticism, irate reaction and lack of appreciation when President Thabo Mbeki raised the issue of race in Parliament in 2004 and at other times. It is interesting to note that – since the UFS debacle – the President has maintained silence on the matter. Maybe he believes that he has done his bit; in earlier times, his efforts were rewarded with media accusations that he was unceremoniously dumping Nelson Mandela's reconciliation vision. The rest of the public, including the general black community, remained silent. A senior figure in the HRC commented to me then that, since it was the country's President raising the issue, people probably felt too intimidated to pick up the discussion and openly express themselves on the issue. He noted that it would be better if discussion on racism was initiated from another quarter.

c) The Human Rights Commission has recoiled from substantial, sustained and proactive work around race and anti-racism in the last decade or more. For South Africa, having a Constitution that is non-racist and non-racial is a great achievement. However, institutional mechanisms (programmes, budgets and responsible people) are needed to convert what the Constitution envisages into reality. These “operational” elements are important in a situation where state-supported racial oppression has ruled the roost for centuries. The Human Rights Commission and the Justice Department should be carrying out the developmental and change management work necessary for building non-racialism. Words like education, awareness and “good practice” guidelines come to mind; so do words such as research and dialogue.

d) Indications are that many top black people, the high achievers, themselves wanted to be shot of talk of race and racism. They wanted to shut it out. It was a bad experience that they wished to put behind them. They would rather talk of poverty and disadvantaged people than racism or racial discrimination. They feel uncomfortable when race issues are mentioned and, as it were, they have to take a position which might be controversial. They would rather focus on making money than getting into controversial discussions with other people – colleagues or superiors on the other side of the fence – who have so much real and residual power. For these high flyers, discussing race sidetracks from their achievements, from their individual abilities and from their desire to be accepted as top performing and value adding individuals in the capitalist world.

e) For the media generally, discussion of racism was not sexy. Each story of racially based abuse (for example, violent attacks on defenceless farmworkers by white bosses) was treated as an isolated incident. Probing the family and community attitudes that informed or condoned such attacks was apparently uninteresting or un-newsworthy. Much of the media went further: any discussion of race was condemned as a ploy. In terms of that stance, much too simplistically, anyone wanting to stimulate discussion of racism was really attempting to avoid investigation of corruption or plotting to muzzle the free press.

f) Most foreign donors wanted to savour the SA miracle. They did not want discussion of continued racial oppression to disturb this (rare) taste of nirvana. Working for decades, investing millions in programmes that show limited success in life's bigger scheme, they wanted and needed a success story. For them, the time had come to focus on development issues (as distinct from political issues [such as race] that would need explaining to Foreign Affairs back home). Focusing on continued racist practice on farms, on the experience of black children at university, on the racial implications of the school system in South Africa, just did not fit with the dominant picture. And so, funding for NGOs dealing with racism and promoting diversity and pluralism dried up. And so such NGOs declined or went to the wall.

g) A whole rainbow industry emerged. This included the advertising industry, do-gooders and well-meaners and the highly paid image makers/branders in our society. In this context, there would be no social responsibility funds – either from parastatals and corporations - to address racist attitudes and practices. In other words, it was expected that racial ideology would somehow simply fade away, all on its own, without assistance from any quarter. What the marketers and newsouthafrica spin-doctors do not realize is this: we can hug the vision of the rainbow nation and at the same time continue to be alert to how racism might continue to live below the surface (in our homes and in institutions), influencing our behaviour and attitudes.

Just to conform that racism is not just a figment of in the minds of some spoilsports or confined to the University of Free State incident, this past weekend
• The Sunday Times carried a story about young white Afrikaners using the World Wide Web (Facebook) to propagate racist views and their opposition to democratic SA. So strident is language (bordering on hate speech) and racist rhetoric on the forums concerned that other Afrikaners are lobbying to have them shut down.
• The Sunday Times editor, Mondli Makhanya, alleged that a former columnist – one hailed as a blue eyed boy by tens of thousands of white readers – maintained the controversial view “essentially that black people are indolent savages”.
• In Beeld, Johann Rossouw, in an article trying to understand root causes, confirms the increasing racism among young Afrikaners (“die toenemende rassisme wat .. vandag onder [jonger] Afrikaners voorkom”.)
• In the same edition of Beeld, Max du Preez (who anticipated he would get tons of abusive mail from fellow-Afrikaners for his views) notes that “black South Africans are all too aware of the extent to which white people regard them as inferior”.
(Of course, the latter views show that there are no solid monolithic blocs for and against racism and, although racism is widespread, there is enormous potential for South Africans from different background to unite against the scourge).

In all of this, the upside is that more of us are rubbing the sleep from our eyes and seeing again the reality of racism plus the need for concrete programmes and initiatives to combat racism.

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