Friday, 27 March 2015

Tackling racism through dialogue and dealing with the past must continue

Racism is very much in the news these days. The pundits will debate whether there is a spike in racism or not, but it has always been present at sustained levels.  Just because we declare apartheid over does not mean it is gone. The real source of racism is the beliefs that lurk deep in the unconscious, embedded there over many decades.   

I see the racism in South Africa in terms of a triangle of three aspects: The need for open-minded discussion; issues of memory and the past, and; current incidents. These parts of the triangle don’t always interact well – and those who are averse to systemic change will seek to maintain a disconnect between them. But a good way forward is to tackle racism in a co-ordinated manner, focusing on dialogue, truth about the past and preventive action.

Regarding the need for open conversation, there has in the last 20 years not always been conducive space for it. Space was often constricted by a number of factors including the reconciliation narrative, the view that racism only happened in the past, and collusion by an elite or aspirational group of blacks who feel discussion of racism can be an obstacle to their intentions to get included in the system as it stands. Now it's opened up.

Good discussion of race has to be honest. It has to give space to those viewed as the “other”. It must be strengthened by information or undisputed facts. Given our history, dialogue has to be painful – to deal with pain and trigger painful emotions.

So I can understand that many people feel unsettled by the current flare up in discussion of racial issues. But sometimes what manifests as ‘bad’ now is actually good for all in the long run. The open discussion is already leading to an improvement in ‘listening’ in institutions such as UCT and Rhodes University, to greater institutional acknowledgements and awareness, and to government support for robust engagement on race.

It has also led to positive responses among some white people – as in the case of Jessica Breakey who last week told UCT students in her blog that the protest against the Rhodes statue was an act of “contradictory beauty” and “a catalyst of a movement”. She told fellow white students: “The conversation on privilege has been drastically stunted by the focus on class and the somewhat narrow focus of only addressing what we’ve termed as poverty and inequality, thinking that our charity work should be martyred and praised.”

Regarding issues of memory, we need to deal with the unresolved issues from our recent past. Dealing with this past is never easy – questions of restitution, restoration and atonement come to the fore. This is why there is so much resistance to continuing with the necessary work of dealing with the past. In January, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory released a statement (based on work with international partners) on the objectives of memory work.  Under the title of Reckoning with Oppressive Pasts, the document says good memory work:
  • must respond to the call of justice, and should recognise that “redress and reparation is essential to the empowerment of the violated”.
  • troubles those who want to “replicate the prevailing power relations”.
  • creates spaces of healing and seeks to prevent recurrence
  • strives “to create a shared future for descendants of victims and perpetrators”. 
  • enables people to take responsibility for violations undertaken in their name.
  • lays “the foundation for sustainable cross-generational action that leads to societal change and transformation”.
Regarding racist incidents, we must move beyond knee jerk reactions and expressions of outrage that lasts for a short time. Such responses blind us to the possibility of taking action that is preventative or properly corrective. We can begin by looking for patterns and explore underlying norms and relations that give rise to incidents.  

We need to know if there are hotspots – for instance, higher education campuses. We need to explore different manifestations of racism, for example in different provinces. This will also give us a chance to see the distinction and the link between racism by those with power – which results in denial of resources, opportunity and rights – and racial discrimination within the working class where the main impact is denial of dignity.
These are some of the actions we can take to strengthen prevention: 
  • Government should strengthen the Human Rights Commission, providing increased resources to fight discrimination. 
  •  Donors such as the Foundation for Human Rights and others should be encouraged to support organisations doing anti-racism work.
  • Institutions should be proactive and audit themselves, and then take appropriate action to change the norms and practices which allow racism to thrive.
  • The media can go further than reporting incidents; they can investigate certain environments in the same manner that Henry Nxumalo went undercover to expose conditions on potato farms in the 1960s.
  • Citizens can play an active role: we should make greater use of the equality courts, which are easy to use and are set up precisely to combat unfair discrimination.
Let’s move forward on dealing with racism. Let’s create spaces for dialogue. Let’s continue to deal with the past and its consequences, which can then inform a more sustainable and shared future. And let’s take targeted action, especially in environments which are conducive to racist discrimination.

Frank Meintjies
This article first appeared in the press on 27 March 2015.

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