Racism: we have unfinished business

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Racism in South Africa is not limited to historical actions and how we address it needs to be mindful and actioned on a daily basis in all areas of our society. Too often we are forced to resort to knee-jerk responses because we have no other outlets to deal with our frustration. Lawrence Ndlovu believes these responses are likely to continue and escalate until we proactively work through the issue of racism in this country – minus the politicking.

We have not begun to deal with racism or even race relations in any way in South Africa. Part of the error of the transition in 1994 was that a false line was drawn in the sand. On the one side there was the painful past of racism and dispossession, and other the other side was the rainbow nation which was the dream of an equal and free South Africa where all the evils of the past are forgiven. This new project was necessary (to some degree) in order to give the country a much needed kick-start towards the right direction. The 1994 project was, however, mistaken and very ambitious to think that racism was a thing of the past. It is for this reason that South Africa swings from seeming as if it is about to rapture every time there is social racial tension and swing also towards extreme hopefulness every time a person who was previously disadvantaged manages to enter into areas which they could not enter historically.

Racism and disparities of privilege

We are at a threshold in the life of our country where the narrative of our specialness – our exceptionalism – as a people and a country is no longer sustainable. The truth is that we are racially divided and that this division manifests itself along the lines of privilege. The line in the sand is such that there is on one side the majority of the black South Africans who are still poor and on the side the majority of white South Africans who are living comfortably. The truth is that until these disparities are dealt with racism will always be a problem. The notion of equality is still locked in the hermeneutics of being (a “we are all one human race”) and it has not manifested itself in the physical sense where we all have equal resources and opportunities.

Reaction to racism

H&M released their advertisement which had different children wearing different hoodies. The hoodie that was put onto the black boy had the words “coolest monkey in the jungle.” The other boy wore a different colour hoodie with different writing on it. It does not seem as if H&M was going out of its way to be racist. In addition, if all the children on the advertisement (black or white) wore hoodies with the same writing on them I do not think the reaction would have been so adverse. H&M was reckless and did not apply their sociological acumen in this entire campaign. What is equally surprising is that in their entire chain from design to the authorisation of the advertisement not one person thought this could cause problems for them.

Although H&M is not a South African business, and despite the hoodies in question not being for sale in this country, it does operate in South Africa. For this reason the backlash in South Africa where race relations are at an all-time low, since the dawn of democracy, has been scathing to the point of having their stores vandalised by the members of the EFF. The EFF has been very excessive in their response to this issue. It would seem to me that they are intentionally taking up the issue of racism because it is a hot button amongst many South Africans just like the issue of free education and appropriation of land without compensation was. This is a political move by the EFF. Although I do not condone in any way the behaviour of the EFF, I recognise that there is something important that this irrational rage is doing. This rage simply communicates the end of patience with any form of racism. This rage will make any other company or persons think hard about racism and how their brands are communicated to the public. This rage communicates that any form of racism is no longer acceptable. This rage, whether we like it or not, is communicating something more than what words can do.

The problem with language choice

There is also some serious reflection that has to be done by all people whether of African or European descent. It must also be noted that there are some in the black communities who hold the view that the use of usual racist derogatory terms is not a big issue if it is used by blacks when referring to themselves. This view is also extremely problematic because it grants longevity to the very racist language which is undesirable in society. This language also serves to reinforce notions of self-hate and subordination because their very foundations have never been positive. Some in the rap music community consistently use these slurs in their much-publicised music. Although they claim that this use is by no means the same as when it is used by racists, they have given wings and have given licence to the public use of racist slurs. There is absolutely no rational reason that can make a distinction on a racist slur based on the colour of the one who utters it. These slurs should not be allowed, let alone broadcasted.

Different kinds of racism

There is also another layer of racism which must be addressed because it is somewhat hidden. For example, when the Gutpa saga unfolded in South Africa there were comments which were uttered by some politicians and many people socially that President Zuma sold the country for (on) a plate of curry. That statement could only have come about because the Guptas are an Indian family. Curry is a dish that is attributed to the Indian community. Another similar tone emerges when issues of white privilege are being addressed. It is correct that because of the historical privilege that most white South Africans enjoyed, due to apartheid, they still remain far ahead from black South Africans when it comes to education, healthcare, property, wealth, employment and other areas of life. It is also correct that this privilege, this disparity, must be dealt with as a matter of urgency. However, often when this issue is being addressed it reaches a point where it is unclear whether whiteness is the problem or white racist tendencies and privilege is the issue. Just like in the case of the Guptas it is completely irrelevant what nationality they are or their preferred traditional cuisine. What is a serious problem is their criminal behaviour, their alleged treatment of black workers and their outright alleged capturing of the state. Often it sounds as if some white South Africans almost have to begin every statement with apologising for being white. The problem has never been about being white.

The overt right-wing racist

It must also be said that there are those who often choose to prioritise the lives of white South Africans over black South Africans. In a recent interview by Ray White with a spokesperson of Afriforum on the 17th of January 2018 on Talk Radio 702 there was a complete disregard (by the Afriforum representative) of the issue that was being discussed – the H&M saga. The interviewee kept on bringing up the issue of farm owner killings as being an urgent priority to be dealt with. He continued in his ignorant temerity to categorically state that he finds nothing wrong with the H&M advertisement, adding that his own children have clothing that refers to them as monkeys. In another incident that happened on the first day of school at Hoërskool Overvaal Skool in Vereeninging some members of the EFF and other political parties were picketing the fact that they were not happy with exclusive Afrikaans schools. Some parents got into altercations with those who were picketing and scuffles ensued. What was being said in the middle of that tension was telling of the innate racist views that some of these parents hold when they questioned those picketing about why they do not take their children to other black schools.

https://twitter.com/GardeeGodrich/status/953559811949580288 the list of such instances goes is endless. These kind of groups and individuals represent are an indication that we have a long way to go and that there is no appetite even to hear each other.

The private racist

What must also be mentioned is that a person is a racist even if the views they hold are not articulated openly. Often there are many people who hold racist views and are not afraid to share them especially in the privacy of their own home and with their friends. These silent racists consider themselves as non-racists because they have never said anything racist to someone of a race different to their own. The problem begins when their own comforts are threatened (like when people question the existence of an Afrikaans school) then the truth of the person emerges. The other problem is found when the children they raise become overtly racist at school or in other places then the fingers begin to point back to the home where children are exposed to this way of thinking and speaking. The other manifestation of this kind of racist is found in the desire to bring out the good side of our racist history. The fact of the matter is that colonialism was anchored on the complete dehumanisation of persons of colour and the brazen grabbing of their land. There must be an acknowledgement of this truth first. It is an evil which to this day has never received any apology even if it means nothing tangible but a mere gesture.

Only the beginning

What is clear is that the wholesale approach that was employed earlier in our democratic dispensation which was directed by legislation and a kind of political vision was just the starting point which should have been followed-up by a serious a deliberate efforts of working through the layers of society down to the most basic unit which is the home. This deliberate effort should also see race relations being streamlined into the different curricula and forums in the country. The teaching and addressing of racism in schools should not just be retrospective and give the impression that what is being discussed is a historical matter. In addition, those tasked with safeguarding ethics in companies must also take into account the issue of race and the racial implications of their decisions. It cannot be that a whole company was not aware of what the monkey means in the racial history of Africans. No one claims ignorance about the Swastika when it comes to the Jewish community or the word cockroach in the Rwandan genocide.  The time to adopt serious efforts to deal with racism is now. SA.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.
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Racism: we have unfinished business

 

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