Danger: mind-broadening ahead
18 April 2014 20:37 (South Africa)
Opinionista Paul Berkowitz

Racism killed the Rainbow Nation

  • Paul Berkowitz
It is Friday night at one of my aunts. We are overeating as Jews do on Friday night. I am settling in to being bored for at least the next hour. The conversation drifts around the table for a few minutes until one of my uncles brings his particular brand of wit and insight to the proceedings.

“I’ve just bought a new gun. Think I’ll use it to shoot some kaffirs.” And then he giggles nervously.

This happens six or seven years ago. I don’t remember exactly what happens next in this story. Obviously there’s a change in the room’s atmosphere and an awkward silence. I remember that there is no strong rebuke of this uncle. By all accounts, he is the black sheep of the family and his siblings don’t act like this. Maybe he gets it from his friends. He is not told off, set straight, labelled, rebuked, chided or shamed. Certainly not by me. I sit there, silently judging him and saying nothing. 

There are other times over my life when I am in the company of other white people and I hear “kaffir”, things like this or “darkie” racial slurs. Many times people won’t even use these words, but they’ll manage (blacks are stuffing up this country) to politely (mentality of a black) dehumanise. I do not remember saying or doing anything.

I am attending King David Victory Park High School. Every year there is a day to commemorate the Holocaust. We are shown movies of the death camps. Sometimes we have a survivor (very old) tell us their personal experiences. We are told how the Nazis switched from using carbon monoxide to Zyklon B in the gas chambers as it was more effective. We are shown actuarial records of how many Jews lived in each European country before the war.

Friends from school sometimes refer to black people in Yiddish terms that are derived from the Hebrew shoch or a slightly warped for of the German “shvartzer” for black. Just like the Spanish niger equivalent, with the patina of time and context the words (shoch and shvartzer) take on a new meaning (“nigger”).

The story of the Holocaust is drummed into me. I increasingly feel the message is sensational and manipulative. We Jews have been honorary whites for at least 30 years in South Africa. I become uneasy with what I see as a victim mentality that justifies a hardening of the heart. I am embarrassed by what I see as provincial-mindedness and double standards. As a teenager I have impeccable moral absolutes. By matric I have more or less lost my religion.

My nose is clean personally. I respect black people. In my romantic life I like to tell people I only discriminate against ugly girls, in a smug and self-congratulatory sort of way. My friends are diverse in their middle-classness. Things are good for me, good for the country and the racism is an aberration.

When technology connect the mouth-breathers and trolls to me via Internet forums and news sites, I marvel that there can be so many morons still around. For a few years I spend hundreds of hours combating their stupidity online. Maybe I express myself better when I write. Maybe I’m brave enough when there’s distance and anonymity. I don’t think I convince anyone.

When the week starts with Jessica Leandra dos Santos using “kaffir”, I’m not surprised. I don’t feel sorry for her when she loses her career. I make a few jokes about the incident on Twitter and I manage to piss off a few people with a detached intellectual take on the flurry of appeals to the HRC. These days I am cynical, but optimistic. Optimistic, but cynical. I accentuate the cynicism at bad times like these to elide the pain.

The week brings more hate and denigration from all sides. Two days later there are now four young people (all under 40 by my calculations) hated by the general public. There are two women (one black, one white) and two men (one black, one white). I joke to a friend that we are demographically diverse in our hatred.

The following day FW de Klerk is on CNN telling the world that the Nats tried their damnedest to make the homelands work. I remember how strenuously he fought for his name to be blacked out of the TRC books. I have long held that FW is an opportunist who was just the brightest politician in power at the time. With PW Botha and the HNP/CP around as competition, it was not difficult.

I have never liked him or held him in high regard. He was smart enough to know the writing was on the wall and smart enough to cover his tracks. I am reminded of Tom Lehrer’s immortal words that “political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize”. I guess the Nobel Prize for the Politically Pragmatic would be more wordy and less of an honour, although it would be vastly more accurate in FW’s case.

And then I reach my breaking point. My detached cynicism hasn’t stopped this awful, shitty week from reaching me. Like a cheese-grater abrading away, it’s finally reached my endodermis. I tell friends that there should be a national campaign to strip this fool of his Nobel Prize and there is no irony or dark humour behind these words, just anger and exhaustion.

The racism is not isolated and it’s not going away. It is a blood cancer, requiring constant transfusions; it is a tubercular hip that leaves the patient deformed; it is oral herpes periodically flaring and causing shame. It is scoliosis, it is brain damage, it is cataracts. It is HIV.

My dear mother tells me that this is the pain from the loss of what psychologists call “the good thing”, the object or concept that is mythologised as the repository of hope. South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, was the good thing, lost in the bog of apartheid denialism, shrouded in the fog of racism.

We have built on poor foundations. The TRC was a political solution that whitewashed the guilty on all sides and protected most of the generals. Some token payments were made to the families of victims. We compounded this fudging of financial restitution with the BEE framework. Whatever the merits of economic empowerment objectives (and there are many) there is no way to unscramble the omelette of proper restitution.

Let me acknowledge that the government since 1994 has made many mistakes and in the last few years it has been mostly rubbish. This is not because it is a black government or an African government. It is because governments the world over are middling to crap. I also defy anyone to show another example of a post-independence government in the world with the inherited challenges of South Africa. Even if our government had not put a foot wrong, I believe unemployment would still be in the double digits and there would still be service delivery backlogs.

The ANC of the last decade has also provided a convenient justification for anti-black racism with racially-polarising rhetoric. They haven’t contributed to keeping the good thing safe.

Neither has the DA, sprinkling us with fairy dust, telling us to clap our hands and believe we’re all born equal. Look at the numbers, Tinkerbell: white unemployment hasn’t gone above 7% through a global recession. African unemployment hasn’t broken below 25%.

Please, let us not outsource our social ills to politicians. No more model shoots at Mmusi’s house, no more hotline to Zuma or Jesus.

The country took a gamble on reconciliation over justice and it failed. Maybe it’s time to go the Jewish route. A week ago I would not have advocated it, but I see the logic. There is still anti-Semitism, but it’s muted in most countries. The Jews got Israel. They managed to win huge reparations from Germany. And the concept of the Holocaust became so repugnant a generation of Germans wore the hair-shirt. They purged themselves, as a country, of that evil. They damn near puked out their guts but the chemotherapy worked.

South Africa is not Germany. Blacks and whites have to live side by side. The issue of financial restitution is also dead in the water. Most of the apartheid-era gains are overseas now anyway. But black South Africa can still force white South Africa to respect it and treat it as human. I used to argue against this route because I thought cultivating a fully-blown victim’s mentality was the worst thing to do. Can’t be worse than the status quo though, can it?

The book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes to you goyim) says there is a time to build up and there is a time to break down. It is time to break down this rickety foundation of forgiveness. Black people have been doing the forgiving and white people have been doing the forgetting.

It is time to insist that the last few generals alive (on all sides) be brought to trial, that we have a proper court with powers of subpoena to reopen the TRC files and that the school history curriculum devotes  at least a year to apartheid studies. For good measure FW de Klerk should be stripped of his Nobel, apartheid denialism should be made an offence and all white people should be required to visit an apartheid museum.

Middle-class black people accept white people living next to them, and they are not even trying to agitate for a wealth tax on white people, but they draw the line at being treated like shit. If we have to take a sledgehammer to this sham, sooner is better than later. DM


  • Paul Berkowitz
PaulBerkowitzBW

Paul Berkowitz: studied economics, maths stats. Worked at Econometrix, FNB, Wits. Interested in South African politics, economics.

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