South Africa

Racial tension: Let the sober speak

By Stephen Grootes 20 January 2015

After the racial storm of the weekend over the Zelda la Grange tweets, it was inevitable that the Good Ship South Africa would eventually start to right herself. And, slowly, move away from the wreck of our angry conversations about race, towards the calmer waters of a proper, more thoughtful discussion. The identities of the people who started this process are not at all surprising. Hlengiwe Mkhize may have the formal title of Deputy Minister of Telecommunications, but her history, and her role in the movement give her a much bigger and more interesting back-story. And the back-story of Father Michael Lapsley gives him what must surely be a unique insight into our problems of race, identity, and the legacy of Apartheid. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

(Conflict Alert: This article is about race. I am white. And thus benefited from Apartheid)

Towards the end of the weekend, Mkhize decided enough was enough, and that she had to get involved, on Twitter itself, with La Grange. In an interview on the Midday Report she explained that this was because she saw “polarisation”, and, more worryingly, that people were being identified by their race, and then treated accordingly, “that tends to disempower those positions, it disempowers their positions. Even if you want to enter the debate, you don’t want to be classified as one or the other, but through an open discussion, adhering to the values of the Constitution, with respect for human dignity, respecting the other. We must begin to liberate the other and be comfortable when mention is made of the impact of Apartheid and the quality of life of different people depending on where they were located.”

The easiest way to deal with this, she suggests, is that “[W]e need to go back to basics of 1994, and be ready to engage, and talk to each other.” She also makes the point that, to quote Charles Dickens, “[T]his is the best of times, and the worst of times”. It’s the best of times because there is so much development, there is a huge amount of change in our society, and for many people, their life chances have improved dramatically. But she says, it’s also the worst of times, because there is still so much to do, so many people are still angry because their life chances haven’t changed much since 1994, and their lives are still nasty, brutish and short.

Mkhize makes another point that must be remembered. That the first priority during the Mandela administration was reconciliation. Now we are in a society that is changing. Kader Asmal made the same point back at the end of Nelson Mandela’s term in office – that the period of transition was over, and was being replaced by a period of transformation. The difference is huge: one is basically about getting to know one another, the other is actually changing society. Transition is about rugby matches, transformation is about affirmative action.

It makes sense if you think about it, because it also explains why Thabo Mbeki spoke about race in the way he did: his job was actually to change society, and you could only do that by pointing out the obvious problems within it. In a way, this also explains why President Jacob Zuma speaks about race explicitly less than Mbeki did, the processes had been started, and are now underway.

Mkhize is from a different generation than some of the younger people who vented their ire on La Grange. She is from the ANC of Madiba, and wants to understand the frustration and anger of La Grange, to work through it with her. Younger black people may well feel that that is not so important, that what is important is ending white privilege. Considering the role white privilege still plays in our society, that is not wrong, and is perfectly rational and justifiable.

Father Michael Lapsley, on the other hand, thinks of things in a slightly different way. As a priest from New Zealand, who actively helped the ANC (and paid a heavy price, losing both his hands and one eye in a letter bomb sent by the CCB), he looks at our society through the lens of his work as director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories.

Michael Lapsley

Photo: Father Michael Lapsley (SA History Org)

He points out that just because white people may claim not to be racist, that “[w]e who are white have been infected by the disease (racism) in many different ways, and when we are under pressure, this comes out”. This, for him, explains La Grange’s tweets. He also suggests that one of the issues that must be mentioned when dealing with Twitter is the immediacy of one’s response. “In the old days, they used to advise people to write a letter and leave it on the mantlepiece overnight. And in the morning you probably wouldn’t send it.” Now, things have changed, and people react through emotion, using their thumbs rather than their pens. This changes the conversation that we are actually having.

Lapsley’s point, that all whites have been “infected with the disease” is worth thinking about deeply. The other day, former Business Day Editor Peter Bruce suggested that as a “European”, he was becoming more convinced that “racism is intrinsic to my culture”. I think he may be right (please see conflict of interest disclaimer at the top of this piece).

However, that is different to saying that white people are racist, or that all white people are racist. If you did so, you would be opening the door to saying that white people have no role in our society, or in our politics. You would, perhaps, be letting some people say that white people cannot criticise the government, or the ANC, every single argument involving a white person could be won with “but you’re racist”. That surely, would not be right. To refuse people that right based on their skin colour would certainly be unconstitutional anyway.

One last point.

The other day a strange thought struck me. It was that Apartheid, in the technical definition of the system, only really started after 1948. Which means that it lasted for roughly just over forty years. We are now twenty-one years into our liberation. Which is a fact the racist and reactionary among us (Dan Roodt, Steve Hofmeyr, I’m looking at you) are likely to latch onto and claim is proof that Apartheid “wasn’t that bad” or that all the faults of our society are the “fault of our current government”. The point is, I think we may need to use a different term, or maybe just accept, explicitly, that when we talk about the impact of “Apartheid”, we actually mean “the system of exploitation of black people by white people in South Africa starting in 1652, through colonisation, the Great Trek, the made-up mfecane, the 1820 Settlers, the Boer War(s), up until 1994.

Using this definition is better not only because it prevents dates being used by racists, but also because it better defines what actually happened; when we blame Apartheid for poorer education black people in Limpopo receive, we’re actually going back further than the 1980s.

Considering that race is probably our defining characteristic as a society, it is no surprise that we are talking about it in the way that we are. What we must guard against, is letting the discussion be dominated by the extremes. Of all sides. This is a conversation the sane middle must own. And for that to happen, the sane middle needs to speak up. Now. DM

Photo: Hlengiwe Mkhize, South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Telecommunications. (Department of Telecommunications)


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