The discussion about racism always evokes interesting reactions. It seems to have the power to unmask us and reveal primal emotions that embarrass and confuse us because they cut through our veneers of rationality and decency, exposing naked, primitive survival instincts.
As a vociferous commentator on race, I am often confronted by vitriolic name-calling and slander as people take offence, often without engaging with the content of the discussion. This resistance points to something that requires closer scrutiny and may be the hidden balm for the healing of a collective wound.
I find it very difficult to avoid the race discussion in any discourse pertaining to the South African socio-economic reality. The undeniable persistence of racially defined social structures, in human settlements, in opportunities, education and justice, is an indisputable fact. Indeed, some will argue that the latter category is no longer racially defined as we see the emergence of a black middle-class. The truth is that relative to the number of black people, this emerging class is but a drop in the ocean, and this makes the argument disingenuous .
Because Sipho or Lulama have BMWs on some ridiculous hire-purchase deal race is no longer an issue. Frankly, I don’t know which is worse: the debilitating poverty and squalor in mainly black settlements or the lie and hypocrisy that is called the emerging black middle-class. Yes, there are genuine exceptions, and may they grow. The painful irony is that the injustices which have their genesis in apartheid continue in the new South Africa.
Perhaps my fascination with the race discussion stems from an unresolved victimhood, entitlement, low self-esteem, self-hate as some have suggested. I don’t really know, nor do I care. I suggest, however, that the contentions expressed in any discussion on race are because of the deeply entrenched and yet unresolved historical racial structuring of our society. We went to bed one evening in the old South Africa and awoke the next morning in what was now the new South Africa and proceeded to assume the proverbial “position” without effectively working through the deep-seated racial issues that lurked in our collective psyche.
I contend further, that because of this, a basis for an unavoidable socio-economic trajectory now exists. One which inevitably produces racially based decisions in an attempt to remedy the ills of our past, but keep us prisoners in the mindset of racial division. Black economic empowerment, affirmative action and many other similar programmes of economic redress have been understood as such in some circles. This is the real tragedy of the new South Africa and to overcome it lies not, I suggest, in avoiding the discomforting discussion about race, but in engaging in it with the requisite sensitivity and sobriety aimed at nation-building and reconciliation. That said, perhaps the name-calling and insults may give way to considered opinion about the content of this on-going discussion.
The reason for the discomfort in discussing race issues in South Africa is the emotiveness of the subject. There is also the unfortunate notion that a discussion about race is invariably a discussion about racism. These are not the same concepts – despite how closely related they may be. Race always evokes deep emotions which invariably reduce a discussion to a blame game without ever getting to the nub of the issue.
A racial pissing contest between black and white. In most cases, the participants in these discussions have hardly heard the substance of the argument advanced, but are at the ready with their slew of ill-considered and often irrelevant platitudes and slogans which do very little to advance the discussion. So in utter exhaustion and frustration most people resort to avoidance and withdrawal because of what seems to be an insoluble situation. Some will hurl insults at those who initiate these discussions while some will develop theories that give them a sense of legitimacy in notions that are clearly racist, denialist or populist in nature. We have these people on all sides of the race discussion.
A white friend expressed his frustration with the race discussion when he said, “It is as if my white skin has suddenly disqualified me from having an opinion about the direction my country is taking. Each time I wish to constructively participate in the discussion about my country, I’m sharply reminded of my ancestral complicity in the woes faced by this country. My voice is constantly silenced, yet my taxes and skills are most welcome. Was it not agreed through the various Codesa negotiations that we are turning a new leaf and that all, even the whites would have a place under the new South African sky? Were these negotiations in bad faith? Are we heading the way of Zimbabwe and the rest of the failed states of Africa? Can I continue to build a country that clearly does not have me in its future? Why should I care? Could we just not move on?”
Indeed these are a few among many very real frustrations which must be sincerely acknowledged and engaged with. To avoid this discomfort is to neglect the pain and frustration in the hope it will just go away. This is an opportunity to understand, from my friend’s point of view, what his real fears and concerns are and to appropriately deal with them without ignorantly prescribing a solution based on ill-conceived and prejudiced notions. This is what reconciliation is about.
However, on the other hand is the lament of a black woman in Mamelodi, who says, “I have fought all my life for a life of dignity against the abuse of apartheid? I have sacrificed all that I have held dear to see our leaders released and our liberation organisations unbanned. I have forfeited opportunities because of a lack of quality education. I still wake up at 3am to serve my white masters, raise their children while I hardly ever see mine. I still live in a shack while each afternoon, in an over-crowded bus, I look longingly at the ever-increasing opulence of my white masters. Here in the land of my ancestors! You see, perhaps I would bear it if I was a foreigner here. You tell me of the rule of law, the constitution. Laws that perpetuate my indignity. There is no Justice in your laws because I and many like me continue to live in poverty and degradation. Yes, the whites have once again hood-winked us because they get richer while we get poorer, even under the nose of our own Black-led government. I will no longer live in a democracy that perpetuates my indignity. Perhaps, Robert Mugabe, Idi Amin and Julius Malema have a point. And why is it that I only hear those who benefited from apartheid saying we should not talk about the unjust racial realities I have to face each day, and move on? None of them have been subjected to the humiliation of being body searched for looking at an expensive pair of shoes in one of these big department stores or being groped by my white boss while his wife is playing Bridge with the other rich white ladies in the living room. So I too am tired of talking about race because I’m not heard, let the chips fall where they may!”
One may have cogent counter arguments to these, but do you dare rationalise the pain by seeking to point out the weaknesses of argument? Would that not amount to gross insensitivity that would entrench a toxic stalemate?
Indeed, perhaps this discussion is not even about race or racism. It is true that the colour of one’s skin is nothing more than a biological construct. That the discussion is really about class, about corruption, incompetence and many other issues. The truth is that most South Africans still experience reality in terms of race and the socio-political attachments we have placed on it. This is the pathology of the society we are tempted to avoid or resist. You see, what you resist, persists. I suggest however, that our opportunity for overcoming the racial divide is not by resisting this discussion but by accepting and acknowledging it.
Acknowledging it without any qualification, correction or judgement. Until there is a genuine recognition on both sides of the other’s fear and survival instincts. That it is authentically understood and sincerely sympathised with. Judgement invariably makes people angry on all sides and achieves nothing but aggravation. This must be a discussion about the safe acknowledgement of our fears. It must be a recognition of the unfortunate, but real circumstance. And then together, from a position of acknowledged and validated experience, search for labels which identify our true challenges. The power and the venom of race will have been neutralised.
So let us not stifle the discussion, let us not stop talking, but let us do so with the requisite presence of mind and sensitive alertness that is able to identify and exorcise the demon of division. It is this conscious discussion that will bring us to the ancient truth that there is only one race, the human race. We must keep talking, because the alternative is unthinkable. DM