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15 December 2017 08:22 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Our unfinished business: race and reconciliation

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

The purposeful project of racial reconciliation has fallen by the wayside. Like it or not, the TRC was a prominent exercise in nation building. Some called it pain porn, but the nightly scenes on our television screens were important. They forced us to talk about the open wound that was race. Today we are more divided than ever. Perhaps our parting gift to Madiba should be a resurrection of the reconciliation project in order to keep alive the ideals of the struggle for which he lived.

In The unbearable whiteness of being, Eusebius McKaiser made the point that while many black people have learned what he calls the ‘grammar of whiteness,’ the reverse is not true. He eloquently summed up what many affluent black people know all too well, that “white South Africans don’t need to be translated to me. I get you. I still cry myself to sleep for missing the Bon Jovi concert.”

As a coconut of McKaiseresque status even as I write these words, ‘You give love a bad name’ is ringing in my ears, reminding me of my twelve-year old self curling my lip, wearing a frayed (on purpose) denim jacket and LA Gear sneakers.

But what McKaiser didn’t address – one only has so much space in a given column – is the fact that the vast majority of South Africans simply do not interact across racial lines. Forget black kids learning how to say ‘sarmie’ and ‘oke’ to fit in. Forget the dream of white kids learning the words to Khuli Chana’s lyrics. The reality of today’s South Africa – supported by sad, dreary statistics – is that those of us who speak to one another long enough to learn one another’s grammar are but a tiny minority of the population.

According to the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s annual reconciliation barometer, published at the end of last year, 43.5% of South Africans rarely or never speak to someone of another race. I will repeat that because it’s a pretty shocking statistic: almost half of South Africans rarely or never speak to someone of another race.

The barometer also provides evidence for what many of us know at a gut level - that the higher up the economic ladder you go, the more likely it is that you will form close friendships and have social interactions with people of different races. In other words, Eusebius and I and our elite black peers ‘get’ white people’s jokes and movies and eat bread dipped in olive oil because of our affluence has bought us close contact with white people. For the vast majority of black and white South Africans, close social contact is simply not an option.

The 43.5% of South Africans who don’t speak to one another represent an unhappy but unsurprising statistic. But given the nature of South Africans – which is to look on the bright side – one might be tempted to argue that the 57% of us who do interact regularly represent progress. After all, we come from a past in which very few of us interacted at all.

This kind of optimism would be misplaced. The sad truth is that we are no longer moving in the right direction. In the last two years, measures marking progress towards racial reconciliation have begun to slip. In addition, the racial distance different groups feel is intertwined with intense economic distance. Many people who live in informal settlements and in rural areas rarely see anyone who doesn’t look like them and therefore they have little opportunity to interact across colour lines. In a country in which knowing a white person translates into social capital (never mind the BBC’s John Simpson), the implications are significant.

Despite the fairly grim statistics, we are a nation that wants badly to believe that we are making progress. When someone suggests that we aren’t, or decides that a narrative of decline might be better suited to our story than one of ascendancy, we unite in outrage. (Perhaps this is progress of some kind, but I digress.)

My point is that things are not getting better on the racial integration front. A few months ago a friend of a friend was passing through Johannesburg. A French man living in the US, he had never been to South Africa before, and was curious to see “the Mandela miracle in action,” as he put it, so I agreed to show him around.

He had already organised a tour of Soweto (of course), so I decided to take him to Parkhurst to show off our cosmopolitan café culture. His reaction surprised me, and of course as a patriotic (i.e. often irrationally optimistic) South African, I was annoyed by his comments about how few black people there seemed to be on the street. In part I was irritated because as we walked around looking for a place to sit, I had been internally taking stock of the numbers of black people, and was feeling quietly pleased with the fact that there were more tables than usual of casually confident uber-cool black kids with blonde mohawks and lip piercings munching on crostinis and sipping on lattes.

His dismay dismayed me. I hadn’t realised how much of a frog in the boiling water I had become. I defended us, of course, treading the well-worn path of “Do you know how far we have come?” But the exchange was discomfiting.

The reality is that twenty years after the end of Apartheid, there is unfinished business we have yet to address both on the race front and on the economic front. Our apartness remains as intractable as ever – indeed, if the IJR survey is to be believed, our apartness is growing.

About ten years ago I was speaking to a young black woman who had grown up in a white suburb and attended a prestigious Durban girls school. She told me about an incident that had taken place in the dying days of Apartheid. She was about ten years old and was spending the weekend with the family of a white school friend. Her friend’s family must have thought that they would have no trouble going to the beach and so they set off merrily with the girls in tow. Apartheid’s enforcers popped up. The ten-year-old was mortified, feeling as though she had done something wrong; the parents were apoplexic and then hugely apologetic. Her lesson had been learned – there are places you cannot go in this world, young lady.

Stories like this remind us that we have come from far (cynicism aside), and I am mindful that my kids will not have to worry about this sort of thing. In fact, the 20 million South Africans who were born after the end of Apartheid will have the right to legal recourse if someone tries to ban them from a public beach.

But the truth is that today’s South Africans continue to cling ferociously to people we define as being our own kind. We come together around particular events – the World Cup being one fleeting moment – but then we disband, retreating to our corners, licking our wounds – name your isolationist metaphor.

On radio shows you can hear the ache in black people’s voices as they bemoan the plight of “our people”. Whites don’t use this language, but are equally plaintive when talking about affirmative action and the injustice they feel has been wrought against “hard-working guys” which is often code for ‘white’ guys. I don’t begrudge us our sentiments; I am simply noting them. South Africans still feel a strongly emotional sense of collective responsibility for people within their race group.

This translates into a landscape that is only partially de-segregated, even within the spaces that we think have been de-racialised. Our malls and our beaches, our gyms and our restaurants; these are all open to all races. But if you look beyond the gleaming surface of places like Sandton City, you will notice that within the public spaces that we occupy side by side, we rarely mix. We are like oil and water sitting in the same bowl. The clusters of white teenagers who roam the mall wearing dark jeans and scowling faces might have a token black boy tagging along, but most of the time they are mono-toned. Black Hyde Park women in Range Rovers lunch with other black women. Young parents who meet at Papaccino’s cluster in same-race groups, watching their same-raced children play side-by-side, but quite apart.

We glide past one another, but we rarely sit down to break bread as friends. Our relationships are transactional – bank-teller, shopkeeper, airtime salesperson.

Each time I see a large group of racially mixed people sitting together at a restaurant I am a bit surprised. And then inevitably I overhear a comment that makes me realise that these are workmates. They are eating together and laughing and joking because they share a workplace. This is important. But as the race barometer tells us, these work-based relationships are not translating into real friendships, where people visit one another when babies are born, pop around to take one another’s kids to the movies, or ring to say “How are you?”

That level of intimacy continues to elude us, in large part because the purposeful project of racial reconciliation has fallen by the wayside. Like it or not, the TRC was a prominent exercise in nation building. Some called it pain porn, but the nightly scenes on our television screens were important. They forced us to talk about the open wound that was race. The most public proponents of the TRC and the national process that it stood for were Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu. While they lead on principle, their support ran deep amongst all of us – they had a mandate from the country. Even those of us who disagreed with how the TRC unfolded did not disagree that a national set of conversations on the legacy of Apartheid, including of its legacy on racism, was of critical need.

Madiba staked his one and only term of office as president on racial reconciliation, sublimating his own understandable anger and sense of injustice in order to give voice to “the better angels of our nature.” He wasn’t a saint, but he was a visionary. As our president, Nelson Mandela understood that investing in racial reconciliation would be the only way to ensure short-term stability (it is easier to tell people to be patient when you are helping them to heal their pain) as well as long-term peace.

Today the reconciliation project has been abandoned, and it shows. I am not a fan of charismatic, populist leaders, and so I am wary of putting too much store in the idea that we need a credible champion who will mobilise us around race reconciliation. But if ever there were a moment to pick up the conversation in earnest, where we left it a decade ago when the final report of the TRC was signed off, it would be now. Perhaps this can be the parting gift that we give to Madiba; to keep alive the ideals of the struggle for which he lived. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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