Defend Truth


Confessions of a Recovering Racist


Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter.

Every day I have to acknowledge that what I was taught was wrong. This is not an apology. It is a fact. And every day I have to do some small thing to right that wrong.

Racism is immoral, stupid, ineffectual, ugly, destructive and inhuman.

Hi. My name is Ian. And I am a recovering racist.

I have been clean for nearly 20 years.

I remember the first time I knew I was clean. I had to sit my parents down and tell them that racism was not acceptable in my home.

Now, I had good parents. They had given me love, support, strong values, discipline and freedom. They were good people. They didn’t have much money, but in addition to their own four children, they helped raise six other children, and gave support and a home to their divorcee mothers when the church, society and the state did not. But they were racists.

And so in 1996 I sat them down and said: “You know in our home we don’t allow smoking. We don’t ask that smokers give up smoking we just ask that they don’t do it in our house. Well the same goes for racism. I have no right to ask you to change who you are and what you believe, but racism is not something we can have in our house and around our children”. And that was when I knew that I was truly in recovery for the first time.

Because it was inevitable, that up until then I was a racist. I was born into the white ruling class in racist Rhodesia. My family, our friends, our government – everyone was racist. I went to a white school – the only people of colour I saw were servants. Racism was not a belief system. For children like me who grew up in that society it was a fact. We were taught that every other race was a lower form of humanity, and the range of derogatory terms covered everyone from Portuguese to Afrikaans, but most especially “black”. As for the rights of Africans in Africa? Hmph!

It was so much part of my life that when I had the chance to listen to Bishop Desmond Tutu speak at the age of 17, I could not hear what he was saying. I could not see past his skin colour, or get past his accent. I look back at that blind, stupid teenager, and want to shout at him to wake up and see the gift he was being given. I was in the presence of someone who would win the Nobel Peace Prize and who, if I had my way now, would be voted President for Life simply to keep his humanity, humour and honesty as the focus of our nation. Racism was not my choice; it was the religion in which I had been raised, taught and nurtured in. But then I got lucky. In my chosen career I met men and women, talented and untalented, successful and unsuccessful, intelligent and not-so-much, straight and gay, hard working and lazy, difficult and nice – some I really liked and some I really didn’t. And the one thing that had no determination on any of the above was their race. It seemed to me that everyone was a combination of everything around them – genes, upbringing, education, wealth, culture, language, gender, external pressure, internal dilemmas. The one thing that really didn’t count was their skin colour. I began to see people, not colour – and when I understood the Zulu greeting “sawubona” I felt I had found something real.

And as I slowly shed the layers of fear, arrogance, and stupidity in my professional and personal life I was able to start seeing our society at large. The dominant public figure of my young married life was Nelson Mandela. I watched awestruck at his dignity and power and began to see other leaders like Walter Sisulu, OR Tambo, Tutu, George Bizos, Helen Suzman, and Beyers Naudé for the giants they were. And I realised that I had grown up as part of a terrible lie. That tens of millions of people in Africa – black, coloured, Asian – had paid in ways that were immeasurable, because of the colour of their skin. And of course white people had lost immeasurably too, because living in isolation and fear is always corrosive. What I “knew” was horribly wrong. And I felt deep shame.

But then I realised that I was not responsible for my upbringing. The only reason I should feel shame was if I didn’t change. I couldn’t change my past but I could change my future, and ensure that my children grew up differently. I would teach them to see “people”. I would teach them to acknowledge the differences in someone else’s culture, their language, and, yes, their colour – of which every person should be proud – but that nothing was more important than their humanity. That being white did not make them better or worse than anyone else. They could not correct or pay for their grand-parents mistakes, or for the beliefs that their parents had grown up with but they could work to make sure that wrongs were righted. And now they live in a world where they revel in the cultural whirlpool we live in.

I had the good fortune to have a physically “challenged child” and I saw the acceptance and humanity that every culture showed him. The best people of every colour see him as a person, they look beyond the exterior to see the man. Racism is immoral, stupid, ineffectual, ugly, shameful and inhuman. And for those people who try to hide behind “science” as the explanation for racism, and claim the outdated theory “that the conquering colonial race is superior”, I suggest reading the Pulitzer Prize winner, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Whether it comes from the dominating or the dominated, from the previously empowered or the currently disadvantaged, whatever the colour of the person who is racist – it is wrong. Along with religious intolerance (which is often racism in disguise) it has killed more people, ruined more societies and devastated more lives than any disease from small pox to malaria.

Every day I have to acknowledge that what I was taught was wrong. This is not an apology. It is a fact. And every day I have to do some small thing to right that wrong. As humans we have far more in common than the things we don’t. I can only say that I am proud and glad to be a South African white man, when every South African black woman is equally fortunate and proud; when every coloured child feels empowered and strong, and when every Asian grandparent feels hopeful for the future of their grand-children.

I wrote this article while enjoying 12 days of bliss with no news, no internet, no cell connection and returned to the storm of comment started by someone called Penny Sparrow who has been (rightly) vilified for publicly saying what some white people still say privately. And then Velaphi Khumalo posted a hideous Facebook comment about doing to whites what Hitler did to the Jews.

Both of them talking about millions of peoples as if they were a cattle lot! Meanwhile, Temba Bavuma made both of them look like fools – playing a game imported by “colonialists” he beat them at their own game. And by giving us the simplest example that we are all FAR more than our colour, he gave us hope through his best, while social media did its worst.

I am not sure of the whole answer, but part of it has to be that we who were privileged by apartheid need to admit that each of us has not done enough, personally, to eradicate it and then work to change it. And those in power since 1994 need to admit, personally, that they have failed to lead redress by example. Mandela invited Betsie Verwoerd and Elize Botha to tea – he lead us into forgiveness. We have to follow his example if we are not going to be side-tracked down a detour that will inevitably lead us backwards to where we were 25 years ago. And like the millions of us, of every colour, who grew up steeped in racism I can only say that I am a recovering racist, forever. That way, I might help to dissolve the racism around me. Thanks for listening. DM


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