On Tuesday morning the nation woke to images of racial violence on the front pages. Radio bulletins led with stories about white people hitting black people, TV stations showed video shot on cell phones of black people being kicked. Coming off the back of the outrage over Penny Sparrow, the argument about 'entitlement' and the racially polarised conflict at the University of Pretoria, to some it may look as though society is falling apart.
As a journalist, I was depressed on Tuesday morning. No one I know enjoys reporting on conflict. But when that conflict is violent, features people of different races hitting each other, it is just so much worse. It takes you back to the violence and awfulness of Apartheid. It reminds you of the wrongness of that. And it brings with it a fear that we are not getting on, that society is fraying at the edges, that the whole 1994 project is being derailed.
We have such a vacuum of legitimate leadership at the moment that it is easy to be scared. It is easy to look at your children and wonder if they are going to be safe from all of this tension. Especially when what is billed as an “anti-racism march” turns into a conspiracy mongering exercise.
And the images that we are talking about are powerful. Black students, protesting against Afrikaans going onto rugby pitch. No one who knows anything about our history can miss the symbolism of that. The reaction of some of the white spectators is horrific. It’s one thing to be upset about a disruption to a sporting event. But to react violently, to kick and punch and hit, is surely only an expression of anger and white superiority. It’s not about reacting to a disruption; it’s about trying to show that certain people are not allowed to protest. That the right of those white spectators to watch rugby trumps the right to protest about language. After all, even if the protestors did not have the right to protest in this way (and that’s debatable), it is absolutely certain that the people who assaulted them did not have the right to assault them. They were not police officers.
If that is bad, what is happening at the University of Pretoria is surely worse. Because the reaction of white racists is organized.
Afriforum has been treating white male students as solders, forming them up into lines, giving them orders, pretending to be army commanders. Speaking on the Midday Report on Tuesday, the organisaton’s CEO Kallie Kriel attempted to explain this. He says that Afriforum was called onto the campus by students who are its members, with a request that it protect them. He claimed that this military maneuver, that saw his deputy Cornelius Janse van Rensburg addressing students as if they were soldiers, was aimed at bringing peace. He did not explain away how treating students as soldiers will not incite violence.
But he also claimed that they have been forced into action because the management at the university has previously done nothing to stop the violence committed by members of the Economic Freedom Fighters. His mask really began to slip when he was asked why he wouldn’t just suggest his members leave the site of conflict, as that would obviously be the safest path. Kriel said it was because that would allow the EFF to win, and Afrikaans to lose. He says that this would allow “a small group of students to dictate the agenda, we are not going to allow the EFF to set the agenda…we are not going to allow people to insult us and assault us”.
Right, so if someone insults you, you are allowed to use violence in return.
It is at that moment that you realise this is not about protecting human life and limb at all. It is a fight for control of a university. And Afriforum, and Kriel and Janse van Rensburg, are fighting to retain their privilege.
But there is worse to come. The EFF protests are sparked by a demand that Afrikaans be dropped as a medium of instruction. They believe it’s being used as a proxy for race; Afrikaans classes are predominantly white, English classes predominantly black. When Kriel was asked if he believed this means that classes should be in both languages and should be “separate but equal”, he said, quite happily, “yes… we want mother tongue education”.
Kriel clearly has very little appreciation of the history of that phrase. And of how it was used for so long to justify segregated education. And how separate may well be Verwoerdian, but never equal.
But what he says doesn’t really matter. His cause will fall. As, to an extent, will that of the EFF. Despite the legitimacy of some of their demands.
And the reason for that is that our society has simply come too far. It has progressed, changed and integrated. If you live in a city, it is probably impossible for you to spend a weekday without interacting, probably for a long time, with people of different races to you. The number of times those interactions end badly is vanishingly small. It’s not just that the majority of interactions between people of different races end productively; it’s that virtually all of them do.
If you, like me, went to a government school in the 1980s and go into a government school now, it’s impossible not to be completely bowled over by how much things have changed. How in the 1980s everyone looked the same, and not just the children, but the parents? They dressed the same, they had the same hair styles, they acted the same, and they were all the same race. Now, to go to any government school is to see children and parents who all look completely different. It’s to see and hear parents speaking to their kids in Zulu, Sotho, English, Afrikaans, and sometimes Cantonese. It’s to see laughing chatter, games with indecipherable rules and joy in each other’s company.
To go into a government school in a city now is to see South African society as it is right now, and where it is going to. Not as the extremes would have it.
Of course, it is much more complicated than that. Racialised economic inequality, Economic Apartheid, and the struggle of some people to come to terms with how things have changed are all huge factors, issues that impede our progress. And we cannot forget, or devalue, or delegitimise black pain, both because of our history, and because of economic situation now.
And we can’t forget how so many people, for economic reasons, are sentenced to send their children to under-resourced schools, often in rural areas, where they do not get to experience the joy of that diversity.
But we must also not lose sight of where we really are. We are not Afriforum. We are not that student who wore a T-shirt saying “Kill all Whites”. We are not coming apart at the seams. We are not the extremes. The “us” is us the moderates. You and I. The “them” are the extremes. And they will lose, and we will win. DM
Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.
Alcatraz had some of the best prison food in the United States.