The foundations upon which contemporary South Africa is established are the constitutional framework which, despite acknowledging the injustices of the past, makes it impossible to redress these injustices by making it impossible for the state to expropriate land without compensation, and the rainbow nation ideal of Nelson Mandela which prioritises reconciliation over justice.
This inability of our country to deal with racism is made manifest in the manner in which popular media and a small number of elite blacks deal with individual acts of racism by whites. From Penny Sparrow, who called blacks monkeys, to Gareth Cliff who defended Penny’s right to be racist; from Richard Spoor who claimed there aren’t many competent black lawyers, to Mabel Jansen, a High Court judge who argues that rape is a culturally ingrained phenomenon among black people.
The response by elite blacks and white liberals has been to isolate these individuals for the purposes of punishing them as individuals for their purportedly individual acts of racism. This approach of individualising racism has no chance of ridding this country of this scourge, because essentially, it focuses on dealing with prejudice, which is an inherently individual thing, and not with racism, which is systematic and structural.
South Africa is awash with racism; it is in our country’s DNA. The development of our country along the trajectory is has is tied at the hip with the entrenchment of the system of racism, which synthesised the prejudices whites had and continue to have against black people into economic, social and cultural hegemony. This is a racist hegemony that has excluded black people, viewed them as nothing more than cheap labour. The colonisation of our country and the plunder of her resources by the colonising elite did not only set out to brutalise and exploit African people economically, but central to their colonising strategy was the drive to reshape African reality so that Africans would become willing slaves and willing servants.
By brutally annexing land from Africans, the colonising elite was purposefully annexing African cultural expression and meaning. Without land as both a symbolic meaning of African being, and land as an expression of value and a means through which Africans could affirm their humanity and culture, the colonisers appropriated not just African land but also African being, and African heritage. The systemic process of deculturisation was a calculated process to strip Africans of their humanity. By stripping Africans of their culture, the colonisers reduced the African to a subhuman, a type, a person with no culture, a person whose life has no meaning, therefore who could be dispensed at will by those with culture. All white people, wittingly or unwittingly, have been privileged by this system.
Targeting individual whites like Mabel Jansen, who naturally burst out in public their private prejudices, enhanced by the power and privileges afforded to them simply on the basis of their race, is a cowardly way out, if at the same time there is no anger at the gross inequalities reproduced by the same system that allows Mabel Jansen to hold the bigoted views she holds. Whites are in a position to think of blacks in the most despicable of ways, as rapists, dirty, lazy, intellectually stunted, precisely because of the economic and cultural domination whites have over blacks, whose roots are in the systematic and structural architecture of our country. Getting momentarily angry at these individuals, as was the case with Wouter Basson, with the judge who ordered the parole of Janusz Walus, and now with Mabel and others, does not help us tackle racism.
So, what should we be doing? I think it was Achille Mbembe who made the observation that South Africa’s must be the only revolution in history where the former oppressors lost nothing, but gained more strength after the revolutionary forces took over power. The much celebrated Constitution, and the rainbow nation ideal advocated by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, have pulled the wool over our eyes and prevented us from engaging thoroughly with historical injustices, in order to construct a country free of racism and all its elements.
At the centre of this nation-building quest, and of constructing a truly sustainable rainbow nation, is the notion of justice. Justice, as cardinal as it is to the development of progressive societies, was sadly demoted in terms of importance in the discourse on reconciliation that was so on everyone’s lips as the country was intoxicated by the idea of freedom. Very few dared ask: can there really be true reconciliation without justice? Could we have developed a set of values that define our new nationhood as South Africans, without dismantling the social, economic and cultural impediments that have characterised our country for more than three centuries? How do we construct a country out of the mess that colonialism and apartheid created without uprooting the fundamental characteristics that made apartheid what it was, the concentration of wealth in a few white hands, the ownership of land by a minority, the cultural domination of a minority across all sectors of our society?
The current social and economic inequalities render political freedom, and the fight against racism, insignificant if these do not bring about the radical changes needed to free the majority of black South Africans of their perpetual and economic enslavement. What does political freedom mean, after all, if the land that was a rallying point in the fight for liberation is still mainly in the hands of our white countrymen and women? What is this freedom we talk about if, 20 years after we achieved freedom, the captains of industry are still wholly white? Is it freedom if young black South Africans are still taught under trees and often without books and on hungry stomachs? What kind of a rainbow nation are we talking about if the beneficiaries of colonialism and apartheid are still dictating the terms of existence of everyone in the new South Africa?
After 22 years of freedom, perhaps we should acknowledge that the path we have taken as a country may not necessarily have been the right one. We put reconciliation and the notion of a rainbow nation above addressing what would have been lasting solutions for the sustainability of our country as a truly cohesive and united South Africa. That, I argue, entails the return of land to its rightful owners, the ownership of the economy by black people, and heightened cultural awareness to demystify the myth of black inability and white excellence. Only through a systematic annihilation of the system that makes whites feel superior will we be able to deal with racism. DM