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20 September 2017 22:05 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The death of racial reconciliation

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

In recent a television debate, I was one of over a dozen panellists discussing racism and racial inequality. What people had to say was profoundly depressing. South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy was not only betrayed, but actively rejected.

In a bid to thrash out issues of race, racism and racial inequality, The Big Debate on e-TV invited a host of panellists, ranging from Corné Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus and Monique Taute of Afriforum, to Wanelisa Xaba of the Rhodes Must Fall movement and Weizman Hamilton of the Workers and Socialist Party. The show was recorded in May, but broadcast on 23 July 2016.

There seemed little hope of getting to say much in such a deliberately polarised debate, with so many panellists. But frankly, there wasn’t much “debate” going on. Not many participants tried to convince opponents of their point of view, or were prepared to give an inch in compromise. In the end, the most notable outcome was Xaba’s statement that if “an army of black people must take up arms” to “take back the land”, then she’d be okay with that.

I hate racism in all forms. Although I recognise that racial, national, tribal and similar social divisions are widespread and natural, I strongly oppose formal discrimination on such grounds. We ought to be equal before the law, and in the market. I also deplore expressions of racism, including the use of racial epithets, demeaning stereotypes, and gross generalisations based merely on skin colour.

I do not believe that racism can only be committed from a position of power. While racial oppression obviously involves the power to impose it, a great deal of everyday racism, all over the world, is motivated by the desperation, fear and ignorance of the poor and powerless.

I recognise that while I did not contribute to the policy of apartheid – my first vote ever was a “yes” in the referendum to abolish apartheid, and my second vote was a vote for Nelson Mandela in 1994 – I did benefit from that system as a child. I also continue to enjoy what the social justice movement calls “white privilege”. I feel no personal guilt about this, but I do feel a sense of responsibility not to exploit that privilege, to empathise with people who don’t enjoy the same, and to do what I can to promote the ideal of a free, non-racial society.

It is indisputable that 22 years after the advent of democracy, a lot of racism and inequality remains in South Africa. This is painfully visible in the racial divide that remains between rich suburbs and poor townships, despite the advent of a substantial black middle class.

Moeletsi Mbeki, a political economist and brother to the former president, was right to note that blacks have been liberated, that there are now black billionaires as well as white billionaires, and that centres of political power such as government, Parliament, the police and the army are today in the hands of black people. However, structural inequality along racial lines survives, as does interpersonal racism, especially in smaller, more rural towns, where the prejudices of the past frequently remain on display.

Freedom is not the same thing as prosperity, despite the misuse of the term by Julius Malema’s political party. Abolishing racial discrimination in the formal business of government and in the market does not mean racism and inequality will go away overnight. Instituting restorative measures to promote social and economic justice will not make everyone rich, either. It was always going to take decades to heal the wounds and right the wrongs of the past, and many scars will probably remain for generations. It has always been thus. Social progress happens, but it happens slowly.

Those that do not remember the past, because they were too young to witness it, are prone to repeat its mistakes. They lack historical context in which to place their present situation. This became glaringly obvious when Wanelisa Xaba, a graduate student in social sciences at the University of Cape Town, made the assertion: “I am living under white supremacy right now”.

Xaba is too young ever to have experienced the real thing. It is easy to heap real or imagined misfortunes on racial, tribal or national groups other than one’s own, but doing so is glib and self-serving. Xaba is living with the legacy of apartheid, certainly, but white supremacy has been reduced to the forlorn hope of racists, most of whom have learnt the hard way that even expressing that wish – let alone practising it – has severe consequences for their reputations, careers and families. (Let us hope that the acute race-consciousness advocated by the social justice movement does not spark a resurgence of actual white supremacy.)

Black anger can be rationalised, on the grounds that the injustices committed against black people in the past, and the ongoing struggle for equality today, are both very real. However, I had a lot more difficulty understanding the callow capitulation and self-absorbed virtue-signalling of some of the white speakers on the panel.

Rebecca Davis, a journalist and commentator, was very quick to issue a half-apology – long before the pre-recorded show even aired – for exclaiming, “You make me ashamed to be white!” The object of her anger was Monique Taute, who simply said that she was too young to bear guilt for the evils of apartheid. Whether or not Davis agrees that the iniquity of the parents should be visited upon the children, such a retort is inappropriate.

Unfortunately, in her acknowledgement of this fact, she compounded it by writing that Taute’s “blowtorch eyes” left her feeling “simultaneously terrified and slightly aroused”. I can only hope that Taute is less quick to anger than Davis, and has the magnanimity to let this offensive lewdness slide. I can only imagine Davis’s response if I were to make unsolicited and inappropriate sexual remarks about her.

Davis calls herself a journalist, but while she seems happy to give offence, she said she has no right to speak about race in South Africa. “The sooner white people realise South Africa is a black country, the better,” she said. This sounds suspiciously like wishing to silence people based on the colour of their skin, which is all the more perverse coming from a journalist, for whom the right to speak in the public sphere ought to be a first principle.

The correct phrasing would be that South Africa is a majority black country, but that, as the Constitution puts it, it “belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”. Anything else would constitute racial supremacy, which might sound like poetic justice, but is morally unconscionable and won’t maintain the peace.

She repeated that she did not belong in a debate about racism, writing with faux humility: “In reality, my seat would be better filled by one of the academics who do thoughtful, considered work on whiteness that doesn’t make for punchy but insubstantial sound bites.”

This raises the question of why Davis agreed to appear on national television to discuss that very subject. The only explanation I can come up with is that she was signalling her virtue to her peers. If so, she succeeded with her answer to the question whether all whites are racist. “One hundred percent!” she exlaimed, without hesitation.

Speak for yourself, Ms Davis. Yes, there are many white racists, but I’ll thank you not to generalise about people based on the colour of their skin. Even if you wallow in guilt over your own whiteness and even though it is true that whites enjoy “white privilege”, accusing them all of racism is an insult too far.

Speaking of wallowing in guilt, Sarah Godsell cut a melodramatic figure as a person tortured by her whiteness. Besides being a historian and poet, she appears to have no claim to fame other than “living in a legacy [she is] trying to undo”. She is the daughter of Bobby Godsell, the former CEO of Anglogold Ashanti presently serving on the National Planning Commission and as chairman of Business Leadership South Africa.

She recited a poem, entitled “No, Wait...”. Let me quote some lines from it:

I am sorry for my bones
For their whiteness
...
I am sorry for my blood
That not enough of it was shed
I am sorry for my skin
...
I am sorry for my voice
I am going to breathe in and dissolve
Reconstitute myself in the air
Throw my bones for you
Bonfire my skin as sacrifice
Freeing myself
For me
For you

You can read the whole tragic composition here. It sounded like a suicide note. For added effect, she enlisted a black poet, Tshepo Molefe, to answer every verse by rejecting her apology. It was hard not to betray my outright pity for her, as one does when someone displays such pathological self-loathing. Poor little rich girl!

Someone spoke vaguely of the need for “asset transfers”, without specifying which assets should be transferred, from whom, to whom, by what mechanism, and on what grounds. Anything ranging from existing black empowerment and land restitution programmes to full-scale Zimbabwe-style land invasions would qualify.

In response to a question by host Masechaba Ndlovu of whether rich white families, like the Ruperts, the Oppenheimers, and her own family, should give away their land and money, Godsell said yes.

Xaba was quick to respond: “I’m sorry, Sarah. I don’t want you to give back the land. It is psychologically important for me to take it back. And if it takes an army of black people to take arms to make it happen, so be it.”

A member of the audience was equally uncompromising, saying: “White people don’t have to do anything to offend us; their very existence offends us.”

I’m not in the habit of defending the colour of my skin. I can’t change it, didn’t choose it, and am conscious of the sordid history of racial discrimination. But when someone denies my right to exist, no compromise is possible. It is alarming that young people who did not live through South Africa’s transition to democracy – including Godsell and Davis, who would have been in their teens at the time – are so eager to incite racial polarisation and even war.

I was a student from 1989 to 1992, when South Africa began the arduous five-year transition to democracy that culminated in the first free elections in 1994. I recall the privilege of learning about politics by watching leaders negotiate for a new dispensation and a new Constitution. The practical, historical, socio-economic and philosophical questions this process raised were sophisticated and illuminating. Many people don’t learn in a lifetime what those five years taught me.

The birth of democracy brought with it powerful emotions. I felt elation at compromises struck between Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC’s chief negotiator, and Roelf Meyer, his counterpart in the old National Party. It was thrilling to watch many small parties being included in the talks, and eventually the election, on the sole precondition of a commitment to a peaceful transition. I felt despair upon learning of awful massacres at Boipatong and Bhisho, white right-wing bombings at ANC offices and taxi ranks, terror attacks by the Azanian People’s Liberation Army at Saint James Church and Heidelberg Tavern, and the assassination of Chris Hani. I felt fear as negotiations stumbled from deadlock to deadlock, and civil war seemed certain. Yet hope was rekindled when leaders like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela calmed people even though they were justifiably angry at the slow progress, the many setbacks, and the cruel violence.

A key to the “South African miracle”, leading to a peaceful transition rather than a bloody civil war, was the exclusion of extremist voices that would not renounce violence. Both on the left and the right, radicals were ostracised and shamed, while the majority who wanted peace forged ahead to a negotiated settlement.

Corné Mulder, who took part in those negotiations, told Xaba that if she wants war, she does not know what she is talking about. “Most people don’t want violence, and we need to sideline those who do,” he said. I couldn’t agree more.

Xaba seemed offended, but frankly, as a student in her 20s, she really doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She might have experienced injustice, or be angry on behalf of those who do, but she has not seen the horrors of war. If she had, she would be much less eager to rush headlong into death and destruction, however justified she feels her cause to be.

Between all this uncompromising extremism, real solutions to ongoing racial inequality were hard to discern. I tried to make a constructive proposal by noting that government owns almost half the land in South Africa along with dozens of state-owned enterprises. These assets were amassed by the apartheid government and transferred into ANC hands. The government could make a huge dent in inequality if it were to transfer ownership of some of those assets to the people. I was shouted down by the Rhodes Must Fall crowd.

A few sane voices upheld the primacy and virtue of the Constitution, but they, too, were heckled and drowned out. Some audience members wanted to throw out the Constitution entirely, believing that “1994 changed fokol” (to quote Xaba’s Facebook profile picture).

These are the words they so blithely reject:

We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to –
  • Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
  • Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
  • Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
  • Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

But if they believe that “South Africa is a black country”, as Davis put it, and they jeered Mbeki when he said black people have been liberated, they also have to reject the 1955 Freedom Charter. It says: “We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.”

Nobody who witnessed the sacrifices and compromises made during the liberation struggle and the transition to a peaceful democracy said they wanted to go to war. Some young people who don’t know any better did. To achieve a peaceful, equal, prosperous and non-racial society, we cannot indulge their hot-headed hatred. As Godsell inadvertently demonstrated, no sacrifice will satisfy their bloodlust. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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