Opinionista Yonela Diko 19 December 2016

2017: We need another leap forward on race relations

Life can be hard, even if you are white, but life will never be hard because you are white.

“Do you miss being the first black President?” Bill Clinton was once asked, to enthusiastic applause from the audience.

“I feel really honoured to be called the first black president, but I can’t take credit for it. It’s how my parents raised me. Of course, Barack is the first black president and I am glad he has chosen to keep me close in order to continue contributing to the progress of this country,” said President Bill Clinton in answering the Black President Mantle he has worn, as credited by Nobel-winning African-American author Tony Morrison.

Then Senator Obama, answering the same question posed to him in a debate with then Senator Hillary Clinton, expressed his admiration for this affinity and the special bond Bill has with the black American community. But Obama goes further to state that he is inspired by white Americans who grew up in the South, when racial segregation was at its calamitous worst, who chose to risk and lead the charge for transformation, beginning with their own lives and their own little worlds. This was not only courageous but indicated this ability of people to change.

Bill Clinton’s ability to identify with the black community does indeed come from growing up in the hard-nosed state of Arkansas, in a relatively poor and alienated part of the state.

Even Bill Clinton, however, knows that despite the shared black experience, life can indeed be hard, even if you are white, but life will never be hard because you are white. He knows that there are just certain experiences he escaped, consciously or unconsciously, because he is white, and that means there are certain things he can’t claim, and there are certain things he can’t say.

South Africa could easily have been America’s South. For too long, our country contained within it and represented much that is ugly and repulsive in human society. It was a place in which to be born black was to inherit a life-long curse. It was a place that decreed that some were born into poverty and would die poor in the land of gold and diamonds and their lives would be cut short by the viral ravages of deprivation. It was a place in which squallor, the stench of poverty, the open sewers, the decaying rot, the milling crowds of wretchedness, the unending images of a landscape strewn with carelessly abandoned refuse, assumed an aspect that seemed necessary to enhance the beauty of another world of tidy streets and wooded lanes, and flowers’ blossoms offsetting the green and singing grass, and birds and houses fit for kings and queens.

For too long, South Africa was a place where others always knew that the accident of their birth entitled them to wealth. It was a place in which to be born white was to carry a permanent burden of fear and hidden rage. For 400 years, it was a place in which to live in other neighbourhoods was to enjoy safety and security because to be safe was to be protected by high walls, electrified fences, guard dogs, police patrols and military regiments ready to defend those who were our masters, with guns and tanks and aircraft that would rain death on those who would disturb the peace of the masters.

Through our efforts in the last 22 years, we have achieved the outcome that is undeniable in its magnitude; we have ceased to be beggars. There is a reason to believe today that racism is almost out of the mainstream but now resides in the fringes of our society. In 2016, no South African should ever say nothing’s changed when it comes to race in the country — unless you’ve lived through being a black man in the 1950s, or ‘60s, or ‘70s or even the ‘80s. Race relations have improved significantly during our lifetime. That is a fact. To claim differently is really dishonest. It is also true that the legacy of colonialism – apartheid — still casts a long shadow.

The cruelty we have witnessed in 2016, whether it’s Vanessa Hartley, who likened Africans to “stupid animals”, or DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard who retweeted a post from journalist Paul Kirk in which he praised former apartheid president PW Botha, or Penny Sparrow, who referred to black beachgoers as “monkeys”, or Vicki Momberg who contacted the police emergency number 10111 and was recorded referring to a black police officer as a “f****** k*****”, or High court Judge Mabel Jansen in a Facebook conversation who said that “all black men are rapists and murderers”, or lodge owner Andre Slade who sent an e-mail to a patron saying his establishment‚ Sodwana Bay Guest Lodge in KwaZulu-Natal‚ did not accommodate black people or government employees, or DA councillor of Ward 54‚ Shayne Ramsay who said people living on the streets were either “criminals‚ mentally retarded or social outcasts and those who are genuinely down on their luck”, are symptomatic of the racial disparities in our country.

Today, endemic and widespread poverty continues to disfigure the face of our country and continues to have a black face. It will always be impossible for us to say that we have fully restored the dignity of all our people as long as this situation persists. None of the great social problems we have to solve is capable of resolution outside the context of the creation of jobs and the alleviation and eradication of poverty. This relates to everything, from the improvement of the health of our people, to reducing the levels of crime, raising the levels of literacy and numeracy, and opening the doors of learning and culture to all.

The great journey we have undertaken has to be and is about redressing the harm that was caused to all Africans. It is about overcoming the consequences of the assault that was made on our sense of pride, our identity and confidence in ourselves. In 2017, it is time that black people’s position on every indice must make another leap forward, weather it’s wealth, income, jobs or affluent neighborhoods, otherwise when racist incidents occur they become part of a broader sense of being treated unfairly.

All fair-minded people must ask themselves every day how can we change the condition of other citizens who are unfairly treated. We must use our human and material resources and the genius of our people to build an economy that addresses their needs.

More important, white South Africans need to open their heart even more to racial harmony, to exorcise themselves of the fear of black people, to get rid of the old stereotypes about black people, so that we can finally create this mosaic of shared experiences, overlain by diverse cultures which will reflect in shared neighborhoods, social gatherings, schools, sports, and social networks that cris-crossed political movements and political parties. DM


"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall