South Africa has a violent, bitter and terrible history of racial discrimination, a cruel and inhumane classification system and a system of prejudice, hatred and abuse that started long before the rise of the apartheid regime. When I, and others, speak out against the racist encounters that far too many must still endure it is not because I, or we, hate white people. No, it is because we are outraged that there is an underlying system that has allowed and cultivated a structural racism to exist in our South African society.
This conversation is naturally uncomfortable – it tends to frustrate far too many who then take to social media in their outrage or pen missive e-mails in the hope that they can save you from talking about racism. I guess if we pretend it doesn’t exist then it will just disappear. I suppose this is a sensible ploy if you are deranged. The efforts by these folk are not designed to save us from the oppression, hatred, prejudice and racism that continue today but instead to save us from somehow talking about racism. After all, as far as they are concerned, it doesn’t matter. But do they ever wonder what it must be like to be treated as less?
When Scott Maqetuka went to the Bungalow in Clifton, he surely had no expectation that he would be defined by the colour of his skin? No person should be expected to accept being classified and reduced simply to the descriptor of “2 BLACKS”. This is a conversation that South Africans still struggle with and a conversation that requires sound and engaged leadership but is neglected and only engaged in when words such as those that Penny Sparrow used are unleashed, or in an incident such as the recent one in Cape Town.
We should not reduce this issue of classification based on race by saying it is the fault of government or even worse, as suggested by a particular politician, to argue that race “should not matter”. But we now live in the wake of incidents epitomised by the likes of Penny Sparrow. However, we should be reassured that South Africans are now calling out those who peddle in this type of bile.
When I disagree with a series of tweets issued by Helen Zille on the subject then it is not because I dislike her but rather that I disagree with her fundamentally on the issue, as race does matter in this country as long as the system of racism continues to exist. I will continue to be outraged for as long as South Africans in their everyday experiences are treated as less and classified as such. This is not some “left-wing censorship by the self-righteous”, as suggested to me in an e-mail on the topic, but the first step in South Africans confronting our ugly past.
This is not an easy journey, especially because there are no obvious leaders to lead the conversation, which is another reminder that we should stop looking for someone to blame and instead start directing that energy in fighting for the country we want to live in. The outrage we see reflected is not simply that of the chattering classes or the middle class but the necessary cathartic beginnings of an urgent engagement on this issue.
South Africa cannot simply be reduced to the fable of a Rainbow Nation. We must confront those flaws if we are ever to deal with this system of racism. Those flaws are not simply idle but instead perpetuate the conduct of abuse and prejudice that treats black South Africans as less. There is an underlying system of racism and prejudice in our country that does exist and it should matter.
We should be troubled by what is happening in our country. Instead of peddling the dismissive line that “race should not matter” we should start asking whether denial in itself will be enough to deal with our wounds? Was it enough to deny the existence of apartheid? Was it enough to simply speak out against slavery behind closed doors? No, this is the time for action, not the time for empty missives and revisionist logic.
We will have to address the fragility and defensiveness that so many feel when the issue of race is raised. It is far too difficult a conversation to engage in yet so many South Africans are caught committing acts of racism every day. This year should be a reminder to all of us that it is not enough to simply be outraged on social media but that we need to start doing something about this system of racism and prejudice that continues to give us these rotten examples of the messed-up system that we have allowed to fester. DM