Defend Truth


We need to talk about racism

Refiloe Ntsekhe is the DA National Spokesperson and Deputy Federal Chairperson. She also serves as Gauteng Social Development Shadow MEC. and is the constituency head for Kempton Park and Tembisa. @refiloentsekhe

I would like to start a conversation which I believe as South Africans, we are scared to have: that racism manifests itself both explicitly and implicitly.

English is not my mother tongue but I shall try and explain these concepts as I understand them so that hopefully the reader has the same takeaway from this piece that I intended.

Explicit racism in this context is when things are clearly racist and the behaviour is obvious and can clearly be defined as racism. Implicit acts of racism are harder to identify as such. Sometimes the person carrying out the act may not even realise that these actions are racist – because it’s just how things have always been done. I would like to talk about the challenges of implicit racism – which is possibly more dangerous because it is not really spoken about.

As a teenager, I grew up in Pretoria around Sunnyside, during the early ‘90s. We were one of the first black families to own a flat in Sunnyside. Often fellow black people would ask if my mother’s boss was so kind that he or she paid for me to go to an all-white school, referring to Pretoria High School for girls.

Playing tennis and swimming, even being good at such sports, was even more alarming to my white countrymen. I was frequently asked why I was so good at these sports. When I replied that my father was an excellent swimmer and tennis coach who ensured that his children became adept at these sports, mouths were often left hanging – this was obviously not the norm.

I would go shopping around Sunnyside with my friends who were white. Somehow, I would find the white shopkeeper following me around the shop – was the expectation that I would shoplift? I never did, but I was made to feel very uncomfortable because I understood why I was being followed around the shop.

While it may be a compliment that one speaks English well, I am often left wondering why I have not heard an Afrikaans person complimented for speaking English well. As time went on, I began to find this compliment patronising and would think, “What do you expect? I went to an English medium school.”

My mother is a Cuban-trained medical doctor and completed her medical degree in Spanish. Once we walked into a Portuguese shop to buy grapes which I really love. My mother being Sotho loves wearing her Seshoeshoe dresses. As we went to the fruit section, the owner of the shop directed us to a particular box of grapes and yelled something to his wife. My mother took my hand and we left the shop without buying the grapes. Portuguese and Spanish are close languages: what the shop owner had said to his wife (which my mother understood) was that he was getting rid of the grapes which were expiring and selling them to “us”. This explained why my mother had rushed me out of the shop without buying anything.

Last week, I went to apply to a school for my son who will be going into Grade 8 next year. I arrived at the school like any other parent, having completed my application online – armed with my reference number. I then enquired about boarding and was told it was full – but I could go on the waiting list. The receptionist then gave me her e-mail address to which I would send the application form. I duly did so – and because I used a work address which indicates that I am a senior member of a particular party, I was then told to submit my application form as soon as possible so that a space for my son could be found.

Often when I explain to white people that I am a member of the DA, I am told to get “more of my people” to join the DA. I have my reasons for joining the DA, one of which is because I believe it really stands for non-racialism, so who are “my people”? Sadly those who utter such words to me don’t even understand or live by the DA values themselves, I’m afraid. The same can be said for people who use “us” and “them”. To me, using such words creates further racial divisions within our country – they make it seem like an accomplishment that as a black person I am a member of the DA. Joining the DA for me is not an accomplishment but merely an aligning of my own value system to that of an organisation whose values are similar to my own.

As South Africans, we need to be conscious of what comes out of our mouth and how we act. As Redi Tlhabi always says, not all white people are racist but that does not mean that racism does not exist.

In my life, I have met incredible white people with whom I have become close. My youngest son has a Godmother who is white. It is not her words but her actions that taught me that indeed a white person can truly love a black person. I honour her and she has taught me so much. She has also taught me to look at life from a white person’s perspective: taking offence even before I take offence on such matters or bringing them to my attention. Interestingly, she made me aware of the “us” and “them” conversations.

I wish we could sometimes just sit down as South Africans and unpack what actions or words are able to inflict so much hurt: we need to have frank conversations about racism – the implicit or explicit things that people do and say. Sometimes people do things or say things not knowing how they are received by the other person. The complicated part is determining the intention of the action or words, knowing whether the person is predisposed to such action or language because of the way they were raised and who do not even see or understand the meaning. This could be said of many other forms of discrimination too. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted