Of all the important debates South Africans need to have, the most crucial is this: how does an economy generate jobs? What is preventing ours from doing so? How can we fix it?
Almost neck-and-neck with the economy, is: how can we fix our education system?
But there is another issue that absorbs our energy and attention, almost wiping out considered debate on every other topic critical to our future. It is the issue that defined our past: race and racism.
During a month in which the rand lost 18% of its value, youth unemployment rose to 52.4%, and the petrol price hit record highs, South Africa was obsessing about who was accusing whom of being racist.
These episodes included:
- Ashwin Willemse’s allegation of racism against co-commentators Nick Mallett and Naas Botha, during and after a dramatic on-air walk-out following the Lions/Brumbies match on May 16 2018;
- Repeated EFF barbs about South African Indians, culminating in Julius Malema’s generalisation that “South Africans of Indian descent think of indigenous Africans as less human and less capable”.
- Carl Niehaus’s accusation of “downright unbridled racism” against North West University Politics Professor Theo Venter after he said on radio that Jacob Zuma was the worst president South Africa had ever had (which led to the university launching a formal investigation into Venter).
- The Public Protector’s finding that I violated the Constitution by advocating racial hatred (constituting incitement to harm) for tweeting, during an online conversation that “for those claiming the legacy of colonialism is ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc”.
The intensity of these debates dwarfs anything I have seen on the economy or education. So perhaps it is necessary right now, despite all our other challenges, to address the question: “what is racism”?
According to the online dictionary, racism is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
But how does one detect or measure prejudice, discrimination or antagonism? Is it merely in the eye of the beholder, (and if so which beholder)? And, if any of these feelings is detected or experienced, how does one determine whether it is the result of an assumption of racial superiority, or on other grounds?
The easiest way of answering these questions is to avoid them entirely and define racism as a personal experience. “If I perceive it as racist, it is racist. You cannot deny my pain”.
Of course, feelings and perceptions are very important in this discussion, especially given South Africa’s history. They are all too real to the people who experience them. There is also a pressing need to include, in the discussion, things like patronisation, paternalism, micro-aggressions and condescension. We need ways of defining them and dealing with them.
But the potential abuse in subjective definitions of racism overrides their value.
Thomas Sowell, the renowned economist, made the point when he said: “The word ‘racism is like ketchup. It can be put on practically anything – and demanding evidence makes you a ‘racist.”
In South Africa today, even quoting Sowell makes you racist, as I learnt in a recent discussion. Although he is black, the validity of his arguments are simply discounted by dismissing his “white mentality”. This is the ultimate ketchup smear.
This neatly illustrates my point that unless we get to some acceptable definition of racism, it never ends. Any black intellectual who does not conform to the prevailing orthodoxy can merely be redefined as white (and therefore automatically racist) in order to shut them out of the debate. And so on. And on.
Looking back, the most profound zeitgeist shift in democratic South Africa has been on the issue of race; during the 1990s, non-racialism was still our lodestar; it was progressive to be a committed non-racialist; Somewhere, during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency (probably kick-started by his “two-nations” speech which sought to undo Mandela’s one-nation legacy), the commitment to non-racialism began to change, culminating in Jacob Zuma’s stated view that white monopoly capital was to blame for all South Africa’s problems.
This coincided with the shift towards critical race theory, which defined “whiteness” as South Africa’s core problem and “decolonisation” as the solution.
One of the loudest current online race debates illustrated the point. A group of UCT students advertised a “Decolonised Winter School” which organisers described as “challenging the notions of colonisation and putting the theories of decolonisation into practice”.
Significantly, the suppers were advertised on the Winter School programme as “POC only” with POC standing for “people of colour”.
We are so far gone that reintroducing apartheid is seen by some students at our best universities as part of “progressive discourse”.
The university issued a limp statement describing the “POC suppers” as “inappropriate phrasing,” adding that access to UCT events may not be restricted on the basis of colour. Take that!
As any social media user knows, the “defeat-whiteness-through-decolonisation” discourse is not marginal stuff. It defines the “digital debate”, spawning new phenomena such as online “shaming and slime-ing”.
I am indebted to @Ish_Michelle for her definition of “slime-ing”: “When you misrepresent what someone says in the worst possible way, accuse them of being a terrible person based on that interpretation and never allow for any enquiry beyond that. It’s practised by people who have no intellectual integrity.”
It is clear why people who wish to portray whites and whiteness as the source of all evil in South Africa would have to resort to such tactics. This includes labelling all whites as “1652s”, the year that Van Riebeek landed in the Cape to start a victualling station. According to critical race theorists, it has all been downhill from there.
The proposed solution is therefore equally simplistic: eradicate “whiteness” (inevitably interpreted as “get rid of whites”) sometimes even expressed on social media as a call to genocide. Some of the worst examples from my own timeline include the Reverend Kemo Waters (who described himself as a preacher, author, poet, father and truth seeker), who suggested “The only way to end racism is to kill a material number of whites.”
Or the rather more personal approach from @athii_mhlaba: “Where do you live in CT Helen?? I sincerely want to pay you a visit and butcher you since you are leaning closer to death in any case given your age. Or you can come to me…..my panga is ready”. (He obligingly provided his full address to facilitate our meeting)
But what if these proposed “solutions” were to be tried, and failed to solve our problems? What if these strategies actually resulted in increased unemployment and even weaker mass education?
Well, there will always be another scapegoat to blame, as the EFF’s attacks on South Africans of Indian descent foreshadowed, prompting the following message sent to writer Ferial Haffajee:
“Stop misleading pple you bitch…fuck u and go back to Europe…this is not your country asshole…you deserve a bullet in the head.”
Sikonathi Mantshantsha, deputy editor of the Financial Mail, presciently observed where this tendency would lead. “When the throat of whiteness has been cut, the Indians possibly dumped into the ocean named after them (whence they’d emerged) and the coloureds stripped of their humanity, the EFF’s insatiable appetite for further victims will still not be satisfied.”
Next on the “scape-goat” list will be black ethnic minorities until, as Pastor Niemoller said, there is no-one left to speak up.
It won’t be long before Mantshantsha is challenged for expressing views that reflect a “white mentality”.
Which brings me back to the question: what is racism, and how can it be detected?
I have mentioned before the triple D-test, originally devised by Natan Sharansky, author and human rights activist, to distinguish between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel.
Having applied it in my attempts to identify racism, I have found it to work better than any other measure I have tried. The three Ds are:
If a statement (or episode or situation) meets all three criteria, it is definitely racist; if it meets two out of the three, then it probably is.
Without a doubt there are many white racists in South Africa, and it is necessary to challenge them head-on. But I have no doubt that by far the majority of whites genuinely want to be part of building an inclusive and prosperous South Africa. Broad generalisations based on individual experiences, fail to recognise that fact.
Let’s go back to the label “1652”, for example, and determine whether it is racist.
Double standards? Clearly. By all accounts white settlers arrived in the Cape before the people who described themselves as Bantu. The first recorded encounter between these two groups was more than a century after 1652, along the Fish River in the Eastern Cape.
No-one would think of describing black South Africans by a date on which their arrival in South Africa was determined, following the millennia of migration from west to east and ultimately to southern Africa. (What’s more, this debate always seems to discount the fact that the Khoikhoi were here millennia earlier, and all humankind is thought to have descended from the small tribes of homo sapiens who lived in the Southern Cape 90,000 years ago).
Delegitimation? Yes. This is what a hierarchy of legitimacy based on arrival dates, seeks to achieve. A foreign imposter can’t be taken seriously.
Demonisation? By implication, as this date is established as the source of all subsequent evil in South Africa.
So, using the 3D test, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that calling white people 1652s is racist.
Excluding people on the basis of skin colour from a dinner ticks all three boxes too. As does calling black people such as Sowell “Uncle Toms” and “House Negroes”. Or black political leaders “tea girls”, “garden boys” and “puppets”.
But what about the contention that black people can never be racist? As Sobantu Mzwakali, an activist from the Free State, said in a recent blog: “We never had the tools or power to institutionalise racial oppression. So next time you as a white person want to accuse black people of reverse racism and insufficient anger – check yourself and your privilege.”
Let’s for a moment, take this statement at face value: black people cannot be racist.
So, why was there such outrage when a black waiter wrote “two blacks” on the bill to identify which restaurant table it came from?
The waiter suffered a torrent of delegitimation, demonisation and double standards, both on social media and in print, more extensive than the genocidal threats that appear now and again on social media.
I decided to take my definitional exercise a further, and applied it to the four topical “race” incidents listed at the start of this article. My detailed analysis is far too long to unpack here; but if you apply the 3-D test to all of them, you may well be surprised to find out, feelings and perceptions aside, where the racism actually lies.
If someone else has a better method than the 3-D test to define and identify racism, (that is not entirely subjective), I would be very pleased to hear about it.
And I am well aware these definitions don’t go far enough to encompass the everyday slights that are called “micro-aggression” or condescension. These things are real; they hurt, and we need to address them seriously.
But it is time to try to bring some objective criteria to this vexed subject before it destroys our capacity to resolve the issues that really threaten our future. DM