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A nuanced approach is needed to actively eradicate race-based inequality

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Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist at Maverick Citizen.

When tackling racism, it’s most useful to see things from an outsider’s perspective as well as from the perpetrator and victim’s perspectives.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

This week I attended a conference hosted by everybody’s favourite albeit sometimes lethargic chapter 9 institution, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). The subject of the conference was titled “Towards social cohesion, non-racialism and the eradication of racial polarisation and tension”. A mouthful of a title that made for interesting discussion.

Reflecting on the conference, I found myself struck by something Professor Leon Wessels said. When tackling racism, he said he found it most useful to see things from an outsider’s perspective as well as from the perpetrator’s and victim’s perspectives.

Is it possible to have a discussion about racism without including the perpetrators and getting insights into their “theory of change”, so to speak, because without them are we not just echo chambers preaching to the converted?

My understanding of racism is that it is discrimination and othering that manifests and proliferates through carefully balustraded structural systems designed to oppress and subjugate based solely on the elevation of whiteness over blackness. It is psychological warfare that is so ingrained in both the victim and perpetrator’s psyches that it imprints generationally.

In 1994, tackling racism was more clear cut, I guess, because it was about getting apartheid government officials and liberation activists into a room and charting a way forward. Today requires a more nuanced approach because the systemic oppression and racism is more subtle and no one openly admits to being for the oppression of black people.

Yet the stats tell a different story: 64% of black Africans are poor, 40% of coloured people are poor, 6% of Indians and Asians are poor but only 1% of whites are poor. How do we account for this if not for race-based systems of oppression that remain solidly in place?

At the SAHRC conference Professor Barney Pityana made the observation that the incidents of racial tension we are witnessing now stem from black people asserting their rights to white people’s resistance.

Of course, the Cornwall Hill College incident immediately comes to mind here, where black students told of the racial discrimination they experienced at the school, their parents protested in solidarity and the white parents “defended” the school, saying things like “discipline is not discrimination” and that if the black learners and parents were unhappy they needed to build their own schools.

We are facing an increasing “fight back” from right-wing conservatives who feel they are under racist siege by black people, a most curious assertion.

In 2016 I remember reflecting on racism, stating that: “When I have to explain that there is no such thing as reverse racism because white people still run and maintain the global systems of oppression that have been designed to keep anyone not white disenfranchised, I get annoyed.” This was at the height of the “not all white people” campaign and was triggered by a close friend’s assertion of the mantra.

The SAHRC, as asserted by Professor Pityana, is meant to provide the tools for people to engage and live together. One of the tools meant to deconstruct and dismantle South Africa’s racially structured systemic inequality is the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, colloquially known as the Equality Act.

The Equality Act is meant to bring into effect section 9 of the Constitution, which states that all are equal before the law and may not be unfairly discriminated against. While the first part of the Act, the prohibition of unfair discrimination by the state or private parties, has been put into effect, the second part, which requires the state and private parties to promote the achievement of equality, was never effected.

This week Professor Pierre de Vos explained that the amendments currently proposed to the Act, while vague in his opinion, make one think “what might a South African society look like if systemic inequality were eliminated and the social and economic success and status of each individual were no longer partly determined by the accident of their race, sex, gender, sexual orientation or other irrelevant characteristics”, if private parties are to promote equality as proposed in the amendments.

For all intents and purposes this seems a reasonable vision. However, getting there, as the past 27 years have shown, is more difficult. One can only assume it is because it threatens the privilege afforded by being part of the 10% of the population that experiences only 1% poverty.

It would make for an interesting discussion to have those who uphold and benefit from inequality based on race in a conference explaining how this promotes social cohesion and alleviation of racial tensions. What is evident, though, is that racism seems easier to deal with when it is a tangible political power like apartheid was, but becomes more difficult to deal with when requiring people to actively promote the eradication of race-based inequality.

If we don’t talk about our racism and consciously seek it out in our surroundings with the intention to dislodge it, then we tacitly consent to its continued presence in our lives. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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  • 1. Important insights here – but the title is misleading. It should read “When tackling South African racism …”. That is because racism manifests differently in different socio-political contexts.
    2. The quote from Pierre de Vos misses a crucial point when it collapses people’s tightly intertwined class status and personal family backgrounds into a vague “other irrelevant characteristics”. And that raises the question: why are SA present commentators so afraid of mentioning class differences as a basis for discrimination and oppression? Put differently, why is class position (all too often determined by family background) ignored in considerations of the intersectionality of discrimination, oppression and exploitation?

  • The post-apartheid government has had a quarter of a century to distribute land which was available and failed miserably. A black government has not given to their poor what was already theirs. So white privilege is to blame?

  • “Yet the stats tell a different story: 64% of black Africans are poor, 40% of coloured people are poor, 6% of Indians and Asians are poor but only 1% of whites are poor. How do we account for this if not for race-based systems of oppression that remain solidly in place?” Sure, let’s solely blame racism – we’ll completely discount factors like average family size, average age when first giving childbirth, average asset accumulation at the time of first childbirth, the value attributed to education by the collective community / parents / teaching staff / children and the resultant impact this has on a child’s progress. Why bother practicing any self-introspection when we can blissfully blame the evil racist system?

    • Agreed Meyrick! In 1910 the ratio of black to white was around 3-1 and now its around 12-1. This is caused mainly by the culture of polygamy and patriarchy which has no respect for women and feels they have the right to have sex (rape) and take no responsibility for the child that grows up in a fatherless environment leading to all kinds of problems. Secondly, the nuclear family ie father , mother, children has shown time and again that it produces successful and well balanced children because of the attention they received from their parents because there are less children. Its about time this was spoken more openly about , rather than blaming the white man for all their problems. If the ratio of 3-1 had stayed the same, we wouldnt have so many starving black children running around nor the inequality that exists at the moment and blamed on racism!

      • Hello, as much as you’re entitled to your opinions and views, this is a very disturbing comment: “In 1910 the ratio of black to white was around 3-1 and now its around 12-1. This is caused mainly by the culture of polygamy and patriarchy which has no respect for women and feels they have the right to have sex (rape) and take no responsibility for the child that grows up in a fatherless environment leading to all kinds of problems.”

        You cannot compare South Africa today to 1910- it is centuries and lifetimes apart. Secondly, you are assuming that it is only black people that practice polygamy- it is practiced from the Amish to various cultures around the world. Third, to assume that black men are the only people that rape is completely based on archiac racist stereotypes. Rape happens in all communities- black, white, brown and in non-heterosexual relationships too. Let me not get started on the assumption that it is only black men who leave their children behind. It is based off on pretty racist stereotypes.

        These are very disturbing thoughts to a brilliant article written by Zukiswa, which proves her completely right.

        Please read the Daily Maverick comments policy again before you comment on articles. This isn’t adding value to the conversation, its spewing commentary that only shows the world how you think and view black people.

        Thank you

  • “My understanding of racism is that it is discrimination and othering that manifests and proliferates through carefully balustraded structural systems designed to oppress and subjugate based solely on the elevation of whiteness over blackness.”

    Interesting context. I guess that in the late ’90s SA context this would be correct but it is actually far, far wider than that in reality. I think that any white South African, who had benefited from Apartheid, would agree in essence but the facts are that the ANC government has not in fact concentrated on tackling racism head on but has, in the main, concentrated on establishing the ANC as the only power in the land in every aspect of the state & the country. And, of course, they have screwed it up by refusing to move away from a heavily communistic/socialist tilt. That creates a mindset in which, for instance, land is not handed over to farmers because the State (i.e the ANC) is “better” at curating those assets & fronting to compete for government contracts is widespread & continues today. Racism is embedded in corporate culture to an extent, but only because any & every company has to employ the best person for the job, in order to survive & thrive. Until the ruling party gives free rein to the “capitalists” who succeed in creating wealth & jobs, that will continue & the stats used to support “black empowerment” but ultimately utterly racist set of policies will move slowly.

  • The “carefully balustraded structural systems” referred to are a complete myth and a scapegoat for a simple lack of understanding of how so called white privilege is a product, not of apartheid, but of many many generations of innovation, hard work and education.
    Apartheid itself can never be defended and no doubt there would have been far better socio-economic circumstances for the black citizens now, on the huge assumption that there was innovation, hard work and ethical governance in the absence of colonization -not a hall mark of Africa sadly.
    Vote for a government that has not systematically destroyed the education system by throwing out well trained and motivated teachers on the basis of race -3o% a Pass??!!
    Cultivate a culture of learning and self help and stop playing the victim. Life has no free handouts for anyone regasrdless of colour or creed. Build on the best infrastructure (rapidly being destroyed Transnet comes to mind) in Africa and take responsibility for self improvement like everyone else.

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