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.