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The only way to stop this spiral of violence and racism is to act decisively on poverty

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Rebone Tau is a political commentator and author of The Rise and Fall of the ANCYL. She is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Pan-African Thought & Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity.

South Africa is far from the days of Nelson Mandela who sought to create a broad coalition of black, white, Indian and coloured in the first democratic government in the nation’s history. As we celebrate Mandela Day annually, we also need to work on race relations, which needs to be linked to the class struggle.

As the dust settles on last week’s shocking events which saw more than 200 shopping centres trashed and looted in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, an inquest has begun into the origins of the carnage. Specifically, some are asking why the violence was weaponised and directed towards shopping centres, why communities that attacked shopping centres didn’t feel enough ownership to defend “their mall”. They want to know why there was a deliberate attack on white-owned businesses.  

Attacks on shopping centres were always going to be inevitable because they are the centres of activity in townships and locations. Obviously, the RET faction and agent provocateurs have identified these places as the visible faces of “white monopoly capital” in black townships — aberrations that must make all black people boil with anger.

Coming back to the people who keep saying that attacks on business assets are a sign of deteriorating race relations, their assertions seem a bit surprising to me. The looting was indiscriminate and blacks, coloureds, whites and Indians were equal opportunity targets.

The point I want to make is the following: South Africa is far from the days of Nelson Mandela who sought to create a broad coalition of black, white, Indian and coloured in the first democratic government in the nation’s history. This was in line with the African National Congress’s policy of non-racialism, non-sexism and equality before the law for all.

Many signs, symbols and events down the years have shown us that rather than coming together to forge one nation under God pursuing the same destiny, we have drifted apart to the point where we cannot stand one another. Here are just some examples to illustrate my point.

Interracial relationships on TV

A few years ago, South Africa was up in arms after Isidingo introduced a black/Indian couple on the show. Members of the Indian community were outraged that one of theirs was going to lock lips with a black person on the small screen.

Similar sentiments were shared in 2019 when the popular daytime soapie 7de Laan aired an interracial kiss scene between Carina Nel who plays Alexa and Nicholas Nkuna who plays Fikani. Twitter was inundated with hate mail. A fan posted these memorable words on Facebook: “I am not racist, but white with white and black with black”.

Land reform and farm murders

Perhaps the area where the black/white divide is most visible is in rural South Africa. This is where the majority of the country’s poor, mostly black, live next to white farmers, who are perceived to be either rich or occupying land that rightfully belongs to blacks. In those parts, there are always tensions beneath the surface. It can go down any time.  

There are literally a thousand examples of racism in small rural towns. In 2005, Mark Scott-Crossley killed a black former employee and threw his body to lions. In 2016, two white men assaulted Rethabile Mlotshwa close to Middelburg and forced him into a coffin. We all still remember very vividly the horrific murder of Brendin Horner in 2020 and how that brought the nation to the edge, a few months into our first Covid-19 lockdown. Thousands of white farmers travelled to Senekal to protest against farm murders. Gunshots were fired and a police van was set alight. The Economic Freedom Fighters mobilised quickly and also descended on the town, ostensibly to protect public property. There is also the case at the Piet Retief Magistrates’ court involving four white farmers who are accused of killing a black jobseeker around Mkhondo.

A few years ago, some white South Africans travelled to the US to participate in Tucker Carlson’s TV show. They had a grievance: blacks were targeting whites with violence and the South African government was doing nothing about it. Instead, they were planning to seize their land without compensation and hand it over to blacks. Every time the government tries to move with some urgency on land reform, we get a lot of caustic criticism over black people in general wanting everything free. This is what has been driving the resurgence of the Freedom Front Plus.

Springboks refuse to take a knee

Following the George Floyd murder last year, many sports franchises around the world started taking a knee in support of racial equality. South Africans were largely in support of the idea, especially given the country’s history with race. It was therefore with much consternation that millions of South Africans learnt that eight Springboks had refused to take a knee during a game involving English Premiership Rugby team the Sale Sharks. Surely, after everything they had gone through, and with the euphoria of Siya Kolisi bringing the William Web Ellis trophy home, South Africans, of all people, understood the significance of taking the knee?

Black South Africans felt a collective slap in the face. Sports Minister Nathi Mthethwa demanded an immediate explanation from SA Rugby president Mark Alexander, adding that “you must remember we were together at the World Cup in Japan as a country with some of the players, and one thing which cannot be tolerated is when somebody is displaying racist behaviour. The president of SA Rugby did say they are going to be having their own meeting and they will make their views known.” A visibly nervous SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux later explained that race relations were a work in progress.

Good race relations need work and the fight against poverty has an important role to play

We can go on and on about different instances of racism (what Julius Malema says every other day about whites or Indians, that white guy at the gym who sounds you out about your views on the ANC government before going on a long tirade about how blacks have destroyed the country — but the bottom line is that racism is embedded in South African society. It has not gone away because we inaugurated a democratic constitution in 1994. We see its structural forms every day in our schools, the JSE, apartheid geography, farms, business value chains, and so on.

Every time Malema says that whites have never had it so good because they can now open businesses in the townships, he is tapping into the angst that is sitting just below the surface, just waiting to explode. It is not for nothing that the close associates of former president Jacob Zuma adopted the slogan Radical Economic Transformation ahead of the next ANC elective conference in December 2022. You need to recognise the tropes there.   

Some politicians tend to make everything about racism and not look at how it is linked to class struggle, which cuts across all races. The socio-economic challenges that we face in the country are fuelling most of the tension around racial issues and causing unnecessary friction. People are easily manipulated by some politicians who offer very simplistic analyses and solutions which they repeat thousands of times a day: “the white man still controls the economy — it is rightfully yours — elect us and we’ll take it from them and give it to you.” Ad nauseam.

Politicians use the race card to push a particular agenda and continue to play on poor people’s emotions. In some cases, innocent people end up dying when racial tensions spill over into conflict, as we saw last week.

The only way to stop this spiral of violence and racism is to act decisively on poverty. We must end poverty and apartheid geography now. See how easy it was to weaponise thousands of disaffected youth in overcrowded townships to cause carnage and mayhem. We need to create the conditions for people to earn decent wages, live decently and have hope for the future of their country.

As we celebrate Mandela Day annually, we also need to work on race relations, which needs to be linked to the class struggle. I don’t know — it may entail creating some sort of centre for race relations — not to be confused with the Institute of Race Relations, which is just an extension of the Democratic Alliance. We must make it possible for all South Africans to have the same opportunity to succeed, regardless of the colour of their skin or where they are born. DM

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All Comments 8

  • I certainly hope that everyone in this country would love to see this, but sadly having “the same opportunity” without “the necessary skills” is unlikely to yield the desired outcome.

    My take is that the key ingredients are:
    1. Recognition that working together beats conflict every time.
    2. Understanding that the past does not need to define the future.
    3. A focus on accountability, law and order, and education for all – the rest will follow.
    4. Time. Sadly, the game of life has plenty of snakes and precious few ladders.

    Sadly again, item 3 is probably the easiest of all to achieve and our government can’t even get that right.

    Time for a change?

  • Curious as to how the author sees rugby players not taking a knee as being an act of racism!
    It is this kind of lazy analysis that creates problems.

    • White people would kneel to anti racism! They will not kneel to a BLM movement that highjacked the ” anti racism” movement to push their own agenda of anti white, anti nuclear family marxist nonsense!!
      How do you expect them to kneel to that??? What is wrong with you? Have you not worked that out yet?
      Any kneeling to that movement would just market them more.

  • Some good points but this was not just poor jobless people at play – I saw BMW’s and traffic jams of cars lining up to steal. A simple lack of any good role models in the ANC.
    On the other side, bearing out the surveys that are there, racism is a very low key issue here, real job and education opportunities are where it is all at. Demonising the white South African and not recognising that they are a fundamental part of the solution has been the rookie error of the ANC who espouse racist BEE policies and who have placed every obstacle in the way of mass employment. Lets focus on the real issues here and not the red herrings and scapegoats.

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