THIS POST INCLUDES LANGUAGE WHICH MAY OFFEND SENSITIVE READERS.
I went to the Nelson Mandela memorial events not only because I needed material for the articles I had to write but also because I felt I needed to. I have always thought that things could have gone better for black people when political parties decided to do away with apartheid rule once and for all but I have the utmost respect for Tata. Nelson Mandela’s message of a non-racial and non-sexist society was loud and clear; it was the ideal for which he was “prepared to die”. I used the two seconds I had with him while he lay in state to bid him a sad farewell and say a heartfelt ‘thank you’.
Almost every person who spoke about him in the days after his death repeated the same message: “It is up to us to carry on his legacy.” I began thinking, never mind carrying on the Mandela legacy, my question is: “How are we dealing with the race issue? Am I racist? Are you?”
The definition of racism that I subscribe to is pretty straightforward. It is the oppression of a race by another with the intention of elevating the wellbeing and lifestyle of the oppressor. It is the injustice of tipping the scales in favour of the oppressor at the expense of the oppressed. It is the belief that some races are intellectually inferior and socially insignificant by virtue of their skin tone and differences in belief systems and traditional practices. It is the separation of races and the exclusion from benefit based on race. This is what racism means to me and if our Facebook conversation is anything to go by, Oliver Ngwenya agrees with this definition.
I raised the subject on social networks and asked my friends and blog followers for their thoughts on racism and if they thought they were racist. Mpho Sebashe responded: “Racism is mainly in the workplace and entertainment places. When access or opportunities are granted based on colour, not competency then you’re indeed racist. I cannot say I am racist or not a racist since I am not in a position to practice it.” Bridgette Halliday-Gam gave a believable “Hell no.” as her response to whether she was racist or not. Dumsile Radebe is not quite ready to have a heart to heart discussion about racism. She said: “There are so many things I want to touch on, on racism being alive but I will not, for this is a touchy subject for me due to the experience of being treated less than a dog. Racism is alive and will never die!!! It’s a disease without a cure!” Trust Ntokozo Letsako Marrengane to take things out of their neat little boxes. He said: “I’m not racist. I am merely a purist. I hold certain true beliefs about other races, mine also, so I merely think, write and speak what I like! Amakula, kaffirs, rock spiders (white peeps), pigs, ogobongwane…those names and their associated stereotypes hold some truth to them!” China Sello Phashe is all for ‘ubuntu’: “I am not racist. I have experience of how terrible racism can be, it was practiced on me. I cannot see myself making another person feel less human.”
I’m not racist and actually, very few of my friends are white. I must add that my white friends remain my friends because they are not racist and they don’t say stupid things like: “You speak English very well.”
I’m not racist but there are issues that blacks and whites need to work through and, it would be ignorant to act as if racism is not the root cause of many of our problems. Racism in South Africa left most black people running on empty while whites were pumped to full capacity. To then put everyone on the same starting line and tell them to work at rebuilding a broken country is unfair and unrealistic. In fact, I would even go as far as saying that that line of thinking is in itself, racist. To expect sincere unity in South Africa before we have thoroughly and effectively dealt with the issue of socio-economic inequality is rather ambitious. Unfortunately, the government is not well-known for implementing initiatives which decisively address inequality through education, health and agricultural development, and of course, land expropriation. Lately, scandals are more their thing.
When, on 17 June 1991, it was voted that the legal framework which formed the basis of apartheid should be repealed, a civil war was expected and efforts to keep the peace were prioritized. Unfortunately, that vote did away with apartheid laws but not racism. South Africans had no time to breathe and come to terms with the atrocities which had plagued the country for centuries. Black people didn’t have time to absorb what they had been through and work through the anger and inferiority complex while white people were not afforded the chance to reflect and say: “Look at what we did.”
We all had to reconcile and do it quickly; the “Rainbow Nation” had been conceived and everybody was encouraged to be part of it. Nobody dared to halt the process and take time out to gather themselves. One minute we were killing each other and the next we had to live together in harmony. It’s a big ask. It happened too quickly. It had all the characteristics of a Hollywood whirlwind romance and the cracks which keep showing had to have been expected.
The very notion of Africans who do not own land in Africa is cause for great concern, especially when those Africans maintain, farm and mine that land. When black people mention the words ‘land expropriation’, they are labelled as ‘troublemakers’ or worse, ‘racists’ even though the Freedom Charter, born in 1955 after consultations with Blacks, Indians, Coloureds and sympathetic white people, states: “We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know…that our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality… The land shall be shared among those who work it!” The mere mention of the words ‘land expropriation’ creates a barrier between those who have and those who don’t have and as apartheid would have it; those who don’t have just so happen to be black.
I do not go out looking for white friends so that I can validate the fact that I’m not racist. I’m not racist and that’s that. However, racism still exists in South Africa. I think it sits in front of our faces and by keeping quiet; we leave it to fester into explosive situations. We wait until there is a high profile criminal case or headline-making scandal and then we draw out the race cards, unleashing a destructive wave of underlying issues which were previously ignored and not dealt with for fear that raising them will result in being labelled ‘racist’.
A nice balanced article should probably include several practical suggestions as to how we can do away with racism in our country. I don’t have that information. Madiba figured: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” I have no suggestions about how we can cultivate a love that transcends race except for us to learn to understand each other, make sense of our reactions and why things are the way they are. As different races, we should look within ourselves, become familiar with our own history and appreciate the role that our races, communities and families played in getting us to where we are now.
This type of introspection is a personal journey that one must want to embark on when one is prepared to confront the truths of the past. It is up to individuals to become aware of how far this beautiful country has come and how far it still has to go before the dreams of Mandela, Sisulu, Biko and Slovo are realised. Having appreciated that, only then can people start making the changes that are necessary for our society to be truly non-racial. An awareness of the country and a genuine desire to be part of the solution is the best way to bring about real change.