How racist are we in 2014?

2014-01-31 00:00

HOW racist are we still in 2014? More or less than in 1994? How does racism manifest in our daily lives? Do we think and talk about it enough? Do we ever think of the damage that decades of racism has done to us and others? About the scars it has left?

Sometimes I don’t think so. Like last week, when a man telephoned Beeld and asked to speak to a journalist about corruption allegations.

A coloured secretary answered the phone. Could she help him?

No, said the (white, Afrikaans) man. He refuses to speak to a “coloured”.

Shortly afterwards, the man’s wife (white, Afrikaans) telephoned the Pretoria office.

The call was put through to Virginia Keppler, Beeld’s news editor in Pretoria. Keppler is a veteran journalist who cut her teeth during the wild days of unrest, hit squads and assassinations. First for Vrye Weekblad , then at Beeld.

Keppler is also coloured.

Can she help, Keppler asked the woman.

Yes. Twice more: “I want to speak to Virginia Keppler. Are you Virginia? (In this woman’s world, Keppler’s name and surname are the preserve of white people.)

Two more times, and then: “I don’t speak to a coloured maid.” The woman put the phone down.

I was shocked when Keppler told me this story.

“This is the second time, but I believe it is just a few people who stayed behind after 1994. This old heart is strong.”

It seems racism is okay for those who phone in, but corruption is not.

I immediately asked Beeld’s two coloured secretaries how often they receive racist telephone calls.

“Almost daily,” said one. She has a young heart.

Her Afrikaans is almost perfect. She got a glint in her eye. “Sometimes I laugh when an auntie gets through to me and says: ‘Oh, I’m so pleased to speak to a white woman’.”

We laughed a little together, but I can see how deep the hurt goes. Do these men and women realise what they are doing?

I became angry.

How dare they take out their disgusting racism on intelligent, young people who are trying to find their places in this complex, beautiful country of ours?

I am shocked, almost daily, as I read through the SMSes and online comments that get sent to Beeld, by the blatant and stupid racist utterances people still make.

This week, in an unpublished letter, someone referred to “overfed blacks”. People must carry a lot of hate and bitterness around to write something like that. Under their own name.

I, however, cling to Keppler’s words: it’s just a few people who stayed behind. This is also my experience — most Afrikaners have moved on, have realised what a great travesty apartheid was now that they are doing their part to make South Africa a world-class country.

On Saturday, I read a first-rate article by Pieter du Toit, Beeld’s news editor in Johannesburg. Du Toit is in his 30s, but clearly remembers the years of indoctrination. While he was on holiday, he came across his Standard 2 geography book. “The whites are the most important type of people in the world. They see to all the safety in South Africa. Whites are essential for most countries.”

And I wonder: was this perhaps apartheid’s ugliest legacy for white people?

That so many think they are “the most important type of people in the world”? Does this give them the right to telephone a newspaper and insist on talking to a “white woman”?

And if a “coloured maid” answers, to put the phone down in her ear?

• Adriaan Basson is the editor of Beeld.

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