Racism: Colonial culture remains powerful

2008-03-06 00:00

Good may yet come out of the appalling racial situation at the University of the Free State if it shocks white South Africans out of the state of denial and evasion which has enveloped the question of racism or racial prejudice since the breakthrough to democracy in 1994.

The transition to democracy did not mean that racism would disappear, even if the statutory pillars of an evil system had been brought down.

The democratic election marked a beginning on the road to reconciliation, not the end of the road. Wounding and harmful attitudes about race and assumptions of superiority were too deeply embedded in South African society to fade quickly or easily.

It is difficult to discuss this touchy subject. I do so confining myself to racial prejudice in the white community, with which I am better acquainted. This is not to say that whites have a monopoly on prejudice.

Racism is a doctrine which holds that some races are inherently inferior and some inherently superior, a doctrine that in the past has led to large-scale population removals, Nazi extermination camps, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, massacres and other such horrific extremes.

Racial prejudice is not quite the same thing, although it can be a stage in the growth of an out-and-out racist culture.

In our situation the phenomenon of racial prejudice has deep roots in our history — in the slave society of the Cape in the days of the Dutch East India Company, for example, when race and colour coincided with social status.

This initial stratification was reinforced by colonialism. As some social scientists have suggested, the proponents of expanding imperial cultures in different historical eras — whether Roman, or Dutch or British — have invariably seen themselves as superior to the people they were colonising.

Marxian, Freudian and other theories have been advanced to explain this. When you are taking people’s land and freedom away, various rationalisations emerge. The indigenous inhabitants do not know how to utilise the land properly, it is said, or how to exploit its mineral wealth, and so it is up to us to do it for them.

English-speaking white South Africans of my generation grew up in a climate in which certain unspoken paternalist assumptions about race and colour were current.

These assumptions were challenged by outspoken spiritual leaders such as Archbishop Hurley and the Reverend Beyers Naudé but their influence was unfortunately limited, even among their own church members.

The pervasive colonial culture was, and remains, very powerful indeed, particularly when it is not recognised or acknowledged.

And the sad thing is that to some extent this is also true among the generation which produced the four young men of the Free State university, although there have been significant educational forces at work since 1994 to counter racial prejudice, notably television, and some headway has been made.

Which brings us to the key question: what is to be done about it? Or as some might ask, can anything be done about it? Isn’t it part of human nature?

The first step, it seems to me, would be for white South Africans to acknowledge the fact of racial prejudice — and to examine their own deepest attitudes and assumptions. In passing, we might note that preference is not necessarily prejudice.

People often find it more comfortable to be among others who share their cultural background, history and religion. Yet as Archbishop Denis Hurley used to say, in so doing they miss out on the warmth and humanity they would experience on the other side of the colour line.

The second step is to acknowledge that the apartheid policy, however well-intentioned in some intellectual circles, was in practice a cruel and evil system which deprived people of freedom of movement and opportunity in their own country, trampled on human rights and dignity and ultimately resorted to violent repression to maintain a system of white privilege and brutal domination.

True enough, there were heroic whites who made common cause with the oppressed majority and suffered the consequences, but their numbers were not great.

Should we apologise for apartheid, we who at the very least benefitted greatly from our privileged situation under apartheid, even if we were not active participants in the machinery of oppression?

My own feeling is that apologies which do not issue from genuine insight and a profound change of heart are of little value. Without acknowledgement of wrong, apology is pretty meaningless.

White South Africa urgently needs inspired leadership. Perhaps it will be found in the educational and academic establishment, in business, the churches, faith communities and civil society, spearheading a national effort to combat racial prejudice.

Such an endeavour would need to take account of cultural differences and preferences, to be a gradual process and to steer clear of any kind of dogmatism, coercion or compulsion.

You cannot force people to love one another, or even to tolerate one another. But criminal acts should of course be punished with the full force of the law.

A programme of social re-education would not be the work of a day. It would need to be sustained. It would take at least a generation to make a really significant impact.

We should have begun this in 1994, if not sooner. Let us start now before it is too late.

• Gerald Shaw is a former Witness columnist.

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