Racist on our stoep

2012-06-05 00:00

ANNOUNCING the planned Nation-Building Summit at the conclusion of a debate on the budget vote for The Presidency on May 31, President Jacob Zuma recalled the fact that 1994 was not the first birth of the South African nation.

However, the hope that a summit will make a decisive move towards national reconciliation is a pipe dream. There can be no reconciliation without repentance and no oneness without the acceptance of differences between one another.

This is because we are to build a non-racial united South Africa out of a living racialised apartheid society, rather than out of its ashes. As F.W. de Klerk’s remarks on CNN recently showed, the apartheid system has not died except in laws and institutions. It has merely gone underground and become a subtle attitude about white supremacy and black inferiority. Apartheid was most successful as an ideology and an attitude. In this sense, apartheid could continue well beyond the dismantling of its physical manifestation in the form of legislation, racialised public service and so forth. It can be detected in bizarre beliefs such as those of the Boeremag trailists or Pieter Mulder on foreignness of Africans in South Africa to more subtle fights to reverse the gains of post-apartheid. Thus, there is a neo-apartheid that continues to live in the form of ingrained attitudes, prejudices and people’s attitude to transformation. It is couched in the language of legal justice, constitutional rights, freedom to trample on others, cultural chauvinism and so forth.

Apartheid represented a century-long process of creating an exclusively white nation on the basis of beliefs about the supremacy of whiteness and the inferiority of the other, what Edward Saïd called “orientalism”. This “thingification” of others, as Aime Césaire would put it, could only have been sustained for a century by votes of the majority of white people and complacency of some black people. Because the psychology of institutionalised racism does not end merely because it has been outlawed, the talk of post-apartheid, like that of post-colonialism, is incorrect. Instead, there is ample evidence now, 18 years later, that apartheid lives in the minds of many and is manifested in racialised patterns of wealth ownership and life chances. We have neo-apartheid.

It is obvious this kind of apartheid could not be destroyed by resistance from some, but by repentance on the part of those who benefit from it. Here lies a major challenge: the extent to which some people in the white population can really reject neo-apartheid in spite of the benefits they receive from it. Some do through selfless efforts, but many pretend there was never a crime committed in their name. This is a major stumbling block to reconciliation, the expectation that the victims should just forget. Worse, there are some who actively poke at unhealed wounds, as in the case of recent statements by De Klerk, Mulder, Helen Zille, several Twitter racism controversies and the Goodman Gallery’s insensitive handling of an art piece that resembled a caricature of Sara Baartman in the 19th century with its curiosity about the barbarity of black people.

Precisely because apartheid was a formal racial system, distinction should be made between occasional racist stereotypes you find among all people and institutionalised racism that still determines life chances and opportunities for citizens in a free South Africa.

But whether a summit where delegates will participate freely will cause perpetrators of neo-apartheid to step forward, repent and commit to building a truly non-racial society is doubtful. It is likely that enlightened citizens across the colour line who have always been dignified, wise and generous will care enough to participate. It is likely they will be those who opposed apartheid in Parliament and outside Parliament. The summit may therefore preach to the converted and be ridiculed by the unrepentant.

Of course, I do not want to suggest that people do not change. It is possible that many white people who supported apartheid have been changed by their experience of living in a free South Africa, Adriaan Vlok-style. Many blacks who were co-opted through homelands and public service into the apartheid system have also.

Yet we need much more dispersed spaces for mature conversations than a summit. We need structured discussions in talk shows, on the pages of newspapers, in bars, schools, hospitals, NGO structures, in shebeens and in the social media. In the process, we should be tolerant even to understand racists themselves for we cannot reconcile without understanding.

As the Hindu doctrine teaches, we must be ready, all of us, to accept diversity and harness it in order to enjoy unity.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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