Janet Heard

Cool heads must lead the nation

2016-01-25 13:21

Janet Heard

I felt my whiteness as I walked through the crowd. I was outside Chris Hani’s home in Boksburg in 1993 after he had been gunned down by right-wingers. Shattered mourners glared at me suspiciously. As an idealistic young reporter inspired by the nonracial ethos of the United Democratic Front, I felt an unfamiliar unease.

Now, more than 21 years since the birth of the rainbow nation, I have felt the stereotype of my whiteness again. I am aware that, even when I write, I may be judged not as a South African, but as a white person.

It is true that many white people are cocooned from challenging realities. They share the blame for the rise in mistrust and anger among black South Africans. In many families, racial superiority passes down – unchallenged and unchecked – to the next generation.

This is why commentator Justice Malala appealed this week for white people to show empathy. He urged them to acknowledge, once and for all, that “those days under apartheid were worse than you could imagine”.

But it is foolhardy to peddle the notion that Penny Sparrow represents most white people, or that whiteness is still responsible for the country’s current crop of woes.

When I spoke at my old school, Camps Bay High, for Founders Day recently, I choked back tears as I stood before a hall-full class of black and white kids. How different would things have been if this hall looked like that when I wore my green-and-white uniform 30 years ago?

And yet, despite these transformational moments of hope and pride, the vengeful claw of extremism, cynicism, vitriol and finger-pointing has gripped social media.

Amid the wake-up call of recent weeks, we have an opportunity to break free. A starting point would be to stop being defensive and to open up and interact – about our roots, our prejudices, our differences. Let’s talk about our whiteness and our blackness.

Parliament has a role to play. Why not encourage honest dialogue in a mini Truth and Reconciliation Commission moment? MPs who have crossed the line with inflammatory racial hatred should be accountable to the public. Dianne Kohler Barnard should answer – in an open forum – for her Facebook blunder hankering after apartheid.

It is not good enough for the DA or a parliamentary ethics committee to deal with the matter behind closed doors. The same goes for ANC MP Bongani Mkongi, who called for people to be burnt to death in retaliation for the erection of a billboard in Cape Town pronouncing that President Jacob Zuma must fall.

To cool hot heads, and the air, we need leadership. We need another Nelson Mandela, who called for calm after Hani’s assassination.

Instead of a race war, Mandela led a broken nation into a new order filled with hope, goodwill and possibility, idealistic as it may seem right now.

* Heard is Media24 parliamentary editor. Follow her on Twitter.

News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    racism  |  leadership

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