Max du Preez

We need to talk about South Africa’s everyday racism

2016-05-10 07:59

Max du Preez

South Africa is undoubtedly one of the most open societies in the world, and that is the basis of our democracy and stability. But, as we found out during the last week, it also means that we sometimes have to take a deep breath and slowly count to 10, because the interaction between citizens can become very robust.

A #RhodesMustFall activist and postgraduate student, Ntokozo Qwabe, tells a white waitress, Ashleigh Schultz, that she’ll only get a tip after whites had given blacks their land back.

White people react angrily and raise more than R100 000 for her. Black people react angrily to that and call it typical of “white tears”.

A man called Matthew Theunissen uses the k-word because he’s angry at the sports minister for punishing some sports that hadn’t reached their race quotas. Many black people demand that racism be criminalised and people like Theunissen sent straight to jail.

A high court judge, Mabel Jansen, makes what appear to be shocking generalisations about black culture. We told you so, say many black voices amid cries for her immediate resignation.

Everyday controversies

All these dramas played out on social media. But rather than blaming the toxic online disinhibition effect of social media, we should acknowledge that these controversies are simply examples of what happens every day in our society.

When the drama around one Penny Sparrow, who compared black people to monkeys, broke a few months ago, I wondered whether there was any value in making a big story out of one unknown private individual’s racism. The same question came up in the Theunissen case. Neither is a politician or a celebrity.

I don’t wonder any longer. I think there is value in highlighting such incidents so that our society can debate them. The Sparrows, Qwabes and Theunissens represent attitudes not uncommon in our country.

The challenge to decent, rational people is to resist the temptation to simply choose sides on the basis of race and ethnicity or to let anger cloud their ability to analyse and understand. We should rather sit back, think about the utterances and the reactions to them and try to make sense of what that says about our society. And then we can express outrage if we feel we should.

Let’s take the Qwabe case as example. I was deeply annoyed when I read his mean and arrogant statements on Facebook. He is a privileged intellectual studying at Oxford, and Schultz is a struggling working class person. He is a man and she is a woman. In the situation at the café Qwabe had all the power.

Give the fool a farm in the Kalahari, I thought, so he could find out what it’s like to work hard, struggle every day and pray for rain that doesn’t come.

Injustices of the past

But then I read some of the black responses to the incident. And I realised that in at least some ways Qwabe represents a meaningful group of black people, mostly young, who want to assert themselves in what they see as a white-dominated world. They are sick of what they experience as white arrogance and privilege. They perhaps even feel the need to offend white society and not apologise.

Qwabe doesn’t really want a farm. He would have been able to get one through the process of land reform if he really wanted to be a commercial farmer and studied agriculture instead of law.

And unless he is economically illiterate, he also doesn’t want all land to be “given back to blacks”. My guess is that he was talking about the symbolism of land, of the injustices of the past and the present.

It is worth noting that a large number of black people have publicly criticised Qwabe’s crude outburst and bully behaviour - including his own father.

The white people who gave money to the Schultz fund probably reacted mostly to the nasty victimisation of a young woman with little power, but probably also because he had accused the entire white population. Most of those who had contributed small amounts, probably didn’t expect that the money raised would exceed R100 000.

But a lot of black people (and some whites) believed that this fundraising was banal and that the white contributors simply wanted to say: you may have the political power, but we still have the financial muscle, so there. I suspect this is true of at least some of the contributors.

Racist and unbecoming

I wonder what would have happened if a white male bully had refused to give a powerless black waitress a tip and made a similar political remark as Qwabe had. I would like to think, but I’m not so sure, that she would also have been the recipient of a huge fundraiser and that many whites would have contributed if the incident also featured in the media.

When it comes to judge Jansen, all I can say is that the words attributed to her appear shockingly racist and unbecoming of a decent human being, let alone a judge. Racial stereotyping, if that is what she’s guilty of, is one of the surest signs of prejudice.

(One has to wonder, though, why the person she was corresponding with, one Gillian Schutte, waited an entire year before she released parts of their exchange. If she thought 12 months ago that Jansen “animalised” black people, as she said on television yesterday, why did she not go public then, instead letting Jansen continue to be a judge for all that time?)

Judge Jansen’s only honourable way out, if her explanations are not generally accepted and if she really cherishes the standing of the judiciary in society, is to resign and not to wait for a lengthy process in the judicial service commission.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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Read more on:    mabel jansen  |  ntokozo qwabe  |  matthew theunissen
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