Time to reflect

2016-01-28 06:00

DEMOCRATIC Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane has taken an important step to help the country progress from mud-slinging to open and constructive discourse on racism.

It was not an easy move to confront such a highly charged issue and risk angering people further, including those in his own party.

Maimane delivered a public address on race and identity at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg recently, and announced a series of measures to combat racism and speed up transformation in his party.

This was a necessary move as the DA had been caught out badly with its member of Parliament Dianne Kohler Barnard and Penny Sparrow, a party member, embroiled in messy controversies over their racist Facebook posts.

In a non-confrontational way, Maimane was able to show some ways that people are racist without realising it.

“I know that there are people who talk to each other around the braai as if they were still living in the seventies. And we all know somebody who is fond of starting a sentence with ‘I’m not a racist, but …’.”

He said for every incident of overt racism, there are thousands of instances of casual, everyday racism.

This includes talking down to people, laughing when people pronounce an English word incorrectly, not bothering to acknowledge people and believing somebody’s accent is a sign of their intelligence.

It might seem trivial but it is very necessary to identify what constitutes racism.

Perhaps South Africa needs a how-to guide on identifying racism and prejudice so we stop living in denial or oblivion about their prevalence in society.

Pondering over whether racism exists, whether it deserves to be a national priority and what should take precedence over the outrage, is pointless.

Until you think about it and make a conscious effort to confront it, everyday racism goes unchallenged.

While at the beach in Cape Town over the holidays, I asked a white woman if my mother could sit next to her on a public bench.

She said no. I did not question the reason and accepted there was probably a good explanation for why she said no.

As we walked away to look for another bench, her husband standing nearby said to my mother: “If you cooked us some food, you could sit here.”

He thought this was hilarious while we stared at them dumbfounded. We were left speechless and only afterwards did I berate myself for not pointing out the obvious racial stereotyping.

It would be ridiculous for my mother to be cooking on a pristine beach but that was the only role and value he saw in an elderly Indian woman.

Many of us recoil from confronting racism and racial stereotyping because we do not want to make a scene or believe it is not worth the trouble.

This is what perpetuates racism.

That man from the beach will probably continue to go around typecasting people on the basis of their race without being told that his behaviour is offensive.

It is these little, seemingly harmless incidents that build up black people’s frustration and breed resentment in our society.

Maimane has called on his members not to turn a blind eye to racism, no matter how subtle or coded. “We need to call people out on their behaviour, even when confronting them makes us feel uncomfortable. We have a duty to stand up and speak out for our values,” he said.

This is a challenge for us all. We cannot wish racism away and yearn for a just society with social stability when we are unwilling to correct our own behaviour and challenge racist attitudes when we come across them.

Maimane says he is initiating a series of public dialogues on race and perhaps these will create greater reflection in society of our attitudes and behaviour patterns.

This will not be an easy process and will put many people on the defensive. But the national conversation is sorely needed.

• Ranjeni Munusamy is a political journalist and commentator for the Daily Maverick. ranjeni.munusamy@gmail.com

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