Race doesn’t tell the whole story

2013-09-23 10:00

It’s time to discard race as a yardstick to measure social cohesion and nation-building, writes Sandile Memela

Nearly 20 years later, we confine national discourse on social cohesion and nation-building in South Africa to measuring race relations and how many people see a happy future for all races.

This was revealed in the Development Indicators released by Collins Chabane, the minister in the presidency for performance monitoring and evaluation, at the Wanderers Country Club in Johannesburg recently.

At 39%, people who see a decline in race relations give a bleak picture of the state of race relations. But we have 58% who see a happy future for all races.

It is time that we not only reconsidered this barometer, but begin to be seen to discard race as a yardstick to measure social cohesion and nation-building.

Obsession with race not only distorts the picture of the progress made, but perpetuates the myth that race is the crucial criteria to determine human development and progress in South Africa.

Also, it reveals preoccupation with the status and position of whites, for instance, as a group.

Blacks will always be measured by how they are doing against whites.

Why? Significantly, only 4.1% of people describe themselves by their language or tribe, while a mere 8.8% use race as a self-descriptor. Contrast this to 52% who identify themselves as South Africans first, while 88% are proud to be South African citizens.

No doubt that, increasingly, South Africans do not see race, language and tribe as an important criterion for self-identity.

They are well on their way towards a nonracial society. Human relations must be measured by how good or bad you are and not the colour of your skin.

After all, 87% of South Africans define themselves as proud citizens with a hopeful future for all races compared with only 13% who continue to make a big deal of race, language and/or ethnic-group identity.

Increasingly, people are opting to be agents of the South Africa that belongs to all who live in it, where there will be no whites or blacks.

The resolutions of the 2012 National Social Cohesion Summit in Kliptown, Soweto, committed 2?300 delegates from all races and backgrounds to mobilise all society to work together to build a caring and proud society.

This can only happen when individuals, organisations and communities emphasise and promote their South African identity where people are judged by the content of their character and not race or language.

Social cohesion is not just concerned about race relations between blacks and whites, but also delves into other relevant prejudicial and discrimination matters that include sexism, ethnicity, class and above all xenophobia.

It would be incorrect to presume that all is well within the black community, for instance, when it has splintered into different interest groups.

In fact, skin colour has increasingly become irrelevant as a rallying point for group identity.

Also, it does not help to attribute or even link pessimism on race relations to global financial and economic crises.

We cannot relieve our consciences by blaming external factors for how we treat fellow citizens.

The problem here is that many people are reluctant to take responsibility for what happens in this country. Life is what happens while people keep their eyes on bank balances and bonuses instead of promoting positive human relations among all people.

Hence the view that this country is headed for disaster simply because some moneymongers did not make enough profit through investments in foreign banks. It is preoccupation with money, for instance, that has led to unionists taking their eyes off social cohesion.

We have to begin to realise that this obsession with race and the global financial and economic crisis, is not a good excuse for citizens not to be just nice towards each other. For instance, in the African community spirit of ubuntu, life was not about whether you have money or do not have: umuntu ngumuntu?...

It was about better human relations that express ubuntu, that is, giving the human milk of warmth, kindness, acceptance and love to fellow human beings irrespective of their material status or condition.

A person is a person with inherent dignity and respect not because of what they own, but the fact that they are human beings.

It is time that we looked at the man and woman in the mirror and asked ourselves: What have I done through my behaviour and attitude to fellow human beings to help build social cohesion in the country?

We need to come up with measurements that will shape us into agents of a nonracial, nonsexist and inclusive society where everyone has a sense of belonging and ownership.

It is a giant leap into the future that we have more people who define themselves as South Africans and are proud of belonging to this nation in the making.

»?Memela is chief director for social cohesion at the department of arts and culture. He writes in his personal capacity

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