Beware of the bigots

2009-09-11 00:00

IN 1953, Hendrik Verwoerd categorised all blacks as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” and created a demeaning stereotype whose legacy still haunts us today. In 2002, in his song Ama­Ndiya, Mbongeni Ngema labelled all Indians as exploitative money-grubbers who are responsible for the impoverishment of blacks, and in so doing incited racial violence­. And last month at O. R. Tambo Airport, Julius Malema­ blamed all whites for orchestrating­ the probe into athle­tics phenomenon Caster Semen­ya’s sexuality, and for demeaning African womanhood, thus adding yet another stereotypical insult of the kind that over the years has helped to drive South Africa’s various communities apart.

If one broadens the scope of stereotyping, without too much exaggeration­ there are other examples. In the thirties and fourties, Nazi propagandists collectively demonised the Jews and so facilitated the Holocaust. Similarly, in 1994, Rwandan radio stations and newspapers collectively vilified the Tutsis, and so sowed the seeds of genocide. And, more recently, with his relentless anti-white invective, Robert Mugabe has effectively engineered a racial cleansing, destroying the lives of thousands of Zimbabwean farmers and their dependants, and precipitating the collapse of his country’s economy.

Whatever else these instigators have in common, they are all at the very least bigots — that is, individuals who are brazenly intolerant, especially in matters of politics, race and religion. While it goes without saying that every grouping, whether ethnic or nat­ional or familial, is comprised of a wide variety of individuals with different characters and codes of conduct, the bigot prefers, for unscrupulous personal or political reasons, to lump everybody into one group so that they can be most easily vilified.

Something else that makes such statements so inflammatory in a society like South Africa’s is what Yale academic and author Amy Chan highlights in her book World on Fire, namely that democracy and a free-market economy can actually increase the tension bet­ween ethnic groups. Chan warns that because some countries have market-dominant minorities — in other words, “ethnic minorities who, for widely varying reasons, tend under market conditions to dominate economically, often to a startling extent, the ‘indigenous’ majorities around them” — there is great potential for impoverished indigenous majorities to feel intense animosity towards those conspicuously different minorities who enjoy disproportionate wealth and influence.

Chan points out that although Bill Gates is a multi-billionaire, Americans do not feel cheated or exploited by him. However, in countries with market-dominant minorities where — because of their origins, skin colour, religion, language, or what Chan refers to as ‘blood ties’ — the wealthy members of minorities stick out among the impoverished masses around them, they are resented as exploitative outsiders.

Such groups exist in fractured societies worldwide — such as the Tamils in Sri Lanka and Fiji, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, and the people of European descent in South America. In South Africa and Zimbabwe it is primarily whites, and secondly Indians, who fall into this category.

In an attempt to avoid this dangerously stark polarity, the South African Constitution enshrines the dignity of everyone and prohibits hate speech. Also, corrective measures, although in themselves discriminatory, have been enforced in an attempt to blur the disparities and to bring about a more balanced society. But when there is no official rebuttal of bigotry, it is insidiously endorsed and legitimised. Emboldened by the silence, the bigots take heart and their destructive generalisations become ever louder as they seek endorsement from the demeaned and dispossessed who have a brooding sense of grievance.

With its deep fault lines, South African society is particularly vulnerable to bigotry, but what has always saved us is the rejection of such stereotyping by men and women with an innate sense of what is fair and just. When apartheid was in full cry, some individuals, to whom the colour of their skin had accorded special privileges, chose to defy the system and to embrace a broader humanity. And when apartheid eventually collapsed, other individuals, to whom liberation could have accorded­ a chauvinist triumphalism, chose too to embrace a broader humanity.

Several weeks ago, when the Semenya­ case was being discussed on a radio talk show, and the participants were adopting their predictable racial standpoints, a particular caller epitomised for me this kind of broad South Africanism. Introducing himself as a black professional, he said that he took strong exception to Malema’s racial stereotyping. Just as he hated it when he was tailed by a security guard whenever he entered a department store, because of the assumption held by some people that all blacks steal, so he rejected the stereotype that whites collectively should be blamed for insulting Semenya.

If we are to succeed as a country, it is in individuals like him that all our futures should be invested.

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