Is there racial tension?

2008-03-20 00:00

A great deal has been written about recent deplorable instances of racial antagonism, particularly the acts perpetrated by four students at the University of the Free State. It is right that people should be outraged by these incidents, and right that the media should have highlighted them. I disagree, however, with those who see these events as a further reason for gloom and doom.

No sensible person ever supposed that the coming of democracy and formal equality in 1994 would wipe out overnight the attitudes and feelings, and the counter-attitudes and counter-feelings, that had developed over more than 300 years. In my view South African society has made very considerable progress in 14 years.

One has to remember precisely what the past was. For centuries whites had been brought up to believe that they were superior to people of other races. A small minority of whites resisted this notion, but most went along with it. In the period of high apartheid these views hardened into a dogma that was both political and religious, and all the discriminatory laws were ruthlessly tightened. For whites living in parts of the country dominated by the then National Party and Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), the superiority of white people was almost as axiomatic as the law of gravity. For whites fortunate enough to be less dominated (although the laws were country-wide) the doctrines of apartheid never went so deeply into the soul.

These policies of course produced intense discontent and resentment in many of those whom the policies victimised. Whites were mostly unaware of what their fellow South Africans were thinking and feeling, because apartheid itself drastically curtailed contact across the racial divide, and domestic workers tended often to be either politically timid or simply polite. A fair number of black people left the country to join one or other of the exiled liberation movements, and many more would have liked to do so, but whites knew little about all this because the very words African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress were taboo. It was only with the Black Consciousness movement and the 1976 uprising that it inspired that many whites began to wake up to what was going on.

If one considers this background of sharp conflict — a situation which led many overseas observers to expect a civil war culminating in a bloodbath — one realises that, as far as racial tension is concerned, our society has done pretty well. The incident at the UFS was shameful, but the amount of attention that has been focused on it suggests that it was fairly unusual.

On the whole, I believe, there has been (as I have said) very considerable progress in the last 14 years. Most South Africans of all races and backgrounds manage to co-exist without obvious displays of rancour, and some friendships are beginning to blossom. Clearly among whites the transition to an open-minded set of attitudes has come rather more slowly in those areas previously under the heavy influence of the NP and the DRC. There are indeed disturbing indications that in isolated instances the old prejudices may have been kept alive artificially; this is certainly something that needs to be investigated.

How does one account for the fairly rapid changes of attitude that have taken place among whites? There has been a good deal of good will, and the more educated people were partly prepared for the transition. But there has been another significant factor at work: common sense. In a democratic situation, whites — about 12% of the population — could hardly claim any special rights or privileges.

I have been speaking about whites. What about feelings of racial animosity among those who are not white? Obviously these exist: it would be incredible if they did not. But most Africans succeed in containing and moderating their feelings of residual anger which well up from time to time. Violent crime against whites seems at times to be an indication of racial resentment. There are also other partly related issues, for example the implementation of affirmative action. On the whole, I believe, Africans have been humane and forgiving. This is true too, by and large, of Indians and “coloured” people.

What can be done to push forward the movement towards a fuller understanding and fellow-feeling between people of different racial groups? The answer lies surely in education — education of children and young adults, but of parents too. We need good teachers and role models who will both teach and practise humaneness, generosity, ubuntu. Churches, mosques and temples have a big part to play too, as have all the other structures of civil society.

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