Racist incidents spark soul-searching among South Africans

2008-03-08 00:00

The wave of racist incidents across the country has led to many asking: what can we — you and I, the community and institutions that serve the community.

First there was the case of the young white man in Swartruggens who opened fire on residents of the Skielik township. That was followed by a coloured man from Mitchells Plain in the Cape being forbidden entry to his own house by the Khayelitsha community.

Two weeks ago the Black Journalists Forum refused their white colleagues entry to an information session addressed by ANC leader Jacob Zuma.

But the most explosive incident of racial tension has been the release of a video in which University of the Free State (UFS) students are seen “initiating” black cleaners. Included in the “rites” was that the cleaners had to consume a brew in which one of the students had apparently urinated.

According to Dr Fanie du Toit of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), it is only logical, given our history, that the potential for racism still exists in our society and that it will surface at times.

One positive consequence of such moments, as exemplified by the UFS incident, is that racism is exposed for the unworkable and petty ideology that it actually is.

He believes certain forms of racism are cropping up again because South Africans are sensing that the political middle ground is unstable, as reflected, for example, in the ANC leadership struggle.

When people feel insecure, competing groups in society often turn on one another.

The IJR recently released data indicating that democratic institutions such as Parliament and some government institutions no longer inspire much confidence.

“If that is the case, the danger always exists that racial tension can increase if we feel that the institutional ‘glue’ that holds us together is likely to come under threat.

“Racial tension is not necessarily the same as racism. There is a deeper and more dangerous dimension of racism in South Africa that was part of our thought pattern for years.”

Du Toit says that while many whites and blacks have moved on from their apartheid thought patterns, many have not. He concedes that it is distressing that young people are involved in most of the incidents of racial tension.

“It is distressing, but not surprising. I would like to know to what extent children are prepared for living in a non-racial society.

“If a genuine acceptance of all people is not fostered in the home, there will be problems.

“If such education is absent at home, teachers have very little chance of making an impact.”

Du Toit says one possible way of improving race relations is to set universities up as “culturally neutral areas” where students aren’t subjected to a prevailing culture, but are encouraged to get to know the cultures of others.

“Universities should build the middle ground so that people can understand and work with one another. The same should happen in schools. Teachers must realise the urgency of the situation and expose different race groups to one another.

“Parents should also play their part. Parents should always emphasise that there are good and bad people on both sides of the line. That would be a big step forward already.”

Du Toit believes there is hope. “A lot of people who may previously have been racist have definitely moved on. In a time of uncertainty, such as we are currently experiencing, elements emerge that we would rather have left behind. The hope lies with the majority of South Africans who deplore these incidents.

“Hope also lies with the new generation of parents who insist that there children are raised non-racially. The key to our future lies in our education.”

Hannah Botsis, political researcher at the South African Institute for Race Relations, has described the UFS incident as unfortunate, but praised society at large for speaking out against it. “Society must speak out clearly against such conduct. There can no longer be a culture where we defend it.”

Botsis says there was a time when South Africans believed that racial tension could be easily overcome.

“However, since the introduction of legislation that focuses on race, that has changed. The consequences of this legislation were not tackled in a way that encouraged dialogue. We have begun to get used to not encouraging dialogue about these problems.”

Botsis says for a long period, while everyone was caught up in the euphoria of the “rainbow nation”, racial tension didn’t surface at all. Then, in due course, it was discovered that there were issues that had not received any attention.

“We focused on forgiveness in order to overcome apartheid in a structural way, but we did not fully focus on how to handle integration in our communites and schools.

“If you’re emerging from a society characterised by serious disintegration, then integration isn’t just going to happen — especially not if it is coupled with race-based legislation applicable to education, sport and the workplace. South Africans aren’t equipped to handle day-to-day racial issues.”

Botsis says South Africans should be taught how to create a non-racial society. She suggests that schools should ask the children straight out what their parents teach them.

“We have to look at how the necessity of having to understand one another can be incorporated into the curriculum.

“We mustn’t demonise people, but encourage them to act concretely and positively.”

She also believes that if people’s living conditions and access to job creation are improved they would not be so divided as far as equality is concerned. “Much of our hope of achieving non-racialism lies with the younger generation.”

All these incidents have already led to various complaints being submitted to the South African Human Rights Commission.

Deputy chairman Dr Zonke Majodina says racism is present over a broad spectrum of society.

“It is in institutions for higher education, in our schools, we see it in the media, such as in the case of the Forum for Black Journalists, we see it in the private sector.

“We see it in small companies, on farms, in hospitals, in the tourism industry and in the judiciary. It’s everywhere.

“It is cause for great concern. Our democracy is challenged by this type of racist behaviour.”

She says one should not forget that it is part of South Africa’s heritage and inequality in communities.

“However hard we may try to transform everything through legislation, that’s not the only way.

“Take the U.S.A. as an example: 50 years after the civil rights movement there are still incidents of racism.

“It’s deeply rooted in us, in social structures as well as in people’s attitudes.

“How else does one explain a 17-year-old opening fire on a group of black people, apparently purely because of their colour? He was a baby at the time of our transition to democracy. One would have expected him to have grown up differently, but it looks as if it made no impact on him.”

Majodina believes the country has understimated the impact of the deepseated evil of the apartheid way of life and policies on South Africans. South Africans mustn’t lose hope, but something tangible has to be done, otherwise such incidents will undermine democracy.

She believes discussion can play an important part. “Dialogue is so important. It has to happen across all racial divides. We mustn’t sweep incidents like these under the carpet and hope they’ll disappear.”

Majodina urges parents to take greater responsibility in their children’s lives in this regard.

“The foundations are laid in the first seven years of a child’s life. Families should be an example to others.”

Prof Steven Friedman of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa believes the issues can’t all be looked at in the same way.

At the same time there are very clear forms of racist white prejudices.

“It can be seen in people’s views of Jacob Zuma, particularly as far as his machine gun songs and traditional outfits are concerned.

“Whites, and perhaps other minority groups, like brown people and Indians, are probably thinking deep down that countries ruled by black majorities don’t work all that well, and that if they do, it’s only for a short while.”

Friedman says race has always played a part in South Africa.

“The idea that all issues were going to be resolved overnight was just not feasible. Nor will they all disappear with the next generation. After all, the previous generation got their ideas from their parents.”

Friedman says it is likely to take a few decades to overcome the race problem.

“That doesn’t mean we should just sit back and do nothing, but realistically speaking we should give it more time. You can’t erase 300 years of racism in 14 years.”

Friedman agrees with the other commentators that dialogue and community programmes are important to fight and prevent racial tension.

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