Guest Column

Discomforting truths about anger and distress

2019-02-06 09:15

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To suggest that flippant remarks about the deaths of white children reflect black anger and pain profoundly misrepresents the genuine anguish that apartheid and colonial history visited on black people, writes Michael Morris.

Zenoyise John's discomforting polemic, "Hoërskool Driehoek and the origin of black anger", deserves considered attention – though the same cannot be said of the social media posts on which she founds her argument. 

Black anger, as the headline makes clear, is her theme, and it is an unignorable feature of our socio-political landscape. But the inaugural spiteful commentary on Twitter and Facebook approving the Hoërskool Driehoek deaths was much less a paroxysm of rage than a gratuitously careless fit of petulance.

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It is impossible to bring reason to bear on the statements by Facebook user Siyanda Dizzy Gumede and BLF spokesperson Lindsay Maasdorp about the death of the children and come to any conclusion other than that neither counts as anger or even hatred so much as pitiful and impotent provocation at the expense of grieving families. 

Gumede and Maasdorp's sentiments are not a recommendation for their humanity or their grasp of the dignity of their fellow South Africans, black or white, so much as their own overweening desire for attention. And it's difficult to think why they should earn any. 

But this is not the same as dismissing Zenoyise John's self-evidently sincere attempt to grapple with history and its effects. To the extent that her argument depends on regarding social media reactions to the school tragedy as a reflection of black anguish over historical deprivation and humiliation and their lingering effects, it is flawed, in part for the reasons outlined above. 

Ironically, in fact, to suggest that flippant remarks about the deaths of white children reflect black anger and pain profoundly misrepresents and even demeans the genuine anguish and loss that apartheid and its preceding colonial history visited on black people, quite as much as the feeling among many in 2019 that this awful cost is unacknowledged and unaddressed. 

This is one reason why John's piece is discomforting; it seeks to validate a flawed misapprehension. 

Equally, however, her article will have been deservingly discomforting to those South Africans – chiefly, though not solely, white South Africans – who discount, overlook, are unfamiliar with or yawn over the country's history.

There can be no quibbling with her basic proposition: "To this day, blacks are still grappling with the residual effects of apartheid and white people do not dwell within this space of black trauma. It is a measurable reality that white people are not subjected to."

But if this is inescapable, it points to the third – and perhaps most important – reason why John's argument is discomforting; it fails to venture beyond the damaging clichés of race and the stifling threads of identitarian dogma; there are only two strands and they end in an inextricable knot of white guilt and black victimhood.

Real South African life is not, and in fact has never been, that simple or neat. Colonialism, and apartheid after it, failed ultimately because what we are is not reducible to what we look like. Our history is unfinished, but that we find ourselves living in a constitutional democracy reflects at once the remarkable magnanimity of black people as much as the commitment of whites to a country that changed itself not by a miracle but a compact.

The great majority of South Africans, as extensive research over recent years by my colleagues at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has shown, are not in the main unaware, disregarding or selfish; they embrace their indivisible citizenship and are committed to a cooperative future in which they believe South Africa's success will depend on their working together across lines of race and class. Many more South Africans are trying every day to achieve this than the few who may will the country to fail. The outstanding national challenge is not a racial one.

To her credit – quite apart from her courage in using the "safe space" of freedom to speak her mind – John hints in her closing paragraphs at the actuality from which the genuine anger and distress of democratic South Africa arise. 

"The growing frustration with the lack of progress is manifesting in the increasing popularity of the calls for radical change," she writes. "As a result, there is a radical shift in political tone and rhetoric. The logic is fast moving to identity politics. Anger and pain are pushing many to even support seriously blemished and callow leaders."

She goes on: "The ruling party is not making matters any better. They are often hubristic and their greed and obsession with glitter and power are blinding them to the fundamental issues faced by the people who put them in power."

She is right, and the data is bald. Much more has changed for the better than many South Africans appreciate, but, despite intensified race-based empowerment policies over the past quarter of a century, disadvantage and inequality remain pervasive, public schooling is dismally inadequate, unemployment is rising, and economic policy is not merely failing to deliver growth and attract investment, but – in the case of expropriation without compensation, especially – is actively undermining both. 

The Quality of Life Index developed by the Centre for Risk Analysis at the IRR, which benchmarks socio-economic indicators to measure progress, reveals that white South Africans have the highest standard of living, and the best outcomes for matric pass rate, unemployment, expenditure exceeding R10 000 per month, mortgaged houses, waste removal, medical aid coverage and access to basic sanitation. Black people performed worst on all featured indicators.   

These inequalities will persist in the absence of policy making geared to achieving a high economic growth environment. This is a political challenge that ought to concentrate the minds of voters. Race doesn't come into it.

Here, surely, is the "brave conversation" which John regrets "many people including blacks themselves are unprepared and unwilling to have".

- Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    hoerskool driehoek  |  racism  |  apartheid
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