Max du Preez

We've allowed the cancer of racism to grow

2016-01-12 07:37

Max du Preez

An obscure, retired English-speaking aunty from KwaZulu-Natal last week single-handedly landed all South Africans with pale skins in the dock. The charge: racism. #WhiteSupremacy.

There was an orgy on social media that declared every white citizen fair game; a witch hunt that hurt several bystanders as collateral damage.

But the national hysteria that followed Penny Sparrow’s comparison between black people and monkeys also had a positive side to it.

Victor Dlamini, a Twitter celebrity who tweets mostly about the race issue, tweeted on Sunday: “The licence for racism has been cancelled.” He’s right. Racism will have serious consequences for its perpetrators from now on.

It is 2016, 26 years after FW de Klerk announced the death of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela. How is it possible that we have not limited white racist attitudes, utterances and actions to just a handful of maladjusted individuals in all this time?

I was more shocked by the reaction of many whites to the furore Sparrow’s statements had caused than by her actual statements.

We whites didn’t honour the pact we made

Not only could these people not comprehend why black South Africans felt so deeply outraged by her hurtful statements, they actually tried to say her statements weren’t worse than “black racism”. And then they gave black economic empowerment, affirmative action and farm murders as examples.

Others were more subtle and stated that Sparrow’s statements were insensitive, but that she had the right to make them. Now if we put the shoe on the other foot...

Well, perhaps all of us pale-skinned South Africans do belong in the dock, also those of us who have long rejected all forms of racial prejudice.

We have allowed that the cancer of racism, crude and subtle, to continue to grow in the years after we became a democracy.

We tolerated it in our midst. We allowed ourselves to be intimidated by the racists’ accusations of political correctness and sucking up to the black majority; of being a “bad white” or a “bad Afrikaner” ashamed of his or her heritage.

Here’s the bottom line: we whites didn’t honour the pact we made with the rest of our nation in 1994. We only honoured those parts of our constitution that benefited our interests.

The storm around racism the last two weeks doesn’t only mean the end of the “license” to be racist, perhaps it was also something of a catharsis for many black people to react to racism publicly and loudly for once; in many cases to throw back their white’s insults back into their faces.

As we stand accused in the dock today, we whites should do some serious introspection.

It is an appropriate time for us to stand up and take responsibility, without explanations, ifs and buts.

The events of the last two weeks, theatrical and overly dramatic as some of it may have been, follow on the success of the #WhitePrivilegeMustFall campaign and the student uprisings of late last year. Together they have created a tipping point of sorts – it surely can’t be business as usual in the months ahead. Something will have to shift.

The eradication of racism among their ranks is only the beginning for us white people.

Julius Malema wrote on Sunday: “Why do white people despise blacks? Why is it that they find it easy to look at us with disgust and undermine our humanity?”

Uncomfortable grain of truth

He answers his own question. The explanation lies in the structural organization and material condition of black lives and in white privilege, he says. White people are brought up with the notion that blacks’ role is to work for whites.

Malema’s analysis is perhaps too simplified and generalised, but there is a very uncomfortable grain of truth in what he says.

It is easy for us whites – and not without good cause – to point fingers at an incompetent and often corrupt ANC government as the culprits, but realpolitik demands that we get involved to help change the structure of our society; to advance the “economic liberation” of the black majority.

Those of us that don’t see this as a moral imperative should do it anyway because it is in their own interest.

Having said that, we should all be on our guard against the tyranny of social media and of political opportunism. 

Without giving the racists an inch of manoeuvering room, we should also be vigilant that our freedom to speak and to exchange ideas are not undermined.

The openness of our society since 1994 has been one of our greatest strengths. We dare not undermine it now.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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