Melanie Verwoerd

Why we can't let politicians use the race card

2016-07-13 08:02

Melanie Verwoerd

Violent protests erupted yet again in  the United States last week after the police shot and killed two seemingly innocent African-American men. This time the protests took a particularly ugly turn when a young African-American man, trained in the US army, killed five members of the Dallas police force. According to reports, he said he wanted to kill white police men and women in revenge for their killing of African-Americans.

In both instances the fact that the victims had guns seemed to have played a role in the police action. Many argue that, with more and more people carrying guns both legally and illegally in America, the police are nervous and possibly trigger happy. So it is not surprising that the whole issue of gun ownership in the US is under the spotlight again.

However, it is worth noting that even though it is often presumed that the American police are quicker than most to use lethal force, South African police in fact kill proportionally many more people than their American counterparts. According to University of Cape Town criminology researcher, Andrew Faull, the SAPS killed 423 people in 2014/2015, or about eight people in every million, compared with some 3.5 per million in the US.

There are suggestions in the US that last week’s events may turn out to be a tipping point, and that the US Congress may at last agree to pass some changes in  the country's gun-ownership laws. Let’s hope so.

A huge problem in the US

However, the other major issue at the heart of the protests and violence cannot be solved through legislation. The events in Texas show, yet again, what a failure the American "melting pot" has been. Racism, both real and perceived, continues to be a a huge problem in the US, something I have seen and experienced personally.

In the mid-90s, I was part of a parliamentary delegation that visited the US to study local and federal government systems. This was in response to an invitation to Parliament by the Black Caucus in America. The invitation was explicitly to those parties which had not previously been in government. The ANC, in its post-1994 mode, made sure the delegation was representative both in terms of race and gender. I was the only white person in the delegation, which was obviously of no significance to me or the rest of the group, until we arrived in the US. It then became immediately evident that our host's invitation was intended for black MPs only. They were deeply uncomfortable with my presence and I was treated with disdain. It eventually became so bad, that my colleagues threatened to return home if things did not improve.

Apart from the fact that it was a very good, albeit unpleasant, learning experience for me to be on the receiving end of racism, it also showed up the fault lines in American society, particularly around race.

There was an undisguised "us-vs-them" way of thinking, and mobilisation was very much founded on an anti-white approach. On the white side, racism was prevalent and overt. That was 21 years ago, but things seem to have become worse. According to a poll by CNN and the Kaiser Family Trust last year, almost half of Americans felt that racism was a big problem. This was much higher than even around the time of the OJ Simpson trial in 1995. Almost 60% of black Americans said they had experienced some form of racism, from personal interaction to discrimination at work, compared with about a third of white and Hispanic Americans. More than 50% of black Americans said they had been treated badly in a public space in the previous month, compared with 15% of whites.

A warning to us

At the end of that 1995 trip we agreed that South Africa was far ahead of the US when it came to an understanding and implementation of racial diversity. Our concept of a rainbow nation exceeded anything we had seen in America and we patted ourselves on the back.

However, what is happening in the US today should be a warning to us in this country. Bad race relations don't self-correct, nor do people naturally move to a position of diversity. People tend to stay with what is familiar and similar, and shy away from otherness. In America, 60% of whites say that either all or almost all their work colleagues are white, and 70% acknowledge that their social circle is all white. I would guess the statistic would be similar if not higher in South Africa.

The world is also moving increasingly to the right politically, because of fear of "the other" – be they refugees or economic migrants. Right-wing politics in turn causes greater polarisation, which again leads to more racism, none of which bodes well for racial and cultural integration globally.

South Africa has been the poster child for the world when it came to racial integration. The problem is that since 1994 we seem to have taken things for granted. Roelf Meyer, who, together with Cyril Ramaphosa, played a key role in the peaceful transition, recently said we had let ourselves down by not focussing enough on dialogue between people. In the Madiba euphoria of early post-1994, we mistakenly thought things would just happen by themselves. They don't, and so today there are increasingly pockets of extreme racism and, of course, a deeply entrenched systemic racism.

Race a cheap card to play

With less than three weeks to go to the local government election, there is also a real danger that politicians from all parties will be tempted to use the race card to mobilise votes. Race is a cheap and easy card to play. It transfers blame for bad performance to historic legacies, it creates fear and/or anger and thus mobilises the apathetic vote. Politicians use it in Trump-style in the US, in Farage-style in the UK, and Le Pen-style in France.

South Africa is no exception. But it is vitally important that we, as citizens, do not tolerate it. When politicians start playing the race card, we should hold them accountable immediately. We should report them and insist that they get punished, like Penny Sparrow and others. Because once you lift the racial lid off fully in this country, it will be impossible to put it back again.

We must insist that our leaders don't mess with our fragile social fabric. Instead they should show true leadership and lead our nation to better integration, so that we don't end up like America, deeply divided hundreds of years from now.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and member of the Broadcasting and Communications Portfolio Committee. 

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