Dear IRR, racism is real

2018-03-25 06:22
Mondli Makhanya

Mondli Makhanya

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This might sound a little weird, but we are all allowed a dose of waywardness from time to time: whenever I’m feeling too upbeat and buoyant, I go to the reader comments at the bottom of online stories to bring my mood down a notch.

Believe you me, this is a wonderful happiness suppressant. You emerge from there fuming and disbelieving that there are literate human beings who think like that. Discussions on those forums quickly descend into the gutter as the most abominable statements are made.

What makes it even more disturbing is that the people spewing the bile are not some platteland hillbillies. They are engaged citizens with ready access to technology and who seem to read a lot. They seek knowledge, but consume and interpret it to suit their world-view.

Some of these individuals are people we sit in restaurants and pubs and share raucous laughter with. We sit with them on school-governing bodies and alongside them in church pews. They are normal, intelligent. But they harbour this disease called racism.

We look at prominent racists like Vicki Momberg and the AfriForum crowd and delude ourselves that they are an aberration. The truth is that we are living in a country that pays lip service to the nonracial project. A country that is fast re-racialising and sliding to its bad old ways of mistrust, hatred and disunity.

In this South Africa, a crime against a white person – be it a house invasion or a farm murder – quickly triggers a racial response. We are so racialised that even the listeriosis crisis descended into a racial debate. The reaction of many to the revelations that the contaminated polony came from Tiger Brands’ subsidiary, Enterprise Foods, sparked conspiracy theories about white monopoly capital wanting to wipe out blacks. Listening to some of this talk you would have been forgiven for believing that Wouter Basson had been employed by the food company to poison products that were most likely to land in black consumers’ baskets.

All our debates are laced with racial suspicion, leading them to be unnecessarily polarised. They are riddled with myths, suppositions and disdain for fact. All this makes it impossible to have rational conversations, as evidenced by perspectives on employment, economic empowerment, transformation of sport and the current debate on land reform and land restitution.

That is why it was with surprise that this lowly newspaperman greeted research by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), which showed that racial goodwill is strong among South Africans. Among the key findings of the field study was that the majority of citizens believe that race relations have improved, that the race of the teacher educating their children is irrelevant, that politicians hide behind racism to hide government’s failures and that better education and more jobs will lead to the disappearance of differences between the races.

There are some rather shocking – or rather hard-to-believe – findings: That only 5% of blacks want government to focus on fighting racism and only 1% wanted it to speed up affirmative action.

This lowly newspaperman is not one to question scientific research done by authorities in their fields, but it is hard to believe the finding that 77% of black respondents said they had “never personally experienced racism”. Where did they find these people?

The most important finding was probably that 92% of South Africans believe that “different races need each other for progress” and in order for there to be “full opportunities for all”. Hooray!

All in all, for a country that experiences the incidents that we do and is witness to the racial vitriol that permeates our discourse, this is an uplifting and hopeful study.

Except that the IRR uses the study to reach conclusions that are essentially denialist about racism. It says of its findings that “these are vastly encouraging figures for they indicate that the problem of racism is less acute and less intractable than many commentators seem to assume”. The problem, the institute says, is the “many ideologues in the ruling party and the Economic Freedom Fighters with a vested interest in playing up racial incidents and portraying the repugnant words or conduct of a few as representative of the many”.

In fine denialist mode, the IRR says these ideologues “seek to identify white racism – and the white privilege it supposedly sustains – as the key reason for persistent poverty and inequality within the country”. We are told that it is not “alleged white racism” that is responsible for South Africa’s myriad socioeconomic ills, but the “ANC’s primary emphasis on redistribution”, its transformation policies, a dysfunctional public service and an appalling education system.

While some of the IRR’s assumptions and conclusions have some merit and deserve to be taken seriously, the report carries the odious tone of superiority.

So, to the good people at the IRR: Racism and racial privilege are real. They are not the invention of opportunistic ideologues (who do indeed exist and exploit the grievances of apartheid’s victims). Black people do experience racism – every day. Most people do want better relations – but the formerly privileged need to work a bit harder at it.

South Africa will not achieve a harmonious future if we bury our heads in our behinds and ignore the big monster that lurks in our midst.

Read more on:    irr  |  racism

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