There is a worrying trend in South African politics where the race card has become a tool of convenience rather than a tool of necessity. In the recent fallout between Patricia De Lille and the City of Cape Town, De Lille’s supporters were quick to flash the race card and preach racial martyrdom as a convenient scapegoat for more serious allegations relating to their conduct as public servants. But what truth do these allegations hold, and what damage is inflicted upon South African society at large when we cry wolf with the race card in the face of progress and accountability?
In the greater context, we cannot be blind to pervasive racial injustice which continues to persist in post-apartheid South Africa. Racism is deeply entrenched not as blatant or measurable hatred for another race, but as a system of economic and social benefit which is inherently skewed in favour of whites. This cannot be denied and should be at the forefront of any organisation which seeks to operate or do business in South Africa.
With this in mind, dismantling systemic racism is a process which goes far beyond mere mudslinging and name-calling during a heated exchange. It requires the upliftment and promotion of black excellence in any given field, and the establishment of a system which seeks to merit achievement based on skill and capability rather than the colour of one’s skin. An integral part of this process is sustaining the notion that black South Africans in positions of power are capable and worthy of promotion without having their achievements doubted or questioned by those who flagrantly hold the race card over their heads. When crying racism jumps the gun or is done unnecessarily, it inflicts greater damage on individual black achievement than on the intended victim. This is exactly what happened between the Democratic Alliance, and Patricia De Lille and her supporters.
In a series of tweets and radio interviews, and through their various theatrical resignations from the party, many of De Lille’s supporters cried racism. Beyond flashing the race card, certain individuals referred to black leaders within the party as ‘black puppets’ and ‘window dressing’. Let’s think about the impact of these comments on black leaders who remain within the party and continue to serve it.
Aside from the race card having been pulled rather suspiciously in the wake of a corruption scandal surrounding these detractors, it is ironic that De Lille’s supporters cry racism after having forged their very own careers within the party itself thanks to the DA’s commitment to developing black leaders. Shaun August admitted just last week to having joined the party as De Lille’s bodyguard, having been afforded opportunity within the DA to grow and develop into his eventual position as DA Chief Whip in one of South Africa’s largest metropolitan city councils, where the party holds a majority.
Of the remaining councillors who resigned, many were backbenchers of their former party, the ID, or party secretaries. Merging with the DA afforded them the opportunity to become councillors in the first place. While I do not dispute or dismiss that they may have had some experience of racial tension within the party, something for which the DA provides multiple platforms to address, it is bizarre to see black councillors label the very party that enabled, promoted, and fostered their political careers as racist.
But the real damage of egregiously flashing the race card is inflicted upon those black leaders who remain within the party. Crying wolf with the race card, especially when claims of black puppets and window treatments are made, means killing the notion of black competency and agency. What De Lille and her supporters are essentially saying, is that each and every black leader in the party holds their position for no reason other than the colour of their skin. It says that black individuals cannot think for themselves, that their careers and achievements have absolutely nothing to do with their own work, their own achievements, and the realisation of their own personal goals.
These claims strip South Africa’s collective consciousness of the idea that black people are independent, free-thinking, and on par with their white counterparts on the political stage. Furthermore, it feeds into ANC and EFF narratives of the black sell out – a black person who is not truly black because they happen to subscribe to a different set of values and principles which govern their conduct. Imagine being a black DA mayor, MP, councillor, or activist and have your life’s achievements and passion bulldozed before your very eyes by those who call you a puppet or window dressing out of nothing more than sheer bitterness. If that is not the ultimate form of racism, one which eats at the very core of black consciousness as coined by Steve Biko himself, then I don’t know what is.
Calling the Democratic Alliance a racist organisation is the oldest trick in the book. I expected far more of De Lille and her supporters, but was reminded of the power of populist messaging and the calibre of leaders who make use of it. So overused has the race card become that few still believe or take it seriously. It is merely the fodder of news article comment sections and EFF rallies.
Furthermore, the danger of crying wolf with the race card means that real and tangible forms of racism are neither taken seriously, nor addressed with due diligence and justice. Just as rampant crime has desensitised us to the horrors of rape and murder, so the flagrant use of the race card has desensitised us from real racial oppression to which so many South Africans continue to be subjected.
Racism may still be commonplace, but we do our country no justice by trivialising it for personal gain or to stroke and entertain political egos. False claims of racism have devastating consequences for a South Africa struggling with racial reconciliation, and it continues to undermine black excellence which should flourish in our society and, more importantly, in the workplace. We risk collapsing the entire ethos of black consciousness, and a free and fair South Africa, by using race to cripple and erode the hard-earned achievements on black South Africans in the face of tremendous adversity. While we cannot divert from addressing real and common forms of racial injustice in post-apartheid South Africa, we must also resist apartheid-style race-baiting which only seeks to destroy our achievements, laugh in the face of black consciousness, and ultimately tear our country apart. I hope that De Lille and her supporters will bear this in mind before opening their mouths in future.