Melanie Verwoerd

Why we cannot stop talking about race

2016-11-30 07:45

Last week I wrote a column in which I condemned the attack by Theo Martins and Willem Oosthuizen near Middelburg, during which they forced Victor Rethabile Mlotshwa into a coffin and threatened to set it alight. They also made a video of the horrible event and put it on YouTube.

As I predicted, following the publication of the column, a large number of hateful comments by white South Africans were directed at me. In fact it got so bad, that after a few hours News24 decided to close the comments section.

I have never lost too much sleep over the things people say about me. I have been in the public eye for more than 20 years and from day one I was threatened, bullied and insulted by particularly Afrikaners for speaking out against injustice and human rights abuses. In the early nineties, after joining the ANC, my then husband and I were put on a hit list by the AWB and we looked death in the eye on a daily basis. Vicious hate calls – even when our two-year-old daughter picked up the phone – were an everyday occurrence. So over decades I not only grew a thick skin, but also became more and more determined to speak out when faced with injustice.

I will never be silenced.

What is clear to me is that many people went on a rant without even reading the column. For example a number of people accused me of not knowing or caring about farm murders – despite the fact that I spent a large section of the column writing about exactly that. I was also told to acknowledge that racism comes from both sides, when I had done just that. So before I write any further let me repeat:  I am deeply aware of the terrible security issues on many farms. Coming from a long line of farmers who had to leave their farms I understand the trauma and pain. Secondly, of course I believe that racism comes from both sides and that we all have a responsibility to fight it on all levels.

However, when many (white) people demanded that I shouldn’t even have brought up the issue of race, I could not agree. With our history and the terrible pain inflicted on our fellow citizens by our ancestors, we absolutely have to have an honest discussion about race amongst ourselves. By “we” I mean all South Africans, but I believe there is an additional responsibility on us as whites and specifically Afrikaners. We need to be able to talk and engage about the things that hurt and make us deeply uncomfortable without wanting to insult, humiliate or kill one another. Reading last week’s comments, I am more convinced than ever that many white people in this country still have no idea of how deep the river of pain flows when it comes to race.

I was deeply shocked to see how many whites and – going by the names – Afrikaners, feel no shame in airing their racist views and implicit justifications for the coffin attacks online – proving exactly what I was writing about and what they were objecting to.

Perhaps from the safety and “anonymity” of sitting behind a computer many feel that these statements do no harm. They might even feel some sense of emotional release. But make no mistake: these statements hurt and they do enormous damage. You only have to read the comments of the black South Africans to get some sense of it. What we, as whites, need to understand is that the wounds of apartheid are still there and they are very raw. Twenty years is not a long time, especially when people still have to deal with both personal and institutional racism every day. So the many comments denying or even justifying racism ‘retraumatise’ those who have had to deal with racism throughout their lives. They also play into every stereotype that black South Africans have about whites and Afrikaners – just like those coffin guys did.

I recently watched the movie “Winnie”. It portrayed the life story of Winnie Mandela and in particular the terrible suffering she went through during her 491 days in solitary confinement as well as her torture by the apartheid police. At the end of the movie, I was yet again left with a sense of wonder, humility and gratitude for the forgiveness displayed by African people and the fact that they did not turn on whites in revenge for the terrible things that were done to them. When I was in Parliament I quickly became aware that almost every ANC MP had experienced terrible suffering under apartheid. Some gave birth to babies in jail, while white male prison officers looked on and laughed at them. Many lost children at the hands of the police and often could not even attend their funerals. And just about all had at some stage experienced emotional and/or physical torture. And yet, they forgave and sought no revenge. Not once, even with the surname I carried, did any one lash out at me. 

Of course this was very much led by Madiba’s example. I loved Madiba and was very privileged to engage with him on many occasions and see some extraordinary gestures of reconciliation. We must forever be thankful for the fact that he ensured a safe and non-violent transition. The problem is that it now appears that many whites during that time just became a bit more politically correct in their conversation and language. A lid was simply put on their racism. Now, two decades on, it seems the lid is coming off. With the president and governing party making serious mistakes, many whites are using these missteps as an excuse to do and say terrible racist things.

Of course the ANC and president should be criticized, but nothing, absolutely nothing can ever be a justification for racist language or deeds.

So, instead of attacking me, or being unwilling to face this issue, we need to start thinking how we can make things better. We need to be able to say: “I am sorry” – for hurt, both individually and also collectively. We need to be kind and gentle in every engagement with one other. We need to learn to listen when others talk about their anger and pain, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us. Most importantly we should be able to stand up when people say racist things – whether it is around the braais, in the locker room or on social media – even if it means losing “friends”.

I believe there are millions of good, decent white people in this country who hate racism and hate being associated with the heinous deeds or words of a small group of whites. But it is time for those people to stand up and make their voices heard, so that the racist, intolerant voices in our society understand that they are not welcome.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA Ambassador to Ireland. 

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.

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