Mcebo Dlamini: On Mapimpi, racial division and finding ways to move on

Makazole Mapimpi (AFP)
Makazole Mapimpi (AFP)

The Mapimpi incident has become a metaphor for what is the daily reality of most South Africans; a reality of constant exclusion, writes Mcebo Dlamini.

Everything points to the fact that South Africa is a country that continues to have undertones of racism. All arguments that try to counter this fact have proven not to be strong enough.

But I am increasingly persuaded by the idea that racism in South Africa is not only an undertone caused by our brutal history of colonisation and apartheid. Rather, racism is woven into the fabric of our country and has come to represent the very character of South Africa. All attempts to conceal this sad reality of our nation have been unsuccessful. South Africa's is a tale of two countries – racially divided.

The acknowledgement of this truth begs us to think of other ways of dealing with the racial segregation that continues to confront us, despite our endless attempts to evade it. This is more so in the case of black people because it they are the ones who refuse to accept that they are black and occupy a particular position in the world. Accepting their status might assist in formulating proper and sustainable strategies to deal with the prejudice that they experience as a result of their race. White people have long accepted their whiteness, their privilege and the power that they yield, usually at the expense of black people.

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There was a ruckus on social media recently about a video of Springbok rugby player Makazole Mapimpi being turned away from a group of white teammates celebrating together. The scene in the video was the topic of debate with some people saying it was racism and others saying the turning away of Mapimpi was part of a particular culture in the team. A culture where only certain players who start from the bench (the "bomb squad") are allowed to celebrate together. The video was subsequently followed by another video of Makazole himself explaining that people must not interpret the video as racist because it is part of the Boks' tradition.

What is interesting to me about this debate is how racism always requires the one who experiences the racism to qualify why it is racism. That in a country with such a long history of racism and racial segregation we still have to debate amongst each other about which acts qualify as racist and which acts do not. Toni Morrison did warn us that one of the functions of racism is distraction. It always keeps you explaining and attempting to justify why you are legitimate in being offended by certain acts.

This kind of logic therefore becomes the genius of racism: it silences you because you always have to check and question yourself before you speak out against it.

Rugby remains one of the least transformed sports in South Africa. It does not reflect the demographics of the country and although commissions have been set up to look into this, little has changed. The question is, why is this the case?

Is it because there aren't black people who are interested in participating in the sport? Is it because there are not enough structures set up to induct young black people into the sport? Possible, but this explanation seems too convenient. Since pre 1994 the South African Rugby Union has had a complex relationship with racism and it is highly unlikely that the vestiges of racism that existed have completely ceased to exist as coach Rassie Erasmus claims.

The reaction to the Mapimpi issue shows us where we are as the nation. It reveals our anxiety when it comes to issues that have to do with race and integration. If the unity that is claimed to exist really did, why did a large number of South African immediately interpret the incident as an act of racism or one that was inspired by racial prejudice?  

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For me, it is because there are still a number of cases such as this in South Africa where black people are excluded from participating in certain spaces because of the colour of their skin. The Mapimpi incident became a metaphor for what is the daily reality of most South Africans; a reality of constant exclusion.

But let us for a moment assume that the incident happened because of a particular culture that exists in the team and nothing else. In the spirit of team unity and culture why did they not all apologise as a team? Why did the coach not tender an apology as the head of the team?

If the team was charged with racism against Mapimpi, why would you make the person perceived as the victim by the public apologise? Is this not further victimisation?

It is quite clear that South Africa remains divided on its views around race. What is also clear is that we are far from being united and an acceptance of this fact might assist in finding much more sustainable solutions.

- Dlamini is a former SRC president and student activist. He writes in his personal capacity.

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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