Tackling the resilience of racism in 2019

Photo: voelgoed.co.za

We have to acknowledge that we have normalised ongoing privilege for the minority acquired at the expense of the majority of our society, writes Mamphela Ramphele.

2019 started with a stark reminder of the unfinished agenda of understanding and tackling racism that has scarred us as a nation and impedes our ability to build the unity in diversity we proclaim ourselves to become.

The Schweizer-Reneke school saga was captured in an image of a small group of black children sitting together apart from the majority white children on their first day of school. Reactions to the image were split along predictable fault lines. 

READ: 3 lessons from that Schweizer-Reneke photo

Decision makers responsible for both this separation and the capture of the image, disclaimed any intent to hurt or humiliate the children. They said it was all in "the interest of helping the children to fit into the school milieu" where the language of instruction is Afrikaans. 

The education department officials cried foul and acted swiftly to suspend "the offending teacher" who took and circulated the photo. But what have they done over the last 25 years of post-apartheid education to uproot racist practices embedded in our systems?

The most damaging structural inequity in our education system is the virtual privatisation of public schools formerly reserved for white people through the policy of creating so-called Model C schools. These schools are governed by school governing bodies (SGBs) that have the final say of the institutional cultures of these schools: language of instruction and the appointment of teachers.

Whilst SGBs were theoretically meant to create space for parental involvement in the governance of schools, apartheid spatial geography that has left white people living near the best schools, has had the unintended consequence of perpetuating apartheid education. White people continue to enjoy the best facilities whilst black people have to beg for access at the expense of their dignity.  

The Schweizer-Reneke scenario plays out in multiple variations all over the country, especially in small towns and farm schools. The issue is not who is the offending racist responsible for this discomforting scene. The issue we are averting our eyes from is that we have failed as a nation to tackle the reality of the resilience of systemic racism in our society, including the education system.  All of us: black and white, have been shaped by racism in our homes, communities, education system, work places and wider society.  

I would highly recommend a blog by Lovelyn Nwadeyi, a young and vibrant Nigerian-South African woman who hails from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape. She is an established socio-economic and political voice in the land and is particularly outspoken on matters of social justice. 

She argues persuasively that as a society we display a dangerous level of racist illiteracy: "When we understand racism, we understand that it is systemic and denotes a set of power dynamics that are in place to actively oppress and continue the oppression of certain groups, in favour of upholding and protecting a racial hierarchy that maintains the supremacy of the white race. Without this critical element of institutional power – the superstructure that upholds, maintains and nourishes white supremacy – whiteness loses its currency. This is why actively challenging the normalisation and universalism of whiteness is so important."

Many might argue that as a constitutional democracy framed by non-racialism and social justice one cannot talk of "a superstructure that upholds, maintains, and nourishes white supremacy".

Debunking the idea of 'rainbowism'

Some would argue, as Marius Roodt, the campaign manager of the South African Institute of Race Relations, asserted in the 19/1/2019 Weekend Argus that racism is on the retreat. He boldly states that: "Despite the best efforts of some, South African rainbowism has not failed… Away from the rhetoric of politicians and radio talk shows, rainbowism is a more resilient ideology than many give it credit for."

One might ask whether people like Marius Roodt have ever put themselves in the shoes of those frightened young school entrants who not only had to deal with the fears of the first day of school away from home, but also had to sit separate from "makgowa" (whites) who in everyday real life look down upon them?

These are the children of domestic workers, gardeners, and poor township dwellers who live in humiliating circumstances compared to their white peers. What meaning does 'rainbowism' have for these children and their parents? 

One also wonders how a conversation between Marius Roodt and the many young black professionals, including Lovelyn Nwadeyi quoted above, would pan out. Would he hear them speak of having to check in their identities, cultural and language expressions at the doors of corporate South Africa to enhance their acceptability to their superiors and white colleagues? Would he accept that these are realities critical to black professionals "making it" up the corporate ladder? Or would he dismiss their observations as part of the rhetoric of spoilers of rainbowism?

Rainbowism is dangerous to the future of South Africa. What our society needs is to heal itself from the imposition of "race" to justify and protect "white privilege". Our humanity is sufficient to enable us to affirm and promote human dignity of all people.

No place for 'colour coding' in Africa

The wisdom of ubuntu articulated by our African ancestors so many millennia ago is a rich resource for us to tap into. Colour coding is alien to Africa and to humanity. Its purpose is to perpetuate white privilege, and whiteness as a badge of superiority and capability.

The challenge to our government today is to acknowledge that it has failed to root out racism in the structures of our society. There can be no new dawn in a colour coded society. We as citizens must also acknowledge that we have failed to hold the leaders in both the public and private sectors to live up to the demands of our constitution to build a strong social justice foundation for our country.  

We have to acknowledge that we have normalised ongoing privilege for the minority acquired at the expense of the majority of our society. We have lost our capacity for outrage at the exclusion and marginalisation of 80% of children in poorly constructed, maintained and run schools. 

We have lost our capacity for outrage at the talent wastage of more than half of the cohort of just over a million pupils who fall off the bus of our under-performing public school system. These youngsters swell the ranks of unemployed and unemployable young people every year.

We have normalised apartheid urban planning by continuing to build human settlements on the margins of our towns and cities, perpetuating multigenerational poverty.

Can we make 2019 the point of departure for reaffirming our common humanity and redoubling our efforts to ensure that we acknowledge and heal the wounds of racism in all of us? Can we dare to renew our vows to promote social justice and refocus our energies to live in harmony with one another and with nature? 

Respect for, and active affirmation of our common humanity, is the only guarantor against tolerance for inequality, corruption and damage to our natural environment. 

We have shown our capacity to rise to the challenges of ending legislated apartheid in our recent history. We now need to end structural inequality that is undermining our future.

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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