If we South Africans could achieve just this one thing in 2017, the future would look much rosier: become more honest about racial issues.
Sadly, I can’t wish for race to disappear or for us to be able to call ourselves a post-racial society. That will not happen in your or my lifetime.
It is what it is. We can’t wish it away. All we can do, is deal with it the best way we can: sometimes robustly, most of the time sensitively, but always honestly.
Don’t ignore it when it stares you in the face, but don’t artificially make it the issue when it isn’t. My gut-feel is that it is appropriate to criminalise racism and hate speech, as is being planned right now.
But if this legislation is going to be applied to all and the only yardstick used is whether something is hurtful, discriminatory and an incitement to intolerance, hatred and even violence, then we need to know before we pass such legislation that many, many more black South Africans than whites will be punished.
This is not only because only one out of ten South Africans is white, but because the notion that the white minority can be insulted, cursed and threatened with impunity has taken hold in our society.
Almost every sane person in the country agrees that white-on-black racism is evil and nasty and should be fought tooth and nail, but in some circles being openly “anti-white” or insulting whites in the crudest terms are regarded as a badge of honour, almost a precondition for acceptance as a “proud black”.
It is also linked to the idea that black people can’t be racist, only whites can. It would be helpful if we could develop some form of consensus around this issue.
The premise is simple. Black people have less power than whites and there is no history of black people believing they are inherently superior as a race, as is the case with many white racists worldwide. Blacks never oppressed whites anywhere.
These are relevant arguments, but are becoming more and more shaky as we move further away from the apartheid era.
An example. When a black, male postgraduate South African student studying at a prestigious British university humiliates and harasses a young white working class waiter because she has a white skin, the power argument doesn’t apply.
His argument – do you remember who I’m talking about? – that he treated her as a representative of all whites or “white power” can never be valid. It is an argument underlying all racism. When people state that black South Africans have less power than whites, they refer to economic and social rather than political power. Even this is becoming a grey area after 22 years of democracy.
Sure, white income is on average still much higher than black income and something should urgently be done about that. But there are significant numbers of black middle and upper middle class blacks as well as lower middle class and downright poor whites.
When the black media adviser to the former ANC mayor of Cape Town declares that coloured South Africans are immoral drunks with a culture inferior to that of black South Africans, it constitutes racism pure and simple. It is also not so cut and dried any longer that all whites who utter racist remarks do it because they think they are superior because of the colour of their skins. Many of them are more motivated by feelings of fear, insecurity, marginalisation and indeed inferiority.
When Julius Malema calls all white South Africans “visitors” who should behave “or else” and says, as he did recently, that they are the sole reason for black poverty, unemployment, disease, drug abuse and criminality, he is recklessly inviting racial hostility towards white people.
This simplistic “visitor”, “settler” narrative should stop. This “othering” of a section of the population has proved to be extremely dangerous in many societies in history.
Whites do themselves no favour when they deny the obvious devastating effects of three hundred years of colonialism and white rule. This fact does not negate the fundamental reality that white South Africans should, according to our constitution, enjoy full and unqualified citizenship with all the rights given to others.
The catastrophic impact of colonialism in, for example, America or Australia, does not translate into the vast majority of American or Australian citizens being reduced to “visitors”, only tolerated by the aboriginal people as long as they “behave”. There are many similar examples all over Europe, Asia and Africa stretching over the last millennium.
Talking about America: how did it happen that the peddlers of “critical race thinking” in South Africa, especially at universities, appropriated all American arguments and terminology on race? Steve Biko would not have approved.
The hyper vigilance regarding white racism has resulted in a few absurd situations, yes, but it has also helped to sensitise white citizens to be more sensitive and more thoughtful.
We whites should step up our battle against all forms of racism in our midst and continue to make bigotry socially unacceptable.
It would help, in my view, if our black fellow citizens started calling out racial intolerance, insults and threats in their ranks, even if they don’t want to call it racism in the orthodox sense.
I’m not trying to undermine black assertiveness or their “speaking truth to power”, I’m simply pleading for more honesty when it comes to the race debate.
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