The myth of 'reverse racism'

Estate agent Vicki Momberg (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)
Estate agent Vicki Momberg (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)

The charges of racism and "reverse racism" are flying like a swarm of locusts over South Africa. Perhaps we should pause and examine the anatomy of this ugly phenomenon.

(Yes, it is rather strange for South Africans to contemplate what racism is and what it means – we're supposed to be the world experts, aren't we?)

It's not easy to find a simple, neat definition of racism. But every dictionary that tries to define it, agrees that broadly speaking it has to do with prejudice or discrimination against someone of a different race than yourself, based on the conviction that your own race is superior.

The element of perceived superiority is thus essential for an attitude or action to be classified as racist.

We therefore have to distinguish between racism itself and intolerance or insults based on race where the element of superiority is absent.

This is the basis of the argument that black people can't be racist towards whites: when a black person insults or threatens a white person because he/she is white, it isn't because the perpetrator believes the "black race" is better than the "white race". 

Rather, it is a reaction to white racism, white domination and historical injustices – and sometimes a sense of insecurity or frustration can play a role.

The other argument proposed for why black people can't be racist, namely that they have no power, is wearing very thin 24 years into our democracy. For one, there are many black people with a lot of power in every sense of the word and a good number of whites with virtually no power of any description.

But as happens often, we're still borrowing this argument from American political culture where black people are still in the minority.
I have never witnessed a black person cursing white people because he/she believes being black is superior, even where the words used would sometimes suggest that.

"Reverse racism" is thus not racism in the real sense of the word, but it could be described as intolerance, hatred or vengefulness based on race.

We white South Africans should remember that racism has a history going back several centuries, that it has its roots in Europe and that our ancestors brought it to Africa.

Pseudo science declared that those with darker skins were inherently inferior, intellectually and morally, to those with pale skins. This made it possible for white people to think that it was acceptable to own black people as property. Slavery didn't end that long ago; it is shocking to think that my father's great-grandfather, who lived during the early part of the 19th century, was still a slave owner.

There is still an undertone in most predominantly white countries that Africa is the dark, uncivilised continent and that her children have a genetic disadvantage compared to white people.

Even the most successful and self-assured black professional has an acute antenna to detect racial prejudice, even in white people who don't even realise that they're sending such signals.

It is also true, though, that black people sometimes wrongly interpret some situations and diagnose racism instead of insecurity or even fear.

If you're one of those bothered by "reverse racism", the best medicine is to fight white racism, overt and institutionalised, and help to build a more just and equal society. 

The quicker we can achieve that, the quicker "reverse racism" will disappear. The absence of racism and inequality will starve "reverse racism" of oxygen.

Afrikaner rights groups and right wing lobbyists have launched a huge campaign against what they define as reverse racism. They are even lobbying overseas and include black economic empowerment and affirmative action as arguments in their campaign.

I find little or no legitimacy in this activism and I think that is true of most South Africans. In fact, I think these campaigns actually harm the cause of the campaigners.

These groups represent white conservatives, bittereinder Afrikaner nationalists, apartheid denialists and crude racists and have never actively worked to counter the racism in their own ranks. They can't stir up or tolerate racism and expect no counter reaction.
The narrative of Afrikaner victimhood is rejected by the vast majority of South Africans, black and white.

A quick aside: If Northwest University had not been plagued by so many incidents of racism, something that is ongoing, the present big drive to maintain Afrikaans as language of instruction would have stood a much better chance.

Some may feel that the jail sentence of three years given to racist Vicki Momberg was excessive because there was no physical violence, theft or damage to property.

My own view is that a jail sentence for such extreme racism is timely and correct if the interests of broader society are taken into account. Racism is ugly, nasty, inhumane and a threat to our stability. Momberg's sentence may not change the minds of hard-core racists, but at least it will warn them to keep their base emotions to themselves and not act them out.

But, as I have warned several times in this column, the level of insults, humiliation and threats by some black people aimed at whites have also reached dangerous levels as our political theatre becomes more and more populist.

One or more of the more extreme cases of this should perhaps also find their way to a criminal court so similar warnings can be sounded.

The EFF especially has decided to make race one of its top election issues during the campaign for next year's election. It is, of course, entitled to campaign robustly and to express the frustrations of its supporters, but its leaders have gone way beyond that in recent weeks.

Rather than respond with more hatred and intolerance, white South Africans' best response to that would be to take the wind out of the EFF's sails by proving them wrong.

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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