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‘Band-aid solutions to South Africa’s deep-seated racial problems are simply foolish’, writes William Gumede, and ‘it is naive to think that given the more than 300 years of colonialism and apartheid, racist attitudes will magically evaporate in under two decades. Until we acknowledge that racism is deeply embedded in South African society, instead of living in denial, pretending racial incidents are "isolated" events, solutions will only paper over the cracks and reconciliation across racial divides will remain elusive.’

Given South Africa’s long and bitter history of racial oppression and its continued legacy, it is astonishing that the country is yet to have an open and transparent public discussion about race. In fact the only people who talk publicly about race are the extremists on both ends of the colour line, which in the end does not make rational debate possible; but without it, we cannot cobble together lasting solutions. Neither will we be able to agree on basic elements of policies to redress issues, be it in sport or in the workplace.

Of course, we should not be imprisoned by the past, but we cannot simply argue to let bygones be bygones, or say ‘I did not benefit from apartheid’, or did not know, as if 1994 was simply Year Zero, when we all started from the same slate in terms of education, property and social capital.

Because South Africans do not talk about the past, white South Africans will remain trapped in fear about the future and guilt about the past. Black South Africans will continue to be resentful and angry.

There has been no unequivocal apology for apartheid, from former apartheid era leaders, such as the former President FW De Klerk. South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which dealt with racial abuses during the last three decades of the apartheid, but the process, for all its success to at least lift the lid on apartheid atrocities, was ultimately limited. For example, it only concentrated on gross human rights abuses over a very limited period.

The fact that poverty still runs along racial lines, with blacks mostly poor and whites mostly better-off, is a real obstacle to reconciliation. Racial reconciliation is unlikely to take place, unless it is accompanied with social justice. Although former President Nelson Mandela initiated a far-reaching policy of reconciliation, and former President Thabo Mbeki in a more limited manner also, this has not been accompanied by economic reparations for those who still suffer most from the apartheid legacy of limited education, the repossession of land and property and broken families. The fact that economic inequalities run along racial lines, helps perpetuate racism.

South Africa’s economic downturn will increase racial tensions. Naturally, many whites who fall into economic difficulties will be tempted to blame a black-dominated ANC government for being ‘against’ them. Poorer black South Africans may also be seduced to turn their anger solely on whites in general, rather than seeing it as a combination of the legacy of apartheid inequities and misguided policies by black-dominated democratic governments. Black economic empowerment for the few, as currently practiced, is only likely to increase the wealth gap between a small group of well-off blacks and the majority – and increase the latter’s resentment.

What is often under-estimated is that centuries of racism often also have an impact on its recipients. Some blacks often overcompensate for white prejudice. Mbeki often responded in an exaggerated manner to perceived white racism. For example, Mbeki’s adopted his ineffective quiet diplomacy towards Zimbabwe, partly because some South African whites unfairly compared neighbouring Zimbabwe’s Zanu PF’s disgusting reign to what could happen to whites under the ANC, and mostly focused on the plight of white Zimbabweans. In the end, the very people who suffered the brunt of Mugabe’s autocratic rule, black Zimbabweans, suffered even more with Mugabe’s continued tyranny, a reign which Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy ironically has helped to prolong.

We should not hide behind racial solidarity to support often very undemocratic practices. For example, should the appointment of a black judge be applauded just because he is or she is black, even though they for example act untransformed? A case in point is the fact that in many rape judgements, many black judges’ values were as conservative as some of their old-style white colleagues. Many black and white judges and magistrates still astonishingly blame the victims of rapes for being responsible for being raped. Surely, in such these cases, a black magistrate and judge cannot be supported merely on the basis of his or her blackness, even if their judgements are blatantly against the letter of the constitution.

Furthermore, to deal with racism we must also be able to point out when an unskilled or inexperienced black person is put in a position where they are not performing – rather than keep silent, because at least ‘he or she is black’. Of course, competence is not a white preserve, either. Black excellence must be acknowledged. When blacks do well, it should not be dismissed as because of their ‘political connections’, and so on. White instances of incompetence cannot be ignored, either. The poor ultimately pay the price for incompetence, whether it is white or black incompetence. The American scholar of race, Cornel West warns against the pitfalls of what he calls a resort to black ‘authenticity’ politics, whereby everything issue is reduced to ‘racial reasoning’. He argues rightly we must ‘replace racial reasoning with moral reasoning, to understand the black-freedom struggle not as an affair of skin pigmentation and racial phenotype but rather as a matter of ethical principles and wise politics’.

Shouting ‘racism’ to sideline rivals, for self-enrichment at the expense of the public good, or to deflect attention from our own wrongdoing is simply wrong – and will only increase racial tension. There appears to be increasing incidents of ‘crying wolf’ cases of racism, which are clearly for purely opportunistic reasons. White South Africans – for example those who call for the protection of Afrikaans – will have to do this not on the basis of racial exclusivity, but must genuinely include black Afrikaans speakers, and fight for the right of other indigenous languages, such as isiZulu, Venda or Shangaan to be protected too.

Poorer black South Africans bear the brunt of racism, but don’t have the power to respond to it. If you are poor and black, it is unlikely that one will know how to access institutions, neither will one have the money to do so, that can help seek redress against racism. But one way to deal with racism is for victims to be able to seek more redress against racial discrimination through courts, watchdog institutions and other formal institutions. This will mean that such institutions must become more accessible and supportive to the poorest who suffer from racism most – which they are not at the moment.

To breakdown racial stereotypes, there has to be greater integration, whether in clubs, social events or community organisations. Joint action on all levels, whether in government or the school committees, can do much to break down racial misunderstanding. Children will have to be taught in schools about the negative effects of racial discrimination. But adults, especially in the workplace, must also be educated about it. Whites will have to show a deeper understanding for the still very deep legacy of racial discrimination. Blacks will have to understand that whites have legitimate fears.

In the long-term, lifting the economic and skills level of the poorest will be one of the surest ways to boost black confidence – and reconciliation. In the short-term, government must base the criteria for recipients of poverty-alleviation measures on the extent of their poverty, rather than on race. Because the majority of blacks are in absolute poverty, they would naturally be the largest recipients of poverty alleviation measures. As a social justice measure, we must introduce a basic income grant to all families – black or white – that are desperately poor.

Recipients of a basic income could in turn be required to work in the community for a minimum period. Affirmative action must be honestly implemented – in both the public and private sectors, and targeted to advance those who are genuinely poor. It should be suspended in sectors in the economy identified as high-growth areas, those areas critical to service delivery, and where there is a scarcity of skills. We should have a clear timeframe for when the policy should be dropped.

Furthermore, we should abandon black economic empowerment (BEE) as a policy, and reward predominantly white companies for how much they invest in job creation, education, skills transfer, housing and uplifting the physical and social infrastructure of townships and rural areas; and for supporting the 5 million odd (mostly black) entrepreneurs in the informal sector. But we must also demand the beneficiaries of the current narrow BEE to plough back their political capital in the same way into economic development, and eschew the ‘bling’ culture and conspicuous consumption. To slay racism, whether from within South Africa or outside, the ANC government must govern better. Finally, to tackle racism effectively demands honesty, courage, social justice and pragmatism. There should be no place for easy stereotyping, generalisations and prejudices – from either blacks or whites.


* William Gumede is co-editor (with Leslie Dikeni) of the recently released The Poverty of Ideas, published by Jacana Media (ISBN 978-1-77009-775-9).
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.