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Until South Africa acknowledges that racism is deeply embedded in the fabric of its society, William Gumede writes in Pambazuka News, solutions will 'only paper over the deep divisions' and 'reconciliation across racial divides will remain elusive'.

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.

There appears to be increasing incidents of ‘shouting wolf’ cases of racism, which are clearly for purely opportunistic reasons. It will not help the fight against racism one bit – in fact, it undermines it.

It is obviously very naive to think that given the more than 300 years of colonialism and apartheid, racist attitudes in South Africa will disappear in just two decades.

Until we acknowledge that racism is deeply embedded in South African society, instead of living in denial, arguing racial incidents are ‘isolated’ events, solutions will only paper over the deep divisions. And reconciliation across racial divides will remain elusive.

Racism has infused the DNA of almost every institution in society. Racist practices have often become so part and parcel of habits and routine, as well social and professional interaction that they are often not even recognised as such. In some cases individuals and institutions guilty of racism presumably have no intention of being racist.

Take for example, the electricity blackouts. Some white South Africans are tempted to blame the failure of Eskom as a failure of all blacks, rather than seeing it as a specific management failure. Another case in point is incidents of government corruption, which are sometimes often broadly viewed as general failure of all blacks, rather than seen in a specific context of a corrupt individual, whatever their colour, politics or class.

What we should not do is in our bid to debunk outrageous racial generalisations is defend individual incompetence, wrong-doing and even corruption, just because the person is black or white.

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 those of some of their 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 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’.

For white people to just glibly dismiss the continuing legacy of apartheid policies – on education, jobs and property bar, and the long sustained attack on black self-image – or to argue that the majority of blacks are poor because they are somehow lesser beings is deeply offensive.

Furthermore, to argue that achievement is only a white preserve – if blacks do well, it must be somehow to do with their ‘political connectivity’ – is equally outrageous. White instances of incompetence should not be ignored. 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 every issue is reduced to ‘racial reasoning’. He argues rightly that 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’.

Appeals to black (or white) ‘authenticity’ often demand the closing of ranks behind very dubious and corrupt personalities, instances of undemocratic politics and (black) government neglect of its (black) citizens. A case in point was pressure under the Thabo Mbeki presidency that we must rally behind Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and the ruling Zanu PF because of their ‘blackness’ and shared identity as victims of racial oppression. Ditto their terrifying oppression of ordinary black Zimbabweans themselves, let alone their looting of their country, while their own black citizens starve.

There is no simplistic solution to South Africa’s intractable societal, political and economic problems inherited from previous white governments, and which are now being compounded by the sometimes terribly selfish actions of our black government.

We need to a healthy dose of pragmatism, common sense and commitment to act in the widest public interest. Tackling racism effectively – and all of our other problems – will demand honesty, courage and importantly, social justice.

Finally, there should be no place for easy stereotyping, generalisations and prejudices – whether one is black or white.


* This article first appeared in the Sowetan.
* William Gumede is co-editor (with Leslie Dikeni) of The Poverty of Ideas, which will be launched on Monday, 16 November 2009, at The Book Lounge, Cape Town, South Africa at 5.30 pm.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.