Racism Alive and Well in South Africa

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By  Obi Akwani,

March 29, 2008


Nearly a decade and half after the end of apartheid, South Africans are beginning to face up to the fact that they have a present problem with racism in that country. This is not to say that most regular citizens of South Africa have not always been aware that they have a problem with racism.

What has brought the problem to the fore this time is a series of racial incidents that followed one on the heel of the other in February. One of the incidents is a racist video shot and distributed by some white students of the University of the Free State. The video showed the students’ ritualized humiliation of four black laborers employed by the university, including allegedly secretly urinating in food that laborers had to eat. Apparently their intention was to use the video to publicize their opposition to a recent integration of their dormitory. “The video exposed deep-seated racist stereotypes harbored by a section of the population and constituted a complete disregard for the rights … of the workers …,” a government spokesman said. The second incident is the shooting murder of four black people by a white youth in the North West town of Skielik.

Since 1994, such incidents have been taking place in isolation in the various farmsteads and other remote and not-so-remote outposts of the country; but such is the state of a culture enervated by long years of racist practice that most of these incidents – like the white farmer who fed his Black farm worker to lions – have been dealt with routinely and seemingly forgotten.

There is a suggestion in some quarters that the reason why there has not been any great outcry in the past regarding such incidents is because of a national reluctance to highlight racism issues as they affect Blacks. South African Human Rights Commission CEO, Tseliso Thipanyane, in an address to the media on racism early in March, admitted that talking about racism, especially as it affects blacks, has become unpopular. Instead Blacks are encouraged to keep quiet about their experiences and move on. He told journalist that South Africans “should not delude ourselves and think we are out of the [racism] woods.”

What seems to have changed the attitude of the media and intelligentsia concerning race matters in South Africa was the recent decision by the Forum of Black Journalists to bar white journalists from the relaunch event of the FBJ in February. The furor over that FBJ decision prompted the Chairman of the South African Human Rights Commission, Jody Kollapen, to declare that “racism is alive and well in South Africa.”

The glaring persistence of racism in South Africa and authorities’ routine handling of such incidents suggests that South Africans remain intimidated by the apartheid heritage. White South Africans have been let off the hook too easily. Black anger and resentment have been clearly dealt with through the TRC. But as Kollapen euphemistically put it, “…white South Africa was not really given the opportunity to engage with what happened in the past.” The result is that many white South Africans continue to hold very strongly to apartheid-based racist beliefs and are growing increasingly bold in acting out those beliefs. The South African nation is held to ransom by, and is unable to rebuke or respond adequately to, this small racist element in society.

There is nothing routine about racism and it is not something that should be simply accepted as matter of fact. Every incident of racism needs to be dealt instantly and with deserving severity no matter how isolated or remote. The nation needs to reprieve itself from the racist past and do so quickly. A society that respects the fundamental rights of all its citizens cannot tread softly when such rights for some are so flagrantly violated as in the case of the UFS workers. Only in this way can racists be made to appreciate that there are consequences; and potential victims given the awareness and empowered to resist such victimization.

The end of the legal system of racism known as apartheid in 1994 did not end unofficial forms of this social malaise. Many white South Africans, in the period just before the end of apartheid, feared that blacks would be bent on revenge in the event that the country became a democracy. This was one of the many reasons why the apartheid regime was able to cling onto power for more than 40 years. Today, the South African democracy is more than ten years old, but those fears never materialized. Even during the liberation struggle, the African National Congress (ANC) had assured the nation and the world that no such vengeance would take place. The ANC also promised to make South Africa a non-racial democracy. It succeeded in the former through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission whose work provided a cathartic outlet that helped the nation purge itself of the demons of apartheid and safely contain black anger. Yet its efforts in the latter – the non-racial democracy quest – has been hampered by pockets of old order resistance. It is that resistance that is sustaining racism in South Africa.

In the post-apartheid era, too many blacks in that country remain unemployed or under-employed; the racial perking order remains as it has always been with Blacks at the bottom obeying an unspoken requirement to defer to Whites on top. Yes, racism is a present reality in South Africa, but it seems no one knows how it can be readily dealt with without causing the nation greater difficulties. The government had thought that Black Empowerment — affirmative action programs that ensure a share of business and employment opportunities for traditionally disadvantaged blacks — would ultimately bring equity and a measure of equality to the country. That may well come to be in time, but Black Empowerment is not going to immediately redress culturally inured racist habits and practices that form the bedrock of enduring racism and Black disadvantages in that country. Other brave measures are needed in place at the same time in order to chip away at the bedrock of racism in South Africa.

That the problem is still there is not surprising given the history of the country. In 2001 when I visited that country for the first time, it was apparent to me that racism remained a reality in South Africa. During that trip, I dared to venture into places that my local companions had confessed they would not ordinarily go into. In some of these places — bars and restaurants — I was welcomed, but usually I and my companions would be the only Blacks in the place. Though there were no laws barring people from patronizing these premises, long held segregationist social habits helped to create an invisible barrier that made those places uneasy haunts for Blacks.

I remember one place in particular. It was in a restaurant/bar in the airport in Johannesburg. I had gone in to find someplace less crowded in the teaming airport. I found myself surrounded by a gaggle of white toddlers. There were four of them between the ages of two and four years. I felt from them a certain unspoken assertion of dominance that questioned my presence in that bar. Their parents sat nearby. The kids hovered menacingly around me, but their adult minders made no attempt to call them off and give the stranger his space. I think I knew how the old crocodile must feel in his pool, buffeted by succulent hippo calves under the watchful eye of their fat parents.

People naturally want to avoid situations that bring social discomfort; and going into places where you are not wanted is a sure invitation to social discomfort. I was able to enter those places and even enjoy myself because I was not a permanent resident of the country and any consequences arising out of my social effrontery could not go beyond the two weeks I spent there.

In too many other places, I and my friends were turned away with antagonism and subtle excuses like, “this place is only for sailors.” At one point I was confronted by the father of one of the young ladies who assisted me in my work in South Africa. The man, who is a dark-skinned Indian, was scandalized that a black African should be openly asking after his daughter in the family’s place of business. There were many other individual situations, during that 2001 visit to Durban and Johannesburg that had to be negotiated carefully. Those 2001 experiences thought me that South Africa remained a segregated society that continues to tingle with the residual static of dysfunctional racial relations. In the bad old days of apartheid segregation was enforced by law; in post-apartheid South Africa, segregation is enforced in subtler ways. The most important of these is means. South Africans continue overwhelmingly to be separated by income on a racial basis. Old attitudes and stereotypes continue to keep more blacks in the poverty bracket. For the majority of black South Africans, poverty of means continues to dictate their place in society.

People with means guard their means jealously and use that as a bargaining chip with government and with others in society. They employ their means to greatly influence the trend – content and tone of the social discourse. Government continues to act as a democratic referee, but it is the finances of private industry that dictate the tone to which many individuals must march for security of livelihood. That’s the reality. And it is a reality that feeds racism in society. To minimize society’s vulnerability to such manifestations of racism, government, schools and religious institutions must get on to an active program of value re-orientation in society. Government especially can use its policies to accelerate social security for the masses.

Racism has eaten deep into the fabric of South African society. It has shaped the way people see each other. Therefore, profound and fundamental changes are required in the way South Africans understand and relate to each other. The many stereotypes that dictate and sustain racial attitudes must be dismantled. Beyond calling for people to change their attitudes, the government needs to get pro-active in its efforts to combat racism. It is not enough to simply establish organizations and institutions of intermediation such as human rights and gender commissions and expect that they would be enough by themselves to protect the rights of the citizen. The state has got to be more pro-active in its efforts to stop the continued victimization of some citizens – who despite the end of apartheid remain intimidated under the apartheid mentality – by others who feel they have a historical right to perpetrate such victimizations. The state should relieve victims — especially the poor and ill-educated ones like the UFS laborers — of most of the financial and social burdens of seeking redress. Such victims and potential victims should be given open access to aid and afforded enough education and information to enable them recognize the early signs of victimization to reject it.

Obi O. Akwani is the editor of IMDiversity’s Minorities’ Global Village and the author of Winning Over Racism and the novel, March of Ages. He is a Nigerian Canadian. He lives in Cornwall, Ontario Canada.

IMDiversity.com is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.

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