When I wrote this, it was initially supposed to be an essay submission for a youth essay writing competition the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation was having on the topic of racism in South Africa. After numerous email correspondence with the programme director of this competition inquiring about my contact details e.t.c in the days leading up to the announcement of the winners, I discovered that I had not in fact won or even placed in the Top 10 even though they had reached out to me indicating that I was and in that moment I had an epiphany in which I realised two things:
First, that all these Foundations created by prominent political figures and anti-Apartheid struggle veterans are very likely to be just a front to cover up all the money they launded while they were still in active duty because you never actually hear about all this ‘good work’ they do in society and for the community. Save for a myriad of publicity stunt debates and forums with their friends that never actually help change the lives of South Africans in anyway because it’s usually the most out of touch people invited to debate with people who are part and parcel to the creating the problems they need to be eradicating and never those actually affected by their decisions.
Two, nobody likes anybody who speaks outside the lines of group think; against the status quo. Nobody actually wants an honest conversation about racism. Especially one that makes ‘the money’ uncomfortable because it forces them to be accountable on a level that they’re not ready to be accountable on, which is why I was snubbed -but that’s okay. Sometimes our successes are in our failures and when I submitted the essay it was never about the recognition more than it was standing up for myself; getting the message heard by those that needed to hear it the most and I wrote a beautiful thing. So although my essay may not have won it is still very valid and worth sharing because it is very relevant to our current political climate and because all things are possible through Christ Jesus our Lord and Saviour and the internet, here it is. Enjoy!
When I came across the piece of paper that called me to pen this essay, I could not ignore it. I also could not ignore the sediments of disquietude that settled at the pits of my stomach when I considered the gravity and magnitude of the mammoth task I was undertaking attempting to write about racism and the fragility of race relations in South Africa; stemming from a complex racial history that spans over decades and having to fit that into a neat little word count that somehow still illustrates the moral failings of racial prejudice. It was disheartening, but as the weeks progressed and yet another racial incident emerged, from the reckless statements made by former Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille about Apartheid, to the discrimination experienced by black girls with natural hair at schools in Pretoria; not forgetting the video that circulated on social media of a white man physically threatening a black woman and her children following a playground altercation at a popular family dining establishment, it became evident to me that I was compelled to speak on the racial dichotomy that still exists in our country. I am in no way suggesting that race in South Africa is binary, I am merely writing from my vantage point as a ‘born-free’ young black woman trying to make a way for herself in post-Apartheid South Africa -to valorise and give a voice to the narratives of the lives of black women like myself. Also as a tribute to the le gacy forged by fallen giants Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and many others who dedicated their lives in the endeavour to create a non-racial society.
When the story of creation is related in theology, it is oft said that in the beginning there was the word and the word was God. As an ode to the divinity of words, I too would like to begin with a word: racism. I came across an article recently about a study that had been conducted by the South African Institute of Race Relations, of which the headline was that only 3% of South Africans saw racism as a serious and unresolved problem in this country. I was struck by this statistic, but not more than I was by how the writer had made a great effort to stress that the leading demographic of people this statistic was derived from were black people. Amongst the many issues I found with the criteria employed in the selection of the people that were sampled for the study, it was interesting to note that the majority of those black people were concentrated in parts of South Africa with hardly any racial diversity, but I digress. More to the point of this anecdote, I also found myself wondering what and if there had been any functional definition of racism given to the participants for the purposes of the study. In light of this, I think it would be remiss of me if I did not begin with a functional definition thereof for the purposes of this text because words mean things. They are powerful tools that can be used as instruments to break, build or facilitate social change but that can only be achieved if they are used within the right context.
In 1948, when the National party won the general election, it gained control of the state of the Republic of South Africa. In this time, it began to implement a divisive, racially discriminatory policy that classified and prejudiced people on the basis of their skin colour and other distinguishing physical traits. The policy institutionalised racial discrimination in order to cement political, economic and social systems that repressed and disadvantaged all other race groups and favoured white people. Racism, within the context of this brief synopsis of our country’s history is thus any form of antagonism –physical violence, bigotry, hate speech, prejudice action, chauvinism – directed at a person or persons of a different race to one’s own that establishes and promotes unfair advantages, racial bias and a race borne superiority complex. When the liberation struggle gained traction in the 1960’s, it was a response to the immediate social needs of the time which were to end the violence against the subjugated, establish equal voting rights as well as ensure equal rights and opportunities for all South African citizens. This year will mark 23 years since this was realised -theoretically. 23 years since our first democratic election that saw the induction of the first ever Black President. 23 years since the signs were taken down. 23 years of the illusive dream of a rainbow nation where diverse groups of people find strength in their similarities and celebrate one another’s differences. 23 years of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a Band-Aid that had to singlehandedly shoulder the responsibility of ending racism and healing the wounds of a racial divide the Apartheid government spent years devising and actively implementing. It’s been 23 years since Apartheid ended, but what many of us neglected to consider about the end of the oppressive regime and its tyrannical policies was that it was a result of the internal pressures placed on the state by the liberation movement coupled with external sanctions imposed by foreign countries that limited South Africa’s interactions with the global economy as long as the policy persisted. It was not because people were no longer racist nor did it mean people would no longer be racist. It simply ended because it was no longer economically viable and sustainable for it to continue.
Race is an inherent part of our lives, it colours our socialisation and lived experiences. It is the very pattern the spatial partitioning our cities and townships have followed. Our history informs crucial aspects on where we are as a nation and how we should proceed moving forward. We are at our Rubicon and we can no longer afford to be complacent when every day there is a new racist incident reported to the Human Rights Commission. We can no longer ignore the symptoms of the racial tension that exists in this country when every day there are new reports of racial slurs being used and racially charged violence. The reality of present day South Africa, is that we come from a political background that governs our social and economic interactions and will continue to do so until first and foremost we acknowledge that we are racist and that this began long before Apartheid legitimised it. Like in alchemy, in order to combat racism and remake ourselves into a society that sees their differences as an opportunity to share new ideas and perspectives that will build rather than divide our country, we need to brave the heat and confront our harsh truths. As long as structural inequalities exist, there will always be a power dynamic between the privileged and the previously marginalized. White South Africans need to recognise that they are beneficiaries of generational wealth, privileges and head starts afforded to them by a flawed and corrupt system at the expense of all those who were massacred to see it through. Regardless of having worked hard for it, because essentially other race groups were systematically denied the opportunity to be able to do the same. This is evident in the distribution of the country’s wealth amongst its racial demographic with the bulk of it concentrated in the minority of the population. Our inequalities and setbacks are not coincidental. White South Africans also need to acknowledge that a government policy that exists to redress the systematic exclusion and repression experienced by other races as an attempt to achieve some sort of equity is not racist.
We need to do away with symbols and institutions of Apartheid origin that were created to further Apartheid agendas as well as those that continue to be exclusive and that do not cater to the needs of all South Africans, such as language policies at certain Universities with lectures being offered in certain languages, and student housing created exclusively for students who can speak a certain language when no provisions have been made for students who speak other languages: in a country with 11 official languages. We need to have these inimical but necessary dialogues with one another to help us understand why our lives are the way they are so we can be more tolerant of one another because no one is born racist. No one is born with preconceived notions and stereotypes about a group of people. Hate is taught and if people can be taught how to hate, they can also be taught how to unlearn that hate. We need to recognise that speaking about racism is not racist and not feel like we need to euphemize Black with ‘African’ when we really mean black or white with ‘European’ when we really just mean white in our social discourse because to make callous statements such as, “I don’t see race” or “I’m colour blind” is to make people of colour invisible, it is to silence their voices and nullify their experiences. Experiences they endured for being exactly that.
Above all else, if we truly hope to create a free and fair society that upholds the values enshrined in our constitution, we need to condition ourselves to become a people that recognise and respect people across all religions and ethnicities simply because of the fundamental qualities that make us all human. Not because they are commodities that can be traded or cheap labour waiting to be exploited or skin that can be worn as a costume for satirical purposes. The ideas we manifest about people often influence our experience of them which is almost always an in inaccurate summation because in the words of Rumi, “I am not my hair, I am not my skin. I am the soul deep within.”