It has been an interesting week in terms of race relations in South Africa, with social media storms over remarks made by KZN estate agent Penny Sparrow, mobile gym owner Justin van Vuuren, economist Chris Hart and eNCA anchor Andrew Barnes, among others.
Sparrow and Van Vuuren made seriously derogatory comments about black people, Hart referred to black people’s sense of entitlement in a series of tweets and Barnes made disparaging comments about Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s English pronunciation.
Throw in remarks about Hashim Amla and Temba Bavuma’s performances before this week’s cricket Test and you have another eventful week in South Africa. Hopefully Amla and Bavuma would have silenced some of their racist critics with their performances.
The most surprising thing about the outrage over the racial comments which surfaced this week is that it has surprised people.
These kinds of beliefs have been widespread throughout South Africa for a long time and could, until recently, be found in abundance in the comments section on news websites.
The challenge is not to suppress such views, but to find ways of channelling them into something positive. It might not seem possible, but it can be done.
A few years ago the One City, Many Cultures Project, which I chair, hosted a function for about 1 000 older people in the Western Cape to coincide with the International Day for Elderly People on October 1.
We had bused in people from old-age homes from across the province and, as is our custom, we made sure we included homes from diverse areas.
At the end of the function, I was approached by a white Afrikaans-speaking woman who was about 90 and she thanked me for inviting her. She said it was the first time she had been to a function with people of other races and she had enjoyed it very much.
I thought about how this could have been possible and realised this woman had probably grown up in a whites-only area where she only interacted with white friends and probably worked only among whites. When she retired, she moved into a whites-only old-age home (yes, we still have these in the Western Cape and probably also elsewhere in South Africa). As a result, she had managed to remain sheltered from the majority of her fellow South Africans.
Those who were shocked by Sparrow and Van Vuuren’s racist comments on social media should understand this context. There are thousands, if not millions, of South Africans who never interact with people who are different from them and, if they do, it is often only in an uneven relationship such as madam and domestic worker.
The old woman may have had similar views to Sparrow before being exposed to people who looked and sounded different to her.
Sparrow’s comments, while disgusting, are not unexpected from someone who is ignorant of the lives of the majority of South Africans. One wonders what kind of interaction someone like Sparrow has had with black people and whether she has bothered to learn from this.
My experience is that what passes for racism often is based on ignorance. Because people do not know other cultures and practices, they often adopt ignorant positions.
A few years ago I was discussing race with listeners on Radio Sonder Grense, the Afrikaans radio station. One caller talked about how “they steal our farms, rape our women and kill our neighbours”. When I asked who “they” were, he said “the blacks”.
I explained to him that, in a country where the majority of people are black, it probably stands to reason the majority of criminals are black. But this did not mean the majority of black people support crime; in fact, most black people I know are opposed to crime and doing their best to fight it. After I spoke for a while, he said: “You know what, you have a point.”
I realised he probably based his world view on his ignorance and the ignorance of those around him. This was probably the first time his view had been challenged.
I was glad I was able to influence him positively, in the same way we were able influence the old woman positively by creating an opportunity for her to interact with people whom she may not otherwise have met.
But how many people go through their lives without such opportunities?
When we became a democracy, it was convenient for white South Africans to embrace the philosophy of a “rainbow nation”, one in which all of us walk hand-in-hand into the sunset, singing Kumbaya, my Lord, etc. This meant they did not have to deal with their guilt over apartheid. But you cannot go from a situation of severe repression and oppression to one in which we all live happily ever after.
There are a couple of steps we missed in between and the fact we tried to take a short cut to democracy is back to haunt us.
An important step would have been an acknowledgement from white South Africans that they had benefited from 50 years of apartheid and 300 years of colonialism and an apology to those who had suffered. We could have even instituted some reparation tax to ensure we started to undo some of the damage of apartheid.
But we need to go further. White people need to understand they are a minority in South Africa and can no longer act, as they did during apartheid, as if they are the majority. They need to make a concerted effort to begin to understand the languages and cultures of the people who form the majority.
Racism should no longer be seen as a black problem. It should be a problem which concerns all of us.
I believe racists can be found among whites and blacks and those of us with progressive views need to take ownership of the struggle against racism, in much the same way as we committed to the struggle against apartheid.
We need to move from what we oppose to the kind of society we would want to live in and in which we want our children to live. Instead of saying we don’t want racism, we need to say what we want instead. What we want is a society based on non-racialism, non-sexism – in fact non-discrimination of any sort. But it is also a society in which everyone will respect the right of everyone else to fulfil their potential and to have access to the same opportunities, whether in housing, education or employment.
If we deal with racism within this context, it should be easier to identify when people are being racist and to deal with them. It is important to effect a mind-set change in our society. We need to create an environment where life will be uncomfortable for racists. Too often one is confronted by racism and one does nothing about it.
My commitment is to point out, via social media or other means, every incident of racism I encounter and I would encourage others to do the same. It is only when racists realise they cannot live among us if they continue with their old ways that they will change.
The struggle against racism is not an event or a series of events, such as social media comments by Penny Sparrow and others about which we get upset. It is a process that involves pointing out racists, ostracising them where necessary but also rehabilitating them if it is possible.
As long as we don’t deal with racism in a concerted way it will always be a major part of the problems in our beautiful country.
(This first appeared in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 9 January 2016)