Let’s start with political leaders

It was an honour to attend the launch on Thursday of the Racism Stops With Me campaign, which is supported by Independent Media and a few partners.

It was good to hear Mayor Patricia de Lille tell the assembled guests, which included a who’s who of politics and business, that the city intends to roll out phase two of its racism campaign next week.

Speaker after speaker related personal and political reasons for why we need to combat racism as a nation.

The Independent Media initiative is honourable and long overdue. The city’s initiative is as admirable.

But it will take much more than a gathering at the Mount Nelson of apparently like-minded people to make an impact on the racism in our city.

And it will take much more than a publicity campaign, which is effectively what the city’s initiative entails, to change the mindset of racists who, as De Lille rightly pointed out, appear to have influence way beyond their numbers.

The major challenge in tackling racism is consistency and stamina.

The battle against racism cannot be a campaign with a fancy launch, a start-point and an end-point.

It is something that needs to be imprinted in our DNA. It is something that we need to address every day in all our actions.

The launch is but a start. Now the hard work begins. The bad news is that a campaign like this can never stop.

Long after the million T-shirts produced by the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu) have been sold and the R3.5 million grant from the Fibre, Processing and Manufacturing Sector Education Training Authority – to help develop citizen journalists – has been spent, there will still be a need for a campaign against racism. Long after the city has distributed all its pamphlets explaining racism, there will still be racists.

Over the past 10 years or more, I have tried to do anti-racism work with corporates and government departments, but it has been difficult. Most businesses don’t like you to mention the word “racism”.

There is a sense that if you don’t talk about it, then maybe it won’t exist. Yet we come from a past where racism informed so much of what we did – where we could live, who we could marry, the education we got, the jobs we could do, etc – it is difficult not to mention it by name.

Most corporates also don’t really want to address societal issues unless they impact on their bottom lines.

Most are satisfied merely to comply with what the government and the law expect from them.

Corporates need to be convinced it is in their interest to create a more harmonious work force, which could be the end result of a campaign to inform the public about the dangers of racism.

So many of our beliefs are based on ignorance, and education – not in the formal sense – needs to play a major role in any campaign against racism. When I launched One City, Many Cultures at the Cape Times in 1999, its aim was to deal with racism and related issues, such as cultural and religious intolerance.

The initiative has continued since then, with various degrees of success, but we have seen how support has wavered, depending on who is in political power – in the city, the province and nationally – and how much publicity incidents of discrimination get in the media.

Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, speaking at the launch of Racism Stops With Me, talked about the need to recommit ourselves to the values enshrined in the constitution and to fight for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

This is at the heart of any campaign against discrimination. One must not only know what one is opposing. One must know what one is striving towards.

At the heart of discrimination is a lack of respect for people who look and sound different to you.

The whites who engineered and implemented apartheid were able to maintain it – and believe in it – for so long because they had no respect for black people.

Here I include Africans, coloureds and Indians, unlike what some people are doing nowadays, because that is how black is defined in our constitution, which is the supreme document governing our lives in South Africa.

Racism can only survive if the one party (oppressor) feels no empathy towards the other (oppressed). But racism thrives especially in situations of inequality.

South Africa is a hugely unequal society. Part of this could be put down to 50 years of apartheid but the ground work was laid during 300 years of colonialism.

As long as inequality exists in our country, it will be easy for racism to flourish. In a country where the majority of people are black it is to be expected that the vast majority of poor people will be black.

The situation will not be changed by making sure that the majority of white people become poor. We need to find ways of uplifting the majority of people and decreasing the gap between the rich and the poor.

Part of how we do this is by creating opportunities that are accessible to everyone. This would be in line with the constitution and the Freedom Charter, which talks about how everyone should have equal access to opportunities, whether they are social, political or economic.

I am glad Independent Media is launching its campaign in a year when we have municipal elections because it is will be needed to keep hot-headed politicians in check – maybe even some of the people who were at the launch.

People who were shocked at the recent racist utterances by EFF leader Julius Malema and the equally racist and childish retort by ANC Youth League president Collen Maine, should brace themselves for much more of the same over the next few months.

It is an election year and my experience is that politicians lose their minds when faced with having to convince voters where to make their crosses.

Let’s focus on them first in our campaign against racism. If leaders are allowed to be racist and irresponsible, then what is to stop their supporters from doing the same?

(First published in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 13 February 2016)