We should not let group identity sow more divisions in SA

We are only two weeks into the new year and already we have seen several incidents of racism and religious intolerance in various parts of South Africa and particularly in the Western Cape.

The defacing of mosques in Simon’s Town and Kalk Bay are among the latest incidents of people expressing their hatred for Islam in the most despicable manner. But intolerance is also displayed through more subtle ways, like expecting people to pay to access beaches, which we saw on the West Coast, or to control access to public swimming pools because of the possible impact it would have on a private business, as we have seen in the Brass Bell incident.

Intolerance comes about because one group of people believes they are better than other groups. Those who practise intolerance often believe they are justified because they are dealing with people who are not prepared to “see the light” or people whose value system goes counter to what is commonly considered to be “good” within their group.

One of the problems that I have always had with religious teachings has been the notion of “my religion” being better than “your religion”. I am not saying this only with regards to Muslims, who are obviously the victims in the incidents I mentioned above, but this happens across religions.

When you think that you are better than others, it becomes easier to justify attacking others who you consider to be inferior.

The problem with group identity, which is effectively what religion is, is that you sometimes forget about the many other aspects of identity. None of us have only one identity marker, but in the case of group identity, we expect people to embrace the one thing that binds the group together (it could be religion or race or class) and to forget the other important markers of identity.

Sometimes, groups use a combination of identity markers to distinguish themselves. For instance, apartheid was premised on the superiority of white Christian Afrikaners who felt that they could control the country much better than the majority who happened to be black, with many of them Christians and some of them able to speak Afrikaans.

Being white was obviously the most important identity marker, but being Afrikaans and Christian was also almost non-negotiable.

When we attack people because they are Muslim, we often forget that they are also South African, that they could be of a multitude of races, and they could also be parents or sons and daughters who want all the stuff that parents and sons or daughters normally want.

In the same way, when we deny access to beaches to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, one needs to remember that these are often families who want to do what most people do in Cape Town over the festive season and that is to enjoy its beaches. Most of these people do not have the opportunity to enjoy the beaches at other times of the year, because of economic and other reasons.

I suppose there are times when group identity can be important, for instance when one needs to address the inequalities in South African society.

It is difficult not to reduce the inequalities in South Africa to black and white so it is not unexpected for the ANC president to mention in his January 8 statement that blacks should take control of the economy.

However, the problem with statements like this is that not all black people are poor and not all white people are rich, even though, in South Africa, it is more likely for a white person to be rich and a black person to be poor.

When it comes to inequalities in society, we need to talk class rather than race. The aim should not be to reduce the gap between white and black, because this could just create more millionaires and billionaires, but just of a different colour. The aim should be to narrow the gap between rich and poor.

Because of South Africa’s demographic realities, with black people being in the majority by far, they will benefit more, as it should be.

When faced with these disturbing incidents of discrimination based on group identity, it is important for us to assert our common group identity, as human beings and as South Africans who are loyal to our country’s Constitution.

South Africa’s Constitution, one of the most progressive in the world, talks about healing “the divisions of the past” and establishing “a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”.

We cannot allow hateful people to take us back into the past where narrow group identity caused so much pain and damage. All of us need to speak out against these incidents, especially those who do not find themselves in the targeted groups. This is the least we can do as we try to build the kind of society envisaged in the Constitution.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 14 January 2017)