Making a difference is what counts, not skin colour

ONE of my mentors in journalism was Mike Norton. We met while I was volunteering at Grassroots community newspaper in about 1980 and I would later replace him on the fulltime staff.

Mike did not talk much about himself but I learnt that he had worked at one of the papers in Johannesburg and was jailed in the 1970s for refusing to reveal his sources. At that time, journalists could be jailed for six months for refusing to reveal their sources. As far as I could ascertain, Mike was the first or the only person to have been jailed in this way. While we were often threatened with this law, it was hardly ever used.

If you try to Google Mike Norton, you will not find much about him, but he was one of my heroes.

I often wondered how someone like Mike, who worked at one of the big newspapers in Johannesburg, came to work at a small community newspaper like Grassroots. But I did not complain. I learnt a lot from him and, between the two of us, we helped members of political youth groups, who were interested in media, to understand the intricacies of newspaper design and production.

We often worked late into the night at Grassroots. I was employed at a paper called the Cape Herald at the time and remember going to work at the Grassroots office after hours. Quite often, Mike and I would run to Cape Town railway station – and Mike could not run – at around 10pm to catch the last train to Mitchells Plain.

We also worked together on anti-apartheid organisations in Mitchells Plain and, just the other day, I saw a picture in my collection at home of the two of us, with Neville van der Rheede, representing Mitchells Plain at a United Democratic Front general council meeting. It must have been in 1984 or 1985.

I am not sure when Mike died, but I think it was in the late 1980s. One of the things I remember from his funeral in Westridge, Mitchells Plain, was the presence of a few white people who did not look like comrades. They looked just like ordinary white people (if there is something like this). It turned out that they were Mike’s family and that was the first time that I realised Mike was white.

I thought about Mike a few times over the past few weeks. At the end of March, I participated in a debate on race and human rights at Stellenbosch University and one of the panellists spoke about how she, as a white person, felt about issues of race. I thought about Mike, who never identified himself as white or black, but just got on with the business of opposing apartheid.

I felt disappointed that this young woman felt that she had to contextualise her contribution to the debate and to society by virtue of her skin colour.

But I suppose that is just the way things are nowadays. Everything we do is coaxed in racial categorisation. So, when people decide to march against the President, the assumption is that they are white and, because they are white, they must be racist.

I remember feeling uncomfortable a few years ago when Julius Malema (then ANC Youth League president) attacked Jeremy Cronin who had made a huge contribution to the Struggle years before Malema was even a twinkle in his father’s eye. It was clear that Malema felt that, as a black person, he had the right to say whatever he wanted to any white person, irrespective of that person’s credentials.

I thought about Mike again when I saw the stories a week or two ago about the visit to South Africa by Rachel Dolezal, the American white woman who pretended to be black and who now calls herself transracial.

Mike was different to Dolezal because he never pretended to be black. He just never spoke about being black or white. Dolezal purposefully set out to convince people that she was black and even rose high up in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

There are many whites who supported apartheid and who now claim to have never known about apartheid. There are also many whites who hate blacks and take great joy in the government’s failures because it fulfils their prophecy of the ineptitude of blacks in general.

But not all white people fall in either of these categories. There are many white people who, like Mike Norton, just want to make a difference to our society and turn it into the better place that the ANC promised us since we voted for the first time in 1994. There were many such white people who were involved in the Struggle and there are many still today.

We need to get to a point once again where it does not matter what your race is, but whether you are prepared to make a meaningful contribution to uplifting poor people in our society. Frankly, I have met many black people who talk a lot but do nothing. I would prefer a white person who acts over one of these black people any day. I suppose now I am going to be called a racist, but that’s okay. I’m just thinking aloud.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 6 May 2017)