There is a quote from Nelson Mandela used in the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate and, if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
It is a beautiful quote and often used by some people glibly to show how good they are. But these words are easier to say than to practise.
I thought about this a lot over the past few weeks as our country once again got all heated up over racist incidents, especially the infamous white beach video.
One of the things I could not resolve is: how do we internalise these words when we are confronted by racists?
For instance, if we accept Mandela’s words - which many claim to do - does it mean that we must always forgive racists and try to rehabilitate them?
Sometimes our response to racism says as much about us as it does about the racists we are condemning. When we condemn racist behaviour, it sometimes gives us an excuse to pat ourselves on the back and say: I am not as bad as that.
But racism takes different forms. It does not have to be the way Adam Catzavelos expressed his happiness at not seeing a black person on a beach in Greece.
I have often heard white people say: “But he is not like other blacks.”
In fact, this is something that was often said of Mandela, with those who said it conveniently forgetting his history and commitment to the liberation Struggle.
Sometimes our supposed disgust for racism can hide our own racism. For instance, when a white person is accused of racism, many black people do not hesitate to label all whites as racists. The same applies when a black person is accused of racism.
South Africa is still messed-up when it comes to race relations. Many of us were so eager to embrace the “new” South Africa after the unbanning of the ANC, the release of Mandela and the elections in 1994 that we moved from a situation of unbearable and inhuman intolerance and oppression (apartheid) to ubuntu, where black people were meant to embrace white people and we would all live happily ever after.
But we never dealt with the issues that led to apartheid and colonialism. We thought that if we ignored them, they would go away.
Now we are paying the price for ignoring the pain and hurt. More than 24 years into democracy, the lives of people in poor communities have not changed and they are rightly asking when they will improve.
When they are confronted by blatant racism by people who continue to live in privilege, it is understandable that they will be angry. But the anger from those of us who are middle class needs to be redirected. We need to consistently work to uplift poor people and towards a more equitable society.
Creating opportunities for the children of domestic workers, shop assistants, petrol attendants and farm workers is what the “new” South Africa project was supposed to be about. Let’s move from condemning racism to doing something practical about improving the lives of people likely to be the victims of racism.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 1 September 2018)