This week, more than most, has been one of joy, pain, anger, reflection and commemoration. It has made me realise that the more things change, not only in South Africa, the more they stay the same, to quote the old cliché.
The joy was because of the Eid ul Adha celebrations and the unbridled happiness it brings to many youngsters on the Cape Flats, not all necessarily from the Muslim faith. I visited my sister in Eastridge, Mitchells Plain, on Wednesday and made the mistake of giving a young boy some money after he offered me Eid greetings.
He ran down the street, proclaiming his good fortune, and soon I was surrounded by a group of young children offering me Eid greetings in return for cash.
We used to do this when we were growing up in Hanover Park, on Eid and on Christmas. It was one way of making sure that we had some spending money in a community where pocket money was often a foreign concept. Parents had to use whatever little money they had to survive; there was no time for luxuries such as pocket money.
The pain was caused in part by some of the high-profile deaths we had in the past week and a bit, such as American singer Aretha Franklin, who inspired many people from my generation, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and, more importantly, from a South African perspective, Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, the wife of PAC leader Robert Sobukwe.
The Sobukwes’ role in the Struggle for liberation has been completely underplayed, mainly because of the dominance of the ANC in electoral politics since 1994. But there were times in our history when the PAC and Sobukwe enjoyed more prominence and support than the ANC.
The pain was also caused in some part by the stupid - no, imbecilic - utterances by a South African who was on holiday in Greece and commented in a video about how nice the beaches were and that there were no “k*****s” in sight.
Adam Catzavelos has already lost his job in his family business, which in return has lost a few contracts because of his racism. The backlash continues, not only on social media.
But Catzevelos’s stupidity has also been the cause of much anger this week, and rightly so. What surprises me every time something like this happens is how many people act surprised. He is not the only one who has the views that he expressed publicly. There are many others who express these views at braais and family dinner tables but do not commit their views to social media. I have been in many situations where white people, and sometimes people from other races, make racist comments because they feel comfortable in the company in which they found themselves. When I have raised my objections, which is every time, I am often told that I am “too angry” or “we were just joking” or “you must leave the past behind”. Some brazen white people will argue that “because the ANC messed up, that is proof that black people cannot be entrusted with government”. They will then talk about how things were better in the “good old days”.
I have never thought about laying criminal charges against people who display racism, preferring to try and change their views through arguments, but also because our justice system is already so clogged up with important cases that are taking years to settle.
But maybe I should. Maybe the only way to deal with racism is to make racists aware that they will be prosecuted and could be jailed.
Which brings me to the reflection and commemoration. On Monday this week, it was 35 years since the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF), the broad coalition which played a key role inside the country in the abolition of apartheid. It was an anniversary that should have generated more discussion and debate because the UDF represented the kind of South Africa we all wanted to live in. It was truly non-racist, non-sexist and democratic. On Tuesday, it would have been the 89th birthday of Rivonia Triallist Ahmed Kathrada, who passed away last year. He was vehemently anti-racist, not only in his words but also in his actions.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Amy Biehl, the 26-year-old American post-grad student who was killed while on her way to drop three co-workers at their home in Gugulethu. She had been active in many anti-apartheid activities and organisations.
Her family’s response to her death has been heralded throughout the world because, instead of anger, they embraced the community where she was killed and started a foundation in her honour, even employing two of the young men who were convicted of her murder.
These are all related because they show what a complex society we are. We all have to take ownership of the problems we have in society and look at our own culpability in their perpetuation. If we don’t speak out against racism, we help to perpetuate racism. If we ignore the inequality in our society, it will never be eliminated. Good people, because of their silence, are often the biggest allies of bad people.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 25 August 2018)