I will concede that I’m in no way shape or form some sort of race relations expert, nor will I ever pretend to be one. I haven’t written well-researched highly cited studies on the subject nor am I a highly respected academic. What I write are simply the thoughts of a regular black South African in his late thirties with most of my thoughts based on my own personal experience and observations over the almost four decades of my life. I am writing this in some sort of utopian hope that we can at least begin the process of having an honest conversation about the very real racial tensions that, for better or worse, still exist in South Africa today. The reasons for these tensions are obviously multifaceted and are far too complex to explore in one blog post, however I do believe that there is a fairly simple starting point that could possibly lead towards helping us heal as a country.
2014 was, for various reasons, a year of intense focus on race relations particularly in South Africa and in the United States. In the US the main catalysts for this focus were the shootings to death of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and the death of Eric Garner as a result of being put in a chokehold by NYPD police officer Daniel Pantaleo. In all of these cases the victims were black males killed by white police officers that were all later acquitted of any wrong doing under rather murky circumstances.
These events and many others like them, put the abusive experiences of minority communities at the hands of some police officers in the United States into the spotlight in a manner that hasn’t been seen since Rodney King was beaten by police officers in Los Angeles in 1991. In that case the police officers responsible were also acquitted of any wrongdoing. These latest incidents have forced people in the United States into a long overdue conversation about race relations in that country and the suspicious manner in which black males are often viewed.
In South Africa the conversation has been an ongoing chronicle with admittedly complex nuances that was brought into stark focus by two incidents of white students at two different universities in what can, at best, be described as a woefully misguided attempt at being funny.
The first incident involved two white students from the University of Pretoria who smeared their faces with black paint, stuffed pillows into their pants and wore clothing meant to stereotypically represent domestic workers posing for photos with smiles that seemed to indicate that they thought they’re outfits were a rather humorous joke. Needless to say, their little “joke” resulted in an uproar on social media with the pair of students being expelled from their residences.
Despite the experience of the previously mentioned Tuks students, two more misguided students at the University of Stellenbosch also thought it would be a good idea to pose for pictures with their faces painted in black and wearing wigs and outfits meant to represent tennis super stars Serena and Venus Williams. As anyone with the most basic grasp of South Africa’s racial problems could have guessed, the pictures ended up on social media and resulted in a predictably angry reaction from black South Africans and exasperation from white South Africans that seem to possess a more developed sense of awareness than some of our white compatriots.
Not long after this incident there was the incident outside a club in Cape Town in which some young white men viciously beat a 52-year-old black mother of six for no apparent reason while hurling racial epithets at her. Then there was the Cape Town man that assaulted his ex girlfriend’s black domestic worker, spat at her and called her a kaffir. And of course who can forget about the white bikers in Witbank that assaulted a petrol attendant after he asked them to move away from the pumps because they were smoking. Their classy response was to beat him while calling him a kaffir and a monkey. Then there was the always classy Steve Hofmeyer who tweeted “Sorry to offend but in my books blacks were the architects of apartheid. Go figure.”
I could go on citing many more examples from the media or from personal experience, examples like when my wife invited friends on my birthday for a night out at a Cape Town club. When we arrived at said club, we found one of my friends, who happens to be black, standing outside after being told he could not go into the club because there was a private function, this was of course in no way true. Whenever I have retold this story, I have heard some white people argue that maybe my friend wasn’t appropriately dressed, to which I call major bullsh!t. He was very well turned out and there were a number of less well-dressed white guys that were being allowed to go into the club with no hassle. The fact that they automatically feel the need to give the club owner the benefit of the doubt is one of the most fundamental problems we have in this country, but more on that later.
It took my white wife, angrily confronting the manager of the club to get my friend in and once inside we noticed a severe lack of colour that explained their initial reluctance to let those of a more melanin enhanced hue in.
So where does all of this leave us? I think one of the biggest challenges we face in South Africa is that for a significant portion of white people, there is still a reluctance to acknowledge that this country continues to deal with the ugly reality of racism that was created by decades of Apartheid and colonization before it. There is a belief among some white people that after 1994 we were all automatically made equal and all was made well so as a result, the past should be left in the past and we should go forward and stop obsessing about it.
The problem with this point of view is that it’s much easier for people whose past was not characterized by systematic racial, economic and societal discrimination that was violently implemented by the state’s various military, judicial and economic apparatus to simply move on.
It’s more difficult for people that, for decades, had their humanity systematically demolished by a violently racist system that was set up to exploit them and protect those of a lighter skin tone. It’s more difficult to simply move on for people that were not even allowed to be citizens of the land of their birth because of the colour of their skin, (see pass laws). It’s more difficult for people who watched helplessly as their family members and close friends disappeared with no explanation into the police cells of a system that would indifferently explain away almost any death as suicide, and that’s if an explanation was even given.
The truth is white and black people in South Africa have experienced and continue to experience the world very differently and there’s just no escaping that reality. A few weeks ago my sister was looking for a black doll for her daughter. This turned out to be such a tough assignment that she had to ask people on Facebook if they knew of a toy store where she could buy a black doll. Imagine living in a country where black people are 80% of the population and yet they struggle to find something as simple as dolls that look like them for their children to play with. As a result, black children often grow up playing with toys that don’t look anything like them, watching cartoons that have characters that they don’t relate to, resulting in so many cases of black children hating the colour of their own skin or the texture of their hair since they find it so hard to find representation of their own blackness in the media. This is not a problem a white child will ever experience.
I remember when we were kids; my sisters and I would shred up newspapers until they looked like a rudimentary representation of what white people’s hair looked like and we would tape it to our heads so we could also have long wavy hair like white people because this is what we believed you had to look like to be beautiful. One of the most fundamental problems we have in South Africa is that white people, for the most part, are so unaware of what it’s like to experience the world as a black person it causes them to be totally oblivious of the comparatively privileged way in which they experience the world.
This brings me to the point of my musings on the topic of race. If South Africa is to truly move forward as a united country, I really think that there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of white South Africans to really interrogate what their experience of the world means in relation to the lived experiences of South Africans of other colours. The reason I think the responsibility falls chiefly on the shoulders of white South Africans is that I would argue that black South Africans have largely come to the party when it comes to reconciliation in South Africa.
We speak the language of white South Africans; we adopted the Springboks, (who were previously viewed by a lot of black people as a white Afrikaaner symbol, so this was a very big deal) and even gave them our own name, Amabhokobhoko. We go to the stadiums to watch them or our favourite Currie Cup team play on a regular basis. We share the same love hate relationship our white countrymen have with the Proteas, (for pete’s sake cricket gods, we aren’t asking for much, just give us one major trophy, we needs this!).
After Apartheid ended, the ANC, through the Sunset Clauses proposed by Joe Slovo, agreed to a Government of National Unity that gave concessions to the National Party, including them into the new government. This is the same National Party that kept black people subjugated for decades. In addition to this, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, that gave Apartheid era perpetrators of violence the opportunity to give testimony about their past violent acts and to request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution was established. They didn’t even have to be sorry, all they had to do was come clean and they could walk away scot-free while the victims’ families, in many cases, would simply have to accept that they had to give up any hope of justice being served for the greater cause of unifying our country.
We included “Die Stem” as part of South Africa’s new national anthem. ‘Die Stem” the national anthem of the old Apartheid South Africa, which was seen by most black South Africans as a symbol of the Apartheid era Nationalist party government and yet there we were and still are, singing it proudly at every sporting event.
The list goes on, so like I said, I feel like it could be safely argued that black people have come to the party. Unfortunately I’m not so sure the same can be said for our white fellow South Africans for the most part. Besides a tiny group of exceptions, white South Africans typically don’t speak any indigenous South African languages despite being surrounded by indigenous speaking black people. Go to a PSL soccer game and white faces are rather conspicuous in their absence from the stadiums, in fact I would challenge most white South Africans to name a PSL team besides Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. However based on my experience, I doubt they would have the same difficulty naming English Premiership or Spanish La Liga teams.
The simple fact is that reconciliation in South Africa has largely been a one sided affair with white people mostly being the beneficiaries of much forgiveness and never having to really confront their complicity about the past and the institutional advantages that Apartheid bestowed on them. They have remained, willfully or otherwise, mostly ignorant of what life for their black compatriots is like. They remain mostly ignorant of the extreme evil that Apartheid was and how they benefited from it and how those benefits and advantages have carried over to the present day.
“According to the 2014 SA Reconciliation Barometer 47% of white South Africans believe Apartheid wasn’t a crime against humanity. Only 53% of whites that took part in the survey agreed with the statement that apartheid was a crime against humanity. This was compared to 80% of blacks, 77% of Indians, and 70% of coloured citizens who agreed with the statement. Whites were also half as likely as black South Africans to agree with redressing the injustice of the past.” (Quoted from News24) That is a sad indictment on just how ignorant some white South Africans remain.
So what is the solution? Call me an optimist or a romantic believer in a utopian never land, but I think the first steps towards true reconciliation in South Africa are fairly simple and very achievable. It does, however, require a willingness on the part of white South Africans to truly acknowledge the true situation this country is in, the role they have played in it and the further patience and resilience of black South Africans to bear with our white compatriots.
My challenge to my white fellow South Africans is very simple. I’m sure many of you have made New Year’s resolutions. I would like to challenge you to add four more.
- No more black face, seriously just don’t do it, it’s just not funny and it’s more offensive and hurtful than you will ever understand.
- Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Learn an indigenous South African language, whether it’s Zulu, Xhosa Pedi, Sotho Tswana or whatever, just learn one. You live amongst millions of African language speakers that will help you if you just try. Really connect with your black fellow South Africans; you’ll be amazed at the sublime effect speaking an indigenous language will have on your relationship with your black compatriots. And once you start to learn their languages you will learn so much more than just how to speak a new language, you will also learn the culture and the heart of the person.
- Find a PSL soccer team to support and get down to a stadium and watch a game. Sport in South Africa has always been a great unifier, you will learn more about us from watching soccer with us than you realize. Do this at least six times this year. If you don’t know where to start, ask someone to take you to a game, or at least go a Pirates / Chiefs derby, it’s an incredible experience, trust me. (It’s an even better experience if you’re Pirates fan, I’m just saying)
- Stop telling black people to “just get over it, it’s in the past, can’t we just move on?” You have no idea just how raw the pain and humiliation still is for many black South Africans. Instead of being in such a hurry to move on, rather spend some time trying to understand just how bad it was and still is for many black people in this country. Healing starts with acknowledgment and empathy, then we can figure out a way forward together.
I love this country right down to the depths of my soul; with every fiber of my being I love this place. I love its resolve, its character and its ability to overcome any challenge. I love the land, the amazing kaleidoscope of cultures that call themselves South African, from the 100% Zulu boys of KwaZulu Natal, to the regte Afrikaans boytjies of the Free State. From the LaXhosa Nostra in the Eastern and Western Cape, to the Sandton dolls and Musgrave mommies. The Indian aunties and uncles in Durban to the Tannies in the Platteland. The Coloured minibus taxi conductor scrambling for my business as he shouts at the top of lungs, aweeeeh sea pooooiiiiint!
I love this place, I love the people, and there is no place on earth I would consider as my true home. But to love it is to also admit that we have very real problems that need fixing and I believe I’m not the only one.
I realize that mine is a rather simplistic solution and I’m certainly not naïve enough to think that this will solve all of our issues, but I believe it’s a good start, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in this life is that sometimes all you need is a good start, where we go from there is entirely up to us.
Ons vir jou Suid Afrika!