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No Grey-listing for racism in South Africa’s Rainbow Nation

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Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA) /Taken December 1, 2022 – Most children do not have enough facilities for sport in the area of Blikkiesdorp, Western Cape. For most black South Africans, very little has changed materially since apartheid, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

As it was in apartheid, black is the colour of poverty in the Rainbow Nation. With its eye trained more on racial reconciliation than on redress for black South Africans, three decades of ANC rule has seen the racial patterns and power relations of apartheid remain largely intact.

In the transition from the yesteryear of apartheid to the new day of democracy, the privilege and pocket of white South Africans has hardly been disturbed. For most black South Africans, very little has changed materially. The new deal of democracy has seen the majority of black South Africans remain dirt poor, landless and without job prospects or hope for a better tomorrow. Three decades into democracy, black South Africans remain economically powerless on the fringes of economic ownership and participation, rather than at its centre.

Today, South Africa is no longer the wonder-kid of Africa, or the “miracle nation” but the world’ most unequal society. Inequality is no foundation upon which to build a new society. At a South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) conference in 2021, the Commission’s chairperson, Dr Bongani Majola, remarked that “it is impossible to promote unity and social cohesion when inequality still persists according to racial lines.”

In an article published in August 2022, Dr Mandisi Majavu, from Rhodes University wrote “one of the sources of social discontent in post-apartheid South Africa is the legacy of white racism”. “This toxic legacy is evident in racialised poverty and inequality. It is a historical fact that the economic prosperity of whites in South Africa is based on the racist exploitation and impoverishment of blacks.”

Racism did not perish and die with the birth of democratic South Africa. Today racism is not only alive and well but omnipresent in the socio-economic and cultural architecture of the Rainbow Nation. There has been no grey-listing of white supremacy or racism. South Africa’s just transition is not yet in sight.

At a webinar on racism in Africa organised by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in October 2019, the University of Cape Town’s Dr Demaine Solomons said “Many issues associated with our history of racism still remain with us…addressing the issue of racism is tricky business because many of us in South Africa are still in denial about who or what we have become.”

Just last week, the acting chief executive of SAHRC, Chantal Kisson, was accused of racism after she allegedly referred to black staff as ‘black babies”. Dr Mandisi Majavu spoke of how this was deeply offensive and insensitive given that “one of the oldest colonial tropes is the idea that Black people are ‘childlike’ and therefore in need of supervision and surveillance.”

Dr Majavu adds that in today’s South Africa, non-black people make “light of the racism that Black people were subjected to in this country for most of the 20th century”. He says this is due to a number of factors. One, wilful ignorance. Two, the notion that it “wasn’t all that bad”. Three, the “uninterrogated world view that is consistent with the racist portrayal of Black people”.

For Dr Majavu, the ANC government is failing to deal with racism and has no plan. He contends that the ANC lacks both the vocabulary and intellectual tools to talk about racism. The starting point for Dr Majavu is for us to start taking the history of Black people in this country seriously. Dr Majavu argues, “Perhaps Ms Kisson is in need of re-education in these matters.”

Ian Fuhr, founder of the Sorbet Group, and Director of The Hatch Institute is trying to educate and change white mindsets on race. He has written of how in workshops on racism they often have people complain that “we dwell too much on the past” rather than identifying current shared values and moving forward, together. Fuhr writes, “It is interesting to note that without fail, everyone who makes this suggestion, just happens to be white. It is so much more convenient to forget about the past when you have been the beneficiary of that past.”

Fuhr believes that to build racial harmony and mutual trust, we need to understand the genesis and history of racism in South Africa. At his workshops, Fuhr emphasises that authentic transformation can only take place if a “journey of reparation” and “open and honest dialogue across the racial divide” takes place. Fuhr says white people need to ask themselves why they did so little to challenge the injustice of apartheid and why now they are so uncomfortable with processes aimed to redress historical imbalances.

Fuhr raises critical questions that white South Africans need to ask and answer honestly. Dr Majavu urges the need for re-education. In my book, white South Africans simply do not want to see the injustices of yesterday and today.

For it is not in their interests. I am not even sure if education or re-education will help. It is a question of ethics rather than education. And white South Africans have shown no redress or reparations for acts of inhumanity against black South Africans under white rule. Very few whites have shown remorse about the vilest of human rights violations of black South Africans under apartheid or taken responsibility for such ills.

This month’s Human Rights Day on 21 March provides us with a mirror to reflect on the sorry complexion of our society. In South Africa black South Africans still appear to be children of a lesser God, despite a globally lauded Constitution that promises a land of milk and honey.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.