By Musawenkosi Khanyile
The racist remarks by Penny Sparrow at the start of 2016 did not only split the self-proclaimed Rainbow Nation into, once again, black and white, but also slapped the eminence of racism across the face of a seemingly oblivious nation. “Perhaps we needed this” is the sentimentality that made rounds amongst those who felt that this country had done itself injustice for just over two decades by pretending that the issue of racism was buried alongside apartheid in 1994. The remarks by Penny Sparrow, who was later ordered by Umzinto Equality Court to pay R150 000 for them, seemed to awaken a number of other racists who suddenly felt brave enough to come out of their hiding. Numerous racist incidents have occurred, both before and after Penny Sparrow, despite the fact that we now live in a democratic country. The burning question amidst all this chaos is this: why does racism still persist in our lives more than 20 years into democracy? This essay seeks to give an answer to this.
The answer is simple: we haven’t yet succeeded in dismantling the architecture of racism. The mistake we made in 1994 was to think that racism would fall with Apartheid. Apartheid was a system incited by racism; it was a design to prove beyond the matter of skin colour the irrationality that black people were naturally inferior to white people. The premise that black people were inferior to white people based solely on skin colour was not strong enough to hold on its own. It needed recognizable examples to back it up. This is where apartheid came in; it was designed to systematically prove that black people were inferior to whites by orchestrating situations that proved impossible for black people to be anything but inferior. Bantu Education was one of these designs, an inferior education system that was introduced to produce servants of white people. Apartheid was not racism, but a system that aspired to make the irrational premise of black people being inferior look and sound plausible. One would have to question why and how apartheid came to be implemented in the first place to understand that racism preceded it; and as we have been forced to realize over the years, has also survived it.
Thus, considering the above sentiments, in dealing with racism, one has to dig deeper than Apartheid, but this of course has to be done in a manner that does not overlook its legacies. The legacies of Apartheid are certainly to blame for the thriving of racism. Racism will never be eradicated unless its architecture is dismantled. The architecture of racism is simple: Inequality. Racism is propelled by an irrational belief that human races are not equal. The colour of one’s skin has been, for many years, seen as the point at which such a belief ensues. My argument is that there’s nothing in the face or colour of a person’s skin that immediately suggests inferiority. This argument may explain why racists had to go to greater lengths to design mechanisms that would usher in the talks of inferiority and superiority. Their troubles can be explained by the argument that racism based solely on skin colour does not have much to stand on. So what if one averse to the other’s skin colour found a way to push the other down the ladder of human life, such that all about that other person began to prove that he was not equal to the one who had shoved him down, but rather far lower than him in all aspects of human functioning. This is how we come to the question of inequality, a very pertinent issue in South Africa.
It is true that white and black people in South Africa are not equal on many fronts; and it is true that apartheid is to blame for this. According to Statistics South Africa (2012), the average income of white households is five times higher than that of black households. Most black people are below the poverty line or battling to stay afloat. This economic situation is very saddening because it speaks to the issue of accessibility or inaccessibility to a number of crucial things. One being quality education. Now that it is clear to see who is struggling financially, one can easily deduce who is accessing the best education, and who is getting the poor one, and then ruminate on the many implications of this. All this leads us to one question: how can a white person who felt superior to a black person before 1994 feel differently now when the status quo hasn’t changed at all? This question is very crucial because it summarizes the enormity of the challenge we have. Matthews (2015) argues that “a non-racist South Africa is only possible if white South Africans no longer consider themselves superior to other South Africans and no longer expect to occupy a central and dominant position within South African society” (p. 113). But how do we achieve this? How do white people in post-Apartheid South Africa stop considering themselves superior when the status quo hasn’t changed at all?
The country has tried to redress the inequalities manufactured by Apartheid. The famous Black Economic Empowerment comes to mind as one of the efforts made by the democratic government to deal with inequalities amongst South Africans. Jacob Zuma is currently stressing the significance and urgency of a “radical” economic transformation, which will hopefully be the savior that pulls previously disadvantaged people out of the clutches of poverty. Statistics South Africa (2010) indicated that close to 60% of the South African current population lived for a significant period of their childhood or adulthood through the horrors of Apartheid. One wonders what this means about the general mental status of the population in post-Apartheid South Africa. One also wonders what this means for those whom that system catered privileges. I would presume that it is not easy to give up a privilege, even though as a young African man I wouldn’t know what being privileged is like. How has this presumed difficulty in giving up privilege affected the perspective of white people on the notion of ushering in equality?
There has been several reported incidents in this country whereby young people were at the center of racist violence. One is quickly reminded of the incident that ironically took place at the University of the “Free State”, where black employees went on their knees to eat food that white male students had urinated upon. When young people are active in perpetuating racism, one cannot help but feel hopeless. The question of the role of society should also be raised on this issue of racism. How come we have young people labelled as “born-frees” but harboring racism in their hearts? Where do they get it from? What is the role played by the older generation in all this? Are we unconsciously passing on the irrational beliefs of inferiority and superiority about races to younger generations? The unfolding of events suggests so.
All South Africans, both black and white, have to reflect on the role they are playing on this issue of racism, particularly about the lessons they are imparting to younger generations. There is a need to reflect on what it means to be a racially unbiased South African. Black people also have to reflect on the psychology that Apartheid times may have implanted in them. A country like South Africa, where racism keeps showing its head in public spaces, is likely to allow racial-based “expectations”. I will explain this by using the analogy of driving: when I moved from the small town of Richards Bay to Pietermaritzburg, I had to adjust to a different driving mentality. Unlike in Richards Bay, traffic in Pietermaritzburg was fast and drivers were reckless. Public taxis would just stop in the middle of the road and passengers would be alighting while I was still trying to figure out how to change lanes. I learned to adjust to this. Going back to Richards Bay meant that I had to disregard “expectations” emanating from this experience, and not behave as if I was expecting drivers in front of me to just stop in the middle of the road as it used to happen in Pietermaritzburg. I also had to disregard the “expectation” that I could do the same and not be worried about being driven into from behind. How are black people in South Africa immune from “expectations” that white people at shopping malls and corporate spaces might be racist towards them when every time they are faced with racism in public spaces? This question has been asked before, in many ways, sometimes in lighter tones such as alluding to the possibility of what might happen if white comedians were to tell racial jokes about black people, as black comedians do about white people. We have a duty to reflect on whether we expect all white people to be racist to us, and if that is the case, we have to engage on how that affects our attitude towards them, and the whole issue of racism as a whole.
Parents of both black and white children have the responsibility to reflect on what they are unconsciously passing on to their children. There must be a way that racial innuendos are seeping through the minds of young generations. This is how we can explain “born-frees” becoming racists. I remember that when I was a young boy growing up in a small township there was excitement about going to town to see white people. Walking down the small township streets to the taxi rank, with Vaseline shining on my face, and wearing “town clothes” was coupled with playful sentiments from peers and even older people that I would be seeing white people in town. It seemed as if this was somewhat an achievement. I’ve always wondered where this mentality came from, and how far it stretched. It seemed as if we had been preprogrammed to think of white people as fascinating beings whom we had to be excited to see; as if they were somewhat superior beings. Where did this mentality come from, and has it died completely, or is it still lurking somewhere feeding racism?
All of us have the responsibility to stand up against racism. For black people this means forgiving the injustices of the past. For white people this means giving up privileges and all the notions stemming from them. It seems as if all races have a huge mountain to climb. Climbing these mountainous challenges, coupled with the government’s efforts to eradicate inequalities, are all it will take to dismantle the architecture of racism.