May 15, 2012 § 3 Comments
I’ve just been reading a searing opinion piece on racism in South Africa by Paul Berkowitz, in the Daily Maverick, which you can read at http://t.co/0Qsc7QSO – and I urge you to do so. It got me thinking, and I decided I had to write something too, because the more of us who speak out against racism in any form the better. So here, for what it’s worth, are some of my thoughts.
I grew up in apartheid South Africa and I can honestly say I never thought apartheid would be dismantled in my lifetime. But it was, just as I was finishing university and heading out into the world, and to me, it was something of a miracle, and still is.
It’s a funny thing growing up under this kind of system. I was never sat down and indoctrinated in any kind of overt way. Rather, racism was institutionalised, so that it was socialised into me – and those of my generation – in a much more insidious way. I know that I left home and headed for university with some very clear ideas in my head about the differences between white and black people; the line in the sand between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
At the same time, however, I had begun to question the validity of all of this, because I was involved in Girl Guides, which was – stupendously, for the times – a multi-racial organisation. I went on camps where girls of all races slept in the same tents and used the same facilities, and where I began to see in a small way, that Mrs Majola, one of the guiders from New Brighton, and Anusha, the girl in my tent who came from Stanger, weren’t different from me after all. Perhaps there were some cultural differences, but those were fascinating and enriching to me. In all of the ways that mattered, we were all the same.
At university this was reinforced as Rhodes University was also completely integrated. I made friends with people from a variety of backgrounds , and as one does at university, I began to question what I’d been brought up to believe. I very soon made up my own mind – that racism was simply not to be tolerated, in any form.
I still won’t tolerate it, and if you are in my home for any reason, please keep your racist views to yourself, or you will be asked to leave. I have had stand-up arguments with family members on the subject to the point where I was convinced my blood pressure was dangerously high, and I am the world’s most non-confrontational person, so that should give you some inkling of how much I abhor racism – and actually, discrimination of any kind.
The funny thing is, a lot of people think they aren’t racist. They’re the ones who preface statements with: “I’m not a racist, but…” Well, as good old Dr Phil always says, ‘but’ simply means that everything you’ve said before the ‘but’ is untrue. Listen carefully – the next time someone says: “I’m not a racist, but…” what usually follows is a racist statement. There’s no ‘but’ about it – either you are a racist, or you aren’t. There are no degrees of racism. You can’t be a teensy bit racist. In fact, I’d respect people more if they said they were racists and left it at that. They wouldn’t be welcome in my home, and especially around my children, but at least I could respect them for being honest.
My other favourite is people complaining about reverse racism. There’s no such thing – reverse racism is non-racism. When people complain about reverse racism, they’re always white people, and what they believe, is that racism means discriminating against black people. Again – it’s either racism or it’s not. So, if you’re discriminating against someone – anyone at all – on the basis of their race, whether they’re black, white, coloured, Asian, pink, purple or rainbow-hued, you are being racist, full stop.
Then there are those who talk about ‘these people’. They say things like: “Since these people came into power…” We’re not stupid, you know. We know you mean black people. And I agree one hundred percent with Berkowitz on this point – we don’t have a crap government because most of the people in it are black. We have a crap government, because by and large, governments around the world are crap. Just get onto Twitter and follow some intelligent people in developed countries around the world and you’ll see all the complaints that we trot out about our government being replicated in the UK and US, for example. It’s uncanny sometimes, honestly it is. It has nothing to do with the race of the people who are in power in our country; it has to do with the way governments work. Because if you think most politicians go into politics to help their fellow citizens, you really are living in Cloud Cuckooland.
Racism has been the topic on many a lip in South Africa recently thanks to the inane spewings of a couple of vacuous airheads on Twitter. A lot of people got their knickers in a knot about the whole thing, and rightly so. And it came from both sides of the colour spectrum, which made me very sad. Because to me, hearing racist speech from a black South African is as incomprehensible as a Jewish person defending Nazism, or watching Israel inflict a form of apartheid on Palestine. It makes no sense to me at all – surely the victims of discrimination should be the most vehement fighters against discrimination instead of perpetuating it themselves?
And as harsh as Berkowitz’s suggestions might seem with regards FW de Klerk and his predecessors, who, let’s face it, got off very lightly, I do think he has a point. We have tiptoed around this issue in South Africa for far too long. It’s time to do something about the racism that seems to be so embedded in such large parts of South African society. I’m not sure what that solution should be, but at the very least, I think ordinary South Africans (white South Africans in particular) need to examine themselves and their attitudes towards people – and that’s the key word here – people of other races. That person you just called a ‘kaffir’ is a human being, with a life that’s just as difficult as yours is to navigate. Can you really not see beyond the colour of their skin, which is, after all, just a genetic trait like blue eyes or the ability to touch your nose with your tongue?
If you can begin to see your fellow South Africans as just people, then please, please speak out. Don’t tolerate racism anywhere – if you witness it, say something immediately. If you catch yourself reverting to any of the speech patterns above, bite your tongue and think about what you were about to say. Don’t allow older family members to belittle members of other racial groups in front of your children. Stand up for people when you can see they’re being ill-treated because of their race. Just don’t stand for racism in any form, at any time, or in any place.
Because if those of us who are not racist don’t start to nail our colours (ahem) to the mast on this issue, and soon, we will never conquer it. And the racists will win. And that would be a tragedy.