As with most transitions, South Africa’s hard work of rebuilding our society really began after the formal institution of democratic rule. Racism is one of the most critical conversations that need to be continued for some time. Equally it is one of the most difficult to confront. Talking about racism is to look into our history and confront its legacies that continue to scar the present. Uncomfortable as this may be, we cannot afford to push it aside. Racism lives in the present and manifests itself in different ways and often undermines the very idea of building a new society.
Many people are weary and wary of “race talk”. On the one hand, there are those who find this uncomfortable and take a defensive stance, trying to shut down the conversation. This is partly because many white South Africans have not confronted the meanings of racism and the costs of privilege borne by the majority of people in this country. For those who want to avoid debate, 1994 meant South Africa moved beyond the past. So, they ask “why bring this up now”? We bring it up because it is here, with and within us. On any given day, we see racist insults and projection of racist stereotypes, even as people assert that they have moved “beyond racism” or they don’t see “race”. Yet, in the context of structural conditioning and socialisation, a black person becomes larger than an individual. She or he is a representative of “them”, who are “incompetent”, “slow” and are “running the country down”.
Even larger and deeply problematic issues such as corruption are framed and packaged in a way that confirms that “they” cannot be trusted. ‘“We” gave them a chance for 20 years, look what “they” have done’. The silence on other forms of corruption in the past and in the present, make it hard to engage in good faith. Corruption and other forms of maladministration, including failure to address the needs of all South Africans, especially the poor, undermine transformation of our society. They need urgent attention.
On the other hand, some black people undermine talk of racism. Racism is often raised as a defence or justification when people are caught in wrongdoing. Someone facing charges of corruption may try to defuse this by claiming to be the victim of racism, what is referred to as “playing the race card”. This further delegitimises serious conversation on racism in South Africa. It feeds into the dominant discourse that “race” is an excuse. But even where a charge of racism is used to deflect charges, it is important to listen to what the accused says. This does not validate what they say but is necessary in order to understand whether there is any possibility of a racist experience. This does not prevent taking action against those who are guilty of corruption and other misdemeanours. In fact it must be done, having listened in good faith to the claim that is made.
Many South Africans are uncomfortable with some policies that are in place to redress the imbalances and inequalities of the past, by fast tracking opportunities for study and advancement for those who have been historically disadvantaged. At the same time, if one promotes someone into a position where they do not have the capacity (meaning learned, not innate capacity!) to do the job, one creates the situation where the person will be treated as an ‘affirmative action appointment’. If one is to be a quantity surveyor or an auditor there are certain requirements, certain skills that should have been acquired, certain knowledge of the field that is necessary to possess. We need to recognise that whoever holds a position must meet these formal qualifications.
But it is also said, that black people are promoted without adequate experience. Experience can only be acquired in an enabling environment, where human beings thrive. In a negative environment, even the most skilled people fail and often feel they are set up for failure. Yes, there are abuses and cronyism operating with these mechanisms. But that does not erase their importance. Rather it calls for us to find measures to control the abuses.
There is another school of thought, which feeds and nurtures race denialism and by extension, racism. It argues that race is not a scientific term and therefore it does not exist. This denies the social construction of race and its power in our society. It minimises people’s lived experience as we have seen in the recent incident at the University of Free State.
South Africa urgently needs to engage with racism. That begins with serious conversation and willingness to listen and hear the most difficult truths about ourselves. Failure to name race and racism is to deny its power and unwittingly to feed into further dehumanisation.
Professor Raymond Suttner is attached to Rhodes University and UNISA. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za. Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com.