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It is time to get back to real basics on racism in South Africa

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Symptoms indicating that the South African society has slipped into reactionary mode on the front of race relations have been coming through thick and fast in recent weeks. It is time to get back to real basics.

First up we should realise that racism at its most basic level is not a group thing – it lives and thrives in the hearts and minds of individuals:

• An individual, Tony Ehrenreich, turned the infrastructure and economic problem of electricity constraints into a racial issue;

• An individual, Steve Hofmeyr, with an “I’ll be damned” attitude started a racially offensive tweet with: “Sorry to offend but …”;

• An individual, Blade Nzimande, turned the medium of education at tertiary level into a racial issue and to boot added: “I will not even apologise for it:” and

• Individuals were involved in the recent spate of assaults in Cape Town on domestic workers and cleaners.

Regarding the latest incident involving five young white men, said to have attacked a 62-year-old woman working as a cleaner in a shopping centre, we agree with the FW de Klerk Foundation, which in its condemnation of the incident said: “The law must now take its course in this case and establish all the circumstances involved in the reported assault. However, in so doing our justice system must send a clear message that race and gender-based violence will not be tolerated – whoever the perpetrators may be.”

But to rely on the law and the courts alone will not be enough to get us out of the reactionary cycle of race relations we have slipped into since the euphoric immediately post-1994 time.

According to the South African Institute for Race Relations, in 2000 72% of South Africans believed that race relations were improving. In 2012 that figure had slipped to 39%. Another recent survey found that the proportion of Africans saying they would never trust whites increased from 68% in 2009 to 73% in 2013 and conversely for whites from 40% to 44%.

Apart from the negative trend, these figures also illustrate that racial prejudice is not the exclusive domain of any particular group. While it is a complicated and multi-faceted area with factors like economic divides playing a role, the figures also challenge the conventional perception that whites are more racist-inclined than blacks.

Multi-pronged approach

The figures also clearly indicates that the problem becomes embedded at community level, but as indicated above, it is often driven by and manifests itself at individual level.

Racism is more a bottom-up than a top-down phenomenon. It starts in individual homes and primary educational environments. What the law and courts will not change, is the upbringing that delivered five young individuals who showed total disrespect to an older fellow human being in a Cape Town shopping mall. In short, their parents and other members of their generation, who played key roles in their upbringing, should shoulder a large slice of the blame for what happened.

Lesson from the past

The first and only good hiding I remember receiving from my father, a humble blue-collar worker who as a ‘depression kid’ only had a grade eight education, was 61 years ago when I was in grade one. He caught me being “parmantig” (cheeky) with the Sotho lady who worked for us as a domestic.

The hiding was accompanied by a lecture – an instruction rather – that I will respect grownups. On the back of that lesson my own children were taught, among other things, to call all grownups “oom” or “tannie” (uncle or aunt) irrespective of colour or status.

What I at times learned at school did not always complement that lesson taught at home, but that was the one that stuck.

It is, however, little less than a tragedy that two decades after our big moment of ‘reconciliation’ in 1994 an illustration in a grade nine exam paper depicts racial stereotyping – a fat white man being fed by skinny black man, who can also be perceived as a slave.

The question is, did whoever pick that picture pause for a second to think about how it helps to entrench or strengthen existing racial stereotypes? He or she owes the nation an apology.


As a nation we will do well to take note of what has been happening in Ferguson, USA, in recent times and realise that for South Africa on the race front things are infinitely more complicated and that the country as a whole is a big potential Ferguson.

I agree with Sisonke Msimang writing in the Daily Maverick: “If we do not reverse the current trend of diminishing trust and hardening attitudes, then we are surely headed for a race war and so whether we like it or not, we must live together as more than passing colleagues.”

But to tackle it incident by incident at a time will not be good enough to ward off a national disaster. What is needed is a new national dialogue throughout all society’s formations, starting in our homes, about the future we want hand to our children.

by Piet Coetzer

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