Coming to grips with racism – simplistic approaches won’t do


South Africa desperately needs not only balance but also more nuance and holistic understanding in the dangerous racial debate that has been raging in recent weeks.

And it need not be all doom and gloom on the racial front. It could also pan out to realise the dream formulated last week by Trevor Jennings that on the front of race relations South Africa “will become a light for the world.”

There was also some progress towards balance in battling racism last week when the governing ANC not only laid criminal charges against two Democratic Alliance public representatives, but also against one of their own – an official who called for South Africa to be cleansed of all whites “as Hitler did to the Jews”.

The statement by ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, however, rings somewhat hollow for the fact that the ANC affiliation of the one accused is not mentioned. An ANC member of parliament who called for a block of flats in Cape Town to be burned down is also conspicuously absent on the list of those being charged.  

Historical context

This apparent bias by the ANC on the racism front can probably be explained by the fact that 2016 is an election year and, more importantly, by looking at it in the context of historical patterns.

In an insightful article on politicsweb last week Shawn Hagedorn wrote: “History offers incongruent lenses in that it was the pre- and early-industrial versions of global trade which compounded tribal rivalries into racial prejudices leading to an imperial world order.”

Historically, in many parts of the world, it has become a pattern that during times of economic hardship that political opportunists to mobilise groups on racial lines.

Cause and effect

More importantly, and what should be realised and receive focused attention in dealing with rising racial tensions and anxieties in South Africa, is the link between socio-economic conditions, politics and the rise in racism. Hagedorn headlined his article, “Economic stagnation, Racial discontent,” with a subhead “Race, politics and economics weave and swoon”.

He also pointed out that the “central shortcoming of today’s global order – respect for national sovereignty encouraging clientelism – now threatens not just many resource endowed nations but also, through massive immigrant flows, European integration.”

Racist and hate speech are often manifestations of socio-economic frustrations and fears for the future that boil to the surface.

These fears and economic discontent then, again in the words of Hagedorn, “suit opportunists to peddle prisms which emphasise colour differences while blocking illumination of shared insights. Racial tensions are manipulated to de-legitimate genuine interests.”

Broader perspective

The time has come for all South Africans, and especially leadership cadres on all fronts, to realise that the country, like most others across the globe, is caught in a profound period of transition to a ‘new normal’.

This is illustrated by the recently release Oxfam report, “An economy for the 1%”, which among other things states about the present global economic system: “It is failing the majority of people, and failing the planet”. Jay Naidoo posed the question: “Is our world descending into flames?” and in a New York Times article Adam Davidson wanted to know: “Why are corporations hoarding trillions?”

Davidson dealt with the “economic mystery” that big corporations for the first time in history have become savers of capital instead of being the traditional borrowers. He came to the conclusion that if corporate leaders and their investors truly believed that the future were bleak, that innovation and economic growth were irreparably slowing, there would be little reason to hold on to all that cash. “Their hoarding of it hints that they think the next transformative innovation could be just around the corner. If in fact they do – and if they’re right – it’s good news for all of us.”

If South Africa however, fails to deal holistically and adequately with the challenge of adapting to the developing or transition to a ‘new normal’, the country will not share in the ‘good news’ of tomorrow.

Other elements

There are also other elements of, or contributing to, the transition taking place in the world. It is not for nothing that the focus at the World Economic Forum in Davos was “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. At the core of it is technological development and the implications thereof – its challenges and opportunities, resulting from ever greater connectivity. For one, is our educational system preparing us to meet these challenges and opportunities?

Another part of the new reality, and to which South Africa has been thoroughly exposed of late, is the prominence that the cybersphere has given us ‘people’s power’. Not only government, but also prominent individuals and businesses have realised over recent weeks that they will have to learn – and learn quickly – how to deal with this phenomenon.

There is also a need to look and think outside the box in terms of the formal structure of our economy, at present so heavily dependent on resources. Some studies argue that our so-called ‘informal sector’ could become a major driver of economic growth and employment opportunities.

What’s to be done?

‘Team South Africa’ will have to come to terms with the complexities of the new reality and its root causes. For all and sundry, from the ANC and DA and civil organisations, to drag individuals to court for racial indiscretions and hate speech, amounts to escapism and oversimplification.

Equally, it is cause for huge disappointment when a prominent business person simplistically and controversially declares: “If we do not change the Zuma regime, then I think we’re going to see a downgrade somewhere in the year.”

It is a good start that a social cohesion advocates’ group and others are taking initiatives to unite South Africans despite racial division.

However, unless the underlying socio-economic causes are addressed, we will become a failed state. Maybe it is time for revisit of the National Development Plan on a broad and truly inclusive basis to develop a unifying national vision as a nation.

Also readRace, racism and racists: pots and kettles abound

                    Apartheid – the lighter side of darkness

                   Race and racism  

by Piet Coetzer

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