Let’s not make discrimination a race to the bottom

Ideas

Let’s not make discrimination a race to the bottom

Social cohesion: It is time we tackled racism head-on

Veli Mthembu

The scourge of apartheid, in the form of racial discrimination, continues to afflict South Africa in the democratic era. This practice is obviously done and condoned by beneficiaries of apartheid who want to hold on to the privileges that amassed to them as a result of race-based discrimination. 
While the country is working towards social cohesion, these people remain determined to throw a spanner in the works. In the apartheid era, racial discrimination in the form of hatred towards black people, and the deprivation of economic and political rights to the same group, were two sides of the same coin. This practice is unfortunately passed on from generation to generation. Hence you find children, and teachers too,  who are blatantly racist and will make demeaning remarks to black pupils. It comes as no surprise then that racism is so pervasive that it permeates every sector of society.March 21 is when South Africa commemorates Human Rights Day. It originates from the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when 69 people were shot and killed in a group that was protesting against the pass laws. The United Nations gave it global significance and called it International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It is an important landmark through which we reflect on the past, assess the present state of the nation, and map the way forward in terms of eliminating racism and building social cohesion.However, it is quite strange and disturbing that the discussion on racism seems taboo in interracial interaction in our social spaces. We rather, conveniently, talk about superficial issues and pretend the issue does not exist. While progressive white people can engage on the subject, generally they rather stay clear of the topic. They become uncomfortable upon hearing the words racist or racial discrimination. Meanwhile black people, justifiably so, harbour ill-feeling and resentment about the issue and its concomitant material and economic deprivation. For both sides this is unhealthy – there has to be catharsis for the sake of long-term peace and stability.
As a country, I do not see us making any progress on this matter as long as we are on this trajectory. For the benefit of everyone, black and white, we need to put mechanisms in place that will make it possible for these educational and eye-opening discussions to take place in churches, workplaces and every social space where we interact as different racial groups. The time is now, lest we allow intransigence and bigotry to persist and undermine the strides we have made towards unity and equality, both in terms of treatment and opportunity.It is imperative that we provide education on this very sensitive subject, and make it a normal issue that can be addressed frankly and factually even during lunch hour discussions at work. Such an intervention will engender a change in attitude to a significant number of white people and make them see everything in perspective – taking into account how apartheid indoctrinated them and deliberately shielded them from reality. While the church perpetuated apartheid policies, by commission and by omission, in some instances, it is incumbent upon them to atone by taking the lead in this regard.We need to come to a point where if people say you are racist, you do not become angry and defensive. But instead you take them by the hand and, out of concern, ask them why they feel that way. And if they can show that you are indeed racist in speech, conduct, or policy, you thank them for helping you identify that shortcoming; and then you correct the situation.
Defensiveness will unavoidably occur if you are indeed pursuing a racist agenda. Being accused of racism should be on the same level as when someone accuses you of gender bias, for instance.  In this case, you find that people are willing to get drawn into the discourse and examine the situation without emotion. They get involved in the discussion in a rational manner and acknowledge the wrongfulness of noncompliance on their part.    
It’s going to be an arduous journey. But it is a crucial building block for a bedrock of a sustainable and united South Africa.
Veli Mthembu is the chairperson of Impophoma Yesizwe, a non-profit organisation that addresses issues of social justice and inequality.

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