Our filthy, dirty past: We can’t pretend we aren’t tainted by it
Whether we want to believe it or not, all South Africans are affected by the country’s racially divisive history
“I have clean hands!” exclaimed the human rights commissioner, loud enough so that everyone around the table could hear she was untainted by our racist past.I remember feeling a mix of amusement and astonishment. How can anyone who lived on both sides of 1994 ever claim to have been unaffected by our oppressive history?
The occasion was the final stages of the reconciliation and reparation sessions between four white male students who had humiliated five black workers on the University of the Free State campus in 2008.
When I joined the university more than a year later it was very clear to me that the problem of racism was not, as my white colleagues insisted, “four bad apples”. Rather, it was an institution that, through its history and value system, had made such racist behaviour normative — the most natural thing in the world.
Now, as the four boys asked the workers for forgiveness, the black colleagues responded with immediate love and generosity. “But of course, we forgive you,” they said, as many of us around that table choked with emotion.
It was then that I ventured that we all have dirty hands, troubled by our divided past; to which the human rights colleague responded with the triumphant “clean hands” exclamation.Unless you were born and grew up on the planet Mars, all South Africans are tainted by that horrible past.
In the hierarchy of races, classes and ethnicities that colonialism and apartheid created and reinforced, you were taught to look down on someone else. Skin mattered, hair mattered, language and accent mattered, place of residence mattered, schools attended mattered, heritage and culture mattered. There were people who rushed to be reclassified “upwards” to be reconciled with their families separated from them by the Population Registration Act of the 1950s, but many others did so simply to enjoy the status and privilege of the higher castes.
Who are we fooling? English whites looked down on Afrikaners, who return the favour to this day; they used to be called two different races over a century ago, and they hated each other.
There are Coloured people who still look down on Africans, and Indians who think they are a notch above both Coloureds and Africans. There were and still are Africans who, dominant in numbers, regard themselves as superior to lesser ethnic groups; I hear those stories all the time.
And we are now in a time of reverse resentments. Those once placed at the bottom of those racial (but also class and ethnic) hierarchies are resenting the relative power and privileges of those above them. Now all you need is a racial populist as a politician to stoke those resentments and lead us down a sure path of mutual self-destruction as a nation.
In this flammable context, an individual is enough to explain the group – as in the tragic case of a young woman called Alochna Moodley.Moodley was the passenger on a kulula.com flight from Johannesburg to Durban who sent a text to her boyfriend referring to the black captain by the dreaded k-word. The black man next to her saw the racist text and reported the woman, who was promptly ejected from the plane.
She blamed her education as reported by TimesLIVE: “My school curriculum did not teach me of the atrocities of apartheid. Any mention of it was in passing without the details of the oppression, especially of black people in this country.”Now of course this is nonsense.
She learnt to hate from many other agencies of socialisation including families, friends and, yes, even teachers and other influential adults in her life. But to reduce her disgraceful behaviour to missing content in the school curriculum is, of course, purely silly.
The curriculum, said one of my favourite thinkers, is the story we tell our children about the past. We can of course tell undiluted stories that divide our people into convenient camps of good and evil. We can ignore the sell-outs in the black community who propped up the homelands system and the tri-cameral parliament, thereby sustaining the myth that all black South Africans were anti-apartheid.But we can also ignore the fact that many Indians, Coloureds, Africans and whites stood in solidarity against racial oppression and economic exploitation of black South Africans over more than a century.
This racial scapegoating by groups like the EFF (“Indians are racist”) and the racial victimhood of AfriForum (“whites face a pending genocide”) are extremely dangerous tactics for seeking political attention in a highly flammable society when it comes to race relations.
In this much broader curriculum about our past we must, of course, give an account of racial power and privilege and how it shapes the present; but we must also tell stories about interracial solidarity including those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom such as Neil Aggett, Dulcie September, Jeanette Schoon and Sadhan Naidoo.