Searching for our truth, in black and white
Is racism getting worse? Experts say it's complicated but there is hope
“Racists don't read, don't listen, don't learn and don't repent. It's not the truth they're seeking. It is to inflict more pain. But still, even in death, Mama Winnie rises above them all.”
These were the words of a woman who calls herself “Mats” on Twitter, who follows 185 people and who is followed by 200. She describes herself as an academic and businesswoman and a “daughter, mother, wife, best friend and colleague”.
Her comment in the heat of the social media debate around the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was retweeted dozens of times and liked more than 100 times.
Her words struck a chord.She was an average South African sharing her observations about race, as tension between black and white manifested in vicious debates on social media over how Madikizela-Mandela should be remembered.
The polarised sentiments led Times Select to ask: Is anti-white and anti-black sentiment becoming more pronounced, 24 years after the official end of apartheid?
Times Select spoke to a wide range of analysts and academics for insight into the South African psyche.
No whispers in the dark
Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have created a platform for views that were once only privately expressed. They bring people with the same views together but also create polarisation and an “us vs them” mentality, experts say.Clinical psychologist Kempie van Rooyen says even though it is not always representative of society, social media has a huge influence.
“I don’t think you can ignore it …This is not something whispered in the dark,” says Van Rooyen.
“Once there is an expression of racism on a public platform ... it is not just a random anonymous statement.”
Associate professor at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape Suren Pillay says people use social media as if it is a private space.
“Everybody is able to put out an opinion in an easy, quick and spontaneous way. These views circulate very quickly.”
Pillay says social media conversations show there are a lot of unresolved issues among South Africans.
“There is a certain frustration in society that white South Africa has not perhaps displayed a recognition or embraced the idea that they were beneficiaries of apartheid.“One of the weaknesses of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was that it displaced the responsibility of apartheid onto political leaders and the members of security forces, but ordinary people could say: ‘I did not participate in violations of human rights.’ Then they could conclude that ‘I don’t have any responsibility for dealing with legacy of apartheid’.”
He says this unresolved tension was visible in social media discussions about Madikizela-Mandela.
Ndumiso Dladla, University of South Africa philosophy lecturer, says Twitter has allowed conversations about race and poverty to gather steam.
“People can now watch other conversations and join in. It can turn the conversations we have been having in private homes into a national conversation,” says Dladla, who wrote the book Here is a table: A philosophical essay on the history of race in South Africa.
It’s also about economics
The economic crunch is a fertile ground for racial tensions and populism, says Frans Cronje, CEO of the Institute of Race Relations.
He notes that the Institute’s research shows 70% of South Africans hold moderate views about race and wish to work together to build a better society. But this is changing as poverty increases.“I ascribe the fraying at the edges, and the risk this holds should it continue, almost entirely to the post-2007 economic reversal.
“It is for this reason that we have continued to warn, despite our view that most South Africans are sensible and respect each other, that this may in and of itself prove insufficient to stem the tide of populism should South Africa not manage to now stage an economic recovery.”
Not enough has changed for black people, says Dladla.
“The majority of black people live in townships and use inferior schools and inferior hospitals. They are alienated from the wealth of the country. It is still possible to go to a restaurant and see the vast majority of customers are white and the staff black.”Unfinished business
It is a lack of change that causes black people to view the end of apartheid and political settlements as a farce, he says. “If you don’t have money, even the constitutional right to life is quite negotiable.
“There is a particular fury in South Africa.
“We see the negotiated settlement to end apartheid as the foundation of our problems and that is the cause of the eruptions that we are seeing right now. There are questions of unfinished business ... It was simple in the beginning because there was reason for optimism.”Researcher in the Department of Political and Governmental Studies at Nelson Mandela University Giovanni Poggi says democracy alone was never going to fix our problems, and economic improvements are needed.
“Unlike white-immigrant-favouring Australia, white South Africans cannot pretend that oppression did not leave indelible scars on our society. Democratisation alone could not possibly fix the many imbalances in our society that breed blatant and structural racism.
Pillay says white people, particularly farmers and poor whites who once worked in the civil service, also may express racism out of economic anxiety for the future since they are no longer beneficiaries of apartheid. Power has shifted from them and they are becoming more marginalised.
Someone to blame
“I am not arguing that there aren’t real issues. But there is a dynamic in South Africa of who can we look to blame for our problems,” says Van Rooyen, who understands race through understanding group psychology.
“For example, often one sees with victims of crime that very racialised narratives surface to explain the trauma.”
Politicians are part of the problem
Politicians were resorting to populist racial rhetoric to speak to the growing numbers of marginalised. EFF leader Julius Malema has uttered many anti-white sentiments, sparking fear and anger.But Cronje says the EFF is not the only culprit – all our political parties are populist because they do not have anything better to offer the electorate.
Creating a better society requires many building blocks: “A secure family environment, excellent schools and post-school education opportunities, safe communities, rising living conditions and huge increases in levels of employment and entrepreneurship.“And we have very few of these things at this time even though we were making considerable progress through the end of 2007,” says Cronje.
“Some like the EFF drive the racial populism hard almost all the time while the DA dabbles in it here and there – the ANC sits somewhere in the middle, nearly schizophrenic in its multitude of contradictory statements.”
Poggi says: “Election campaigning often very divisively creates multiple ‘us versus them’ scenarios to bolster the idea of an exclusive platform for political parties.
“… Due to an enduring radicalised stratification of inequality in South Africa, our mostly impoverished electorate will continue to find populist rhetoric appealing.”
What will save us?
Cronje: “The only real restitution is that South Africa becomes a country in which any child, born into any community, can rightly aspire to a middle-class standard of living.”
UCT political lecturer Lwazi Lushaba says it is time to start having honest conversations about race and hierarchies in society.
He offers some hope: “What is happening lately with discussions is pretty good.”