Black racism in SA

Post-1994, other kinds of racism have grown alongside ‘traditional’ white-on-black hostility in SA

IN THAT boring space between Christmas and New Year, just about anything makes the news.

So, when artist Lindiwe Suttle, singer Simpiwe Dana and politician Helen Zille got into a non-spat this week about whether Cape Town is racist, social media sites were abuzz.

Obviously informed by boredom, many seemed to enjoy the opportunity to be outraged, amused and titillated by a potential catfight.

While it might have been as interesting as watching two-minute noodles expand in a bowl, there was something about the issue of race that lingered.

These days, we generally shy away from race, almost as we’ve all been so traumatised by the vicious pummeling inflicted by former president Thabo Mbeki while he was in office. So often, as a means of shutting up critics, he would employ a destructive pattern of race.

As a result, we have largely kept quiet about one of the most bitterly divisive and painful legacies that apartheid bequeathed us all.

The exchanges between Zille, Suttle and Dana are, in some ways, a theatrical spat between three conceited divas, each wishing to assert her right to be heard and to be right.

But, underneath it all, there is truth too. It is the truth of two young women who keenly feel – even from the safety of their privileged and protected lives – that a dark skin can still invite contempt and disrespect.

Can we really deny Suttle and Dana their right in recognising those uncomfortable feelings that sweep across the texture of one’s dark skin when there is a perceived or authentic racist attitude present?

There is also the truth of Zille, a middle-aged white woman who runs the Western Cape, and whose greatest desire is to prove that her province can be a beacon in the midst of an ANC-run country.

It is natural that she will be protective of all her people, demanding examples of actual racism before acknowledging that the two young women might have real cause to complain. She will even go so far as to tell one not to be a "professional black".

That straightforward racism has receded since 1994 is not in dispute. We have learnt to live with each other’s differences to a very large and surprising degree. Perhaps we have done this because we’ve accepted that there is just no getting away from each other.

But there are other kinds of racism that have grown alongside the "traditional" white-on-black racism.

It is the degrees of separation that lie in being black; about who and what qualifies for blackness.

It is precisely here where we run into a minefield of the politics of identity, belonging and outsider status.

It is about coloured people in the Western Cape who fear the rise of Africans; that they will take their houses and jobs and reduce them further as the "non-person" Marike de Klerk once described them as.

It’s there in KwaZulu-Natal, where Indian people seek refuge in their culture, religion and a distant motherland to hide their discomfort about the Zulus in their midst.

But that insistence on degrees of blackness is far more troubling when it manifests itself in the government and ruling party.

In 2009, after President Jacob Zuma announced his first cabinet, some African ministers – Lindiwe Sisulu and Nathi Mthethwa – criticised the fact that Pravin Gordhan, Ebrahim Patel, Barbara Hogan, Rob Davies and Reserve Bank governor Gill Marcus had been appointed to the economic cluster.

As far as they were concerned, Zuma should have given the jobs to real blacks, that is, Africans.

The ANC was quick to criticise the "minority" comments, saying that such language did not exist within the party.

How could it when one of its foremost political bibles, the Freedom Charter, only makes reference to black and white, without any mention of degrees of black oppression?

But that Africanism does not live only among the mandarins of Luthuli House. We know it is there in society. It is there when young African people question coloureds and Indians, using the term "black" to describe themselves.

It is to be found in the words of the Jimmy Manyis of South Africa, who speak of an over-concentration of coloureds in the Western Cape as if talking about an alarming infestation of rats that must be exterminated. It is in Manyi’s utterances about Indians in KwaZulu-Natal.

It is in the civil service, where those who are not African have resigned themselves to wait at the back of the queue for advancement, even though they have skills.

Should we be sticking to the long grass, then carefully checking out the way in which the wind blows and power is accumulated and distributed before we talk about this? It will not go away just because it makes us uncomfortable, because it makes us feel as if we have not overcome our past. All we need to do is to cast our eyes up north and remember a terrible, catastrophic ethnic war that led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

It started among neighbours and the whispered insult "cockroach". The next thing the world knew there was a 20th-century genocide in a country called Rwanda.


(date:) 2011-12-31

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