I always get a kick out of recounting the story of the strictly religious Jewish youngster from the UK who a few years back accompanied me on a visit to the Sterkfontein Caves. When we arrived at the site, the first thing he did on leaving the car was to replace his yarmulka with a baseball cap. Naturally mystified, I asked him the reason for this. He, in turn, looked puzzled.
“But don’t you do it as well?” he asked.
It turned out that back in London (or Manchester, I forget which), many Orthodox Jews didn’t feel safe advertising their Jewishness when leaving their homes; in this regard, a baseball cap fulfilled the religious requirement of wearing a head covering without running the risk of being abused, whether physically or verbally.
I told my young companion to remove his disguise. “This is South Africa, bru,” I said, “We don’t worry about things like that here.” It felt really good to say it, especially as I knew it to be the truth.
Do South Africans really understand, let alone take pride in, how much they have accomplished? It is no accident that levels of anti-Semitism in this country, as measured by the number of actual incidents of anti-Jewish behaviour recorded each year, are startlingly lower than those of other countries, even reputable liberal democracies such as Canada, Australia, France and the United Kingdom. Jews feel more comfortable here because, for all the problems we face, we are succeeding in creating a society where diversity is respected and all forms of bigotry abhorred.
Naturally, what we have is far from perfect. Racial tensions and controversies continue to surface, and indeed have been doing so recently with a regularity that is a bit disquieting. On the one hand, there have been manifestations of the old-style anti-black racism, as shown by the University of the Free State hostel scandal. Then there was the now notorious David Bullard Sunday Times column, which was indeed hurtful and insensitive, although whether or not he should have been actually fired by the paper can be debated.
Less grotesque, but also disturbing — more so, perhaps, because it has occurred on an institutional basis — have been several high-profile cases of anti-white racism. The latter includes the racially motivated omission of Andre Nel from the national cricket team’s tour of India and, more indirectly, the exclusion of several white journalists from a Forum of Black Journalists meeting.
With regard to the latter incident, those who lamented the demise of the “rainbow nation”, apart from overreacting in typical South African fashion, were also missing the point. There never has been a “rainbow nation”. Rather, this is an ideal to strive towards, and it will take generations to achieve, if ever.
Racial tensions are always going to be with us. Most South Africans are carrying chips of one kind or another on their shoulders, and are continually prone to regarding “the other” with fear, suspicion and resentment. This needs to be dealt with maturely, rather than the usual recourse to Afropessimism and fatalistic conspiracy theorising. What we can, and surely should, be taking heart from is the genuinely strong national consensus that unfair discrimination has no place in the society we are trying to build and that there exist so many institutions — among them the Human Rights Commission, Equality Court and, of course, a free media — to expose and confront it.