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Driven by race

I was fortunate last week to attend the Fourth World Summit on Arts and Culture at Museum Africa in Newtown last week.

The theme of the summit was “Meeting of Cultures: Creating Meaning Through the Arts”. For three days, we talked about intercultural dialogue and cultural diversity and everyone was agreed, roughly, on the need for both.

However, this message did not seem to reach everyone and two incidents made me realise just how ingrained racism is in our society.

The first incident happened after the second day of the summit when African delegates (as in delegates from African countries) met to discuss the formation of an African chapter of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies (IFACCA), which hosted the summit.

There was huge support from the international agency and other African countries for a South African who had been instrumental in putting the summit together to be appointed as the interim coordinator of this chapter, but, of course, there were objections from some South African delegates: because this person was not considered black by them.

This person happens to be classified as “coloured” in South African racial terms and I have always thought that such people were considered black in terms of our Constitution.

Not that that should have mattered. The only thing that should have mattered was whether this person was capable of doing the job.

The second incident was maybe not as significant but it was certainly more crass.

On the second evening of the summit, we were driven to Maropeng, close to the Sterkfontein caves, for a dinner and an introduction to what South Africans like to believe is the “cradle of humankind”.

After an hour’s drive, we arrived at Maropeng and, once we got inside, we realised that our driver did not quite know where he was supposed to take us. In fact, he dropped us off at a completely wrong venue.

Once we got back on the bus, one of the employees of the National Arts Council (NAC) of South Africa, who were co-sponsoring the event, asked the driver whether he had GPS in the bus, because that would indicate to us where we had to go.

The driver responded curtly that he had been to Maropeng more than a hundred times. When the NAC employee tried to suggest that he should check his GPS, he responded even more abruptly. The NAC employee then said: “I need to take your name because you are being very rude” to which the driver responded loudly: “No, you are being damned fucking rude.”

Those of us in the bus, including people from all over the world, were completely shocked at the response of the bus driver.

As we got off the bus, I heard the driver telling a security guard: “He thinks we can go back to the days when they used to call us kaffirs.”

The driver, as you might have guessed, was what we in South Africa call African or black or African black (I can’t keep up anymore). The NAC employee was a fair-skinned “coloured”.

The driver was young and probably never experienced apartheid, while the NAC employee was much older and lived through apartheid. In fact, I spoke to him later and he recalled how his family had suffered under the Group Areas Act and other apartheid legislation.

I thought that, just because he is black or African or African black, the driver thought that gave him the right to accuse a “coloured” man, who knows more about apartheid than him, of racism.

At the summit, I had shared a panel with author and journalist Max du Preez and poet Lebo Mashile. I was much more positive than both of them about the situation in South Africa today. After these two incidents, I found myself thinking that maybe I was wrong to be so positive. Maybe we are so deep in the racial morass that we can’t get out of it again. I hope I am wrong and can still remain positive.


  • Ryland Fisher is former editor of the Cape Times and author of the book Race. This is his second book, following on Making the Media Work for You, which was published in 2002. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He received an international media award for this project in New York in October 2006. His personal motto is "bringing people together", which was the theme of One City Many Cultures. It remains the theme of the Cape Town Festival and is the theme of Race. Ryland has worked in and with government, in the media for more than 25 years, in the corporate sector, in NGOs and in academia. Ultimately, however, he describes himself as "just a souped-up writer".


  1. G G 28 September 2009

    I’m wondering if “racism” is ingrained in us, or is it “merely” a chip on the shoulder and an endemic victim mentality?

  2. mv2997 mv2997 28 September 2009

    You need to read Helen Zille’s article in Politicsweb.
    Did you ask the young driver if Malema is his idol and whom he worships?

    That is the new breed of young black South Africans who slavishly digest Malema’s continual racist rantings.

    Heaven would not be able to help a white person mouthing reverse racism such as the mini-me Prez.
    Hate speech and jail would be the consequences.

  3. Kitty Kat Kitty Kat 28 September 2009

    But here is the contradiction. I personally believe that this unintended consequence is the result of our own national inability to have dealt with racism to get us to a non-racial nation. We failed to have a national program of disabuse. We failed to systematically implement a strategy of acknowledgement, healing and a practical solution. I cannot understand how we seemingly expected this diverse society to have found ways and mechanisms of dealing with this issue. And yet, it was an issue that was the impetus of our struggle. The ideal of non-racialism is what many many comrades have fought and died for. I fail to understand why we are so complacent and why we want to paper over the cracks, point fingers and dismiss this issue as someone else’s responsibility. I have huge faith in our country and am truly patriotic to all that is South African. But the unimaginable chauvinism and this we and them has got to stop sometime. The question is: DID WE BUILD A NON-RACIST SOCIETY POST 1994 and did everyone agree to this as part of our nationbuilding?

  4. Kitty Kat Kitty Kat 28 September 2009

    ps I am not condoning the conduct of the driver. It is just plain rude and disrespectful for any person to be that obnoxious. In fact, he should be disciplined by his employer and dismissed. That is what we call gross misconduct.

  5. Dave Harris Dave Harris 28 September 2009

    Hey Ryland, its sad to see racial incidents like this in the Cape but can’t you see that Africans may possibly feel oversensitive since they regard the Colored vote that swept the DA into power in the Cape as a betrayal of the black (African, Colored and Indian) struggle against white rule? The reality is that most Africans continue to be marginalized in Cape Town. Now the Cape, with the ruling racist DA party, has been taken on the mantle of the last bastion of apartheid in SA.

    Oh by the way: Has our historic picturesque Bo-Kaap been gentrified yet with overpriced flats and lofts for our urban yuppies ? Have landrights to the displaced District 6 for the 60000 families displaced by apartheid been restored yet? Helen Zille only shows “displeasure” about this whenever its election time… LOL

  6. Grant Walliser Grant Walliser 28 September 2009

    I think the huge step forward in this piece is the realisation that racism is not only the stereotypical white on black kind that fueled Apartheid. When we realise that in fact all people are capable of it, we can start to address it as a human condition that we need to start moving away from. When it belongs to one group only, the rest of the population feel absolved of taking any reasponsibility towards eradicating it from their own behaviour. The guys you incriminate above probably feel that what they did is not racist at all and in fact your driver seems to feel that he is in fact a victim of racism instead of a perperator. I think we will get there once the government eventually decides to remove the race label from all interactions in our society and focus instead on fair and equitable policies for all. Until then we are stuck with a kind of lingering Apartheid for ‘good reasons’. My view: better to abolish race now and take the pain up front than to create a new culture in which race is once again a key feature.

  7. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 28 September 2009

    All American “blacks” are really coloured, which is what they used to call themselves before the 1960s.They think our coloured are a mix of white and black sleeping together – like most of them are. In fact – blacks and whites had not even met when Afrikaans was created.

    And the coloureds are the indigeneous people combined with Indonesian slaves – not whites or blacks. Just tell him that next time.

  8. Benzol Benzol 28 September 2009

    Fits in with my experience. The young (25-35) seem to take on the Malema cult when addressing other people. Slippery slope into total chaos.

    I have advised my 23 year old to prepare for other areas until this storm is over.

  9. DJ Short DJ Short 28 September 2009

    Ryland, from my viewpoint – this behaviour is common place in South Africa. Needless to say, in a society where many blacks deny coloureds the respect they deserve, something is seriously wrong. I inadvertently think back to a time when the Nationalist apartheid government took control of SA and aimed to free Afrikaners from a legacy of British domination. Very soon after they took power, it was evident how the victim became the perpetrator. History has many examples but your article is a chilling reminder of the potential outcome of a dominant race-oriented mind set.

  10. Scarface Scarface 29 September 2009

    I think you hit the nail on the head…we are too deep in the racial mud, I doubt if three generations would be enough to let the past rest where it should be.

  11. Solly MOENG Solly MOENG 29 September 2009

    Ryland, this is one of the best pieces of writing you’ve done in a while, thanks!

    Aren’t we all so fucked-up?

  12. Phindile M Phindile M 29 September 2009

    Let us redo this thing of racism for just once more in the present terrain of relations, so that maybe we could exhaust this anger i.e. the escape of a prey (blacks) whilst one was enjoying it and the cushioning of a criminal (black) whilst one was about to get revenge. Let us throw more verbal garbage to each other so that the next generation could have a cause to start another struggle to criminalize what we would be doing.

  13. Ali Ali 29 September 2009

    Thanks god I’m a white man. No whities involved, for a change…

  14. Chris in Aus Chris in Aus 29 September 2009

    @ Ryland
    Good and relevant piece, thanks.

    @ Solly Moeng and Scarface
    Yes, I think South Africans are, unfortunately

    @ Dj Short
    I agree

    @ Lyndall Beddy
    True about American “blacks” (I think), if it matters. Within some years, the majority in the USA will actually be “non-European” (excuse me for using a term non-PC in SA) – incl Asian, Latin American, so the mix and demographics are changing.

    About SA coloureds, not totally accurate. Btw, most (if not all) SAfrican “whites” who have any ancestors in SA going back, say 200 years or more, are really “coloured” too. Most people who studied genealogy or early history would know this – fairly easy to research through DNA testing or archival documents. For Afrikaners, esp Indian ancestors are very common (due to slavery), but also Indonesian, Khoi-san, and (fewer) blacks – esp from West and East Africa (again slavery). Slaves came from as far away as China and even Japan. Total estimates vary from 6 to 12%. European woman were scarce, and the Cape became a multi-ethnic melting pot. In the early years, many dark skinned people were integrated into “white” society, though not all. And then at some point, racial classification happened.
    So the barriers between “whites” (Afrikaners esp) and “coloureds” were real, yet artificial imo. Very interesting from an historical and sociological pov, but won’t it be nice if all the racial stuff did not matter any more from a societal pov.

  15. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 29 September 2009

    If you remember back in 1995 – there was much less racism then.

    Black racism has deliberately been fostered by the ANC to give the people “an enemy” (like Hitler did to the Jews), to keep themselves in power.

    It has also created a violent society.

  16. Neuren Neuren 29 September 2009

    It is my feeling that South Africa is in for a rocky ride in the near future. Put yourself into the position of a young black person trying to reap the benefit of post apartheid SA, and still being confronted with petty racism, prejudiced wage scales etc, and this from the position of economic disadvantage and ludicrously long commuting.

    I can understand why someone like Julius Malema would be so appealing. His divisive techniques can only cause more harm though.

    A good place to start blunting the race card would be to ensure that a fair days wage is paid for a fair days work. Too many people, consciously and unconsciously, are taking advantage of, skilled and semi skilled people, because they are black, and this short term cost efficiency is done at the expense of an inclusive South African society, which is no longer an option for us.

  17. sid sid 29 September 2009

    Hmmm so you’ve seen the light (or is it darkness Mr Fisher. I think the “culture” you’ve seen is the since 1994 result of huge expectation, a population explosion, a failed education system, a stagnant economy and race based rabble rousing and excuses by every politician from Mbeki to Malema. It’s come home to temporary roost in the criticism of Manuel and Gordhan.

    This merry band with Malema nominally at the helm could be the SA equivalent of Mr Mugabe’s war veterans.

    No one dares really speak out about the abuse based on race although Jacob Zuma has almost been the most level headed. Too many people, from Jody Kollapen to Jimmy Manyi, and even one of TL’s resident racists, D Harris, owe their existence to keeping racism alive and well for it to be actively challenged.

  18. Coen Coen 30 September 2009

    @Dave Harris, where are you from dude, this incident was in the good old Gauteng, specifically the West Rand area, round about 1400km’s away from the evil DA bastion of evil apartheid reactionaries doing a sterling job of governing the ruly masses. Gauteng is pretty much benign lovable ANC territory.
    @Kitty Kat, I think we need a debate on cultures/race NOW! Try an figure out and understand differences between cultures (not race, this is not scientific and does not exist as a lot of people has made me understand) and negotiate solutions that will be mostly agreeable to all, and remove the power base of the Malema’s of this world in playing these cards.

  19. Diti Diti 30 September 2009

    Most black South Africans also have Khoi-San ancestry I for one and my husband do and many others and I’m considered black, there was a lot of intermarriage between the various Bantu tribes with the Khoi-San,so what?

    I’m 25 and I can honestly say that the racism and bitterness spoken of existed in 1995, during Madiba’s era and I can’t understand why some people would like to pretend that but for Mbeki’s era black people would not be bitter or angry, it’s just crazy. The source of black people’s anger (legitimate or not) has nothing to do with Mbeki I think that’s a lame excuse.

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