As fear and loathing play out in this country, the real question is what can be done to mend SA’s racial divide?

In the aftermath of Eugene Terre’Blanche’s death and Julius Malema’s divisive tantrums, the social Web proved a powerful mirror to South Africa’s fractured soul. Hate speech and violent talk bled out onto Facebook pages at the same time that Dozi was mouthing drunken racial slurs and Steve Hofmeyr was making a fool of himself, yet again.

The racial tension so evident after Terre’Blanche’s violent death has been simmering for a long time. Well before the event, a virtual race war played out on Malema fan and protest pages on Facebook, over the issue of Julius Malema singing that song. The divide then was caused in part by a phantom going by the name of Thato Mbateti Mbateti, who used anonymity to spew hatred and dispense foreboding.

It’s not that simple

More recently a host of Facebook pages and social networking initiatives have sprung up in the naïve hope of being virtual band aids to what is a deep and complex social problem. If only it was that simple.

A society divided by massive disparity and inequality, yet until recently cloaked by the veneer of a “rainbow nation”, South Africa is easily disposed to racial tension. Our collective history is bloody, violent and pockmarked with racial and tribal wars.

This country is a living contradiction. We have a noble constitution with a world-leading Bill of Rights that legislates equality, social justice and democratic values. Yet we are a country of massive economic and social divides, in some economic categories amongst the most unequal in the world.

The ticking time bomb

South Africa’s jobless youth are what FM calls the country’s ticking time bomb. In March, the financial weekly reported that “2.5 million young people aged 18 to 24 are neither working nor in any kind of education or training”. South Africa has one of the highest rates of poverty globally, and the second highest Gini coefficient in the world, which indicates the gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

Clearly the systemic problems that dispose South Africa to racial tension can’t be fixed overnight. How then can we try to stem racial hatred both online and in the real world?

Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS) is a compassionate voice of reason in the emotional madness of South Africa’s race debate. Jansen gave eloquent expression to South Africa’s race crisis during his inaugural speech at the UFS when he said:

“Who would have thought that barely a decade after the miracle of our transition we would be talking about “minorities” in a democracy founded on the principles of non-racialism? Who could have imagined that in Mandela’s country human appointments to jobs would be instructed by that calculating phrase, ‘the demographics of the country’? And who could have predicted the bare-knuckled violence that kills white farmers on their lands and foreign nationals on our streets, or that the poorest of black citizens would be felled by the racial anger of an 18-year-old white boy barely out of high school?”

What every South African should read

A fearless maverick, Jansen is the author of Knowledge in the Blood and Diversity High: Class, Colour, Character and Culture in a South African High School (with Saloshna Vandeyar). I first read about Jansen’s book last year in an inspired column by Marianne Thamm in which she declared Knowledge in the Blood required reading for each and every South African.

She’s one hundred percent right. Knowledge in the Blood is the story of the transformation of the University of Pretoria. The brave and frank account of how Jansen brought understanding of the majority black culture to a predominantly white institution to help create a racially integrated place of learning.

Our collective history is bloody, violent and pockmarked with racial and tribal wars.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a narrow cast educational narrative. The book is a blueprint for transformation, of how change can be achieved on both a social and personal level.

We need an agreed, common narrative

The book answers the mystery about how young Afrikaners both remember and enact an apartheid past they never lived. Importantly, the book offers hopeful insights for forging a new South African narrative. Not one based on some “Rainbow Nation” delusion, but based on understanding and restoration. Jansen argues that the oppressors and the oppressed need to find historical common ground by forging a collective and inclusive narrative of apartheid that is “mutually conceived and resolved”.

And what do we do about the hate in the meantime? In his recent column on TimesLIVE, Jansen reminds us that words matter:

“What we sing, or say in poetry, or teach in classrooms, can heal or hurt. As parents, teachers, public servants or politicians we dare not leave our children without a sense of hope. We need to nurture through words positive views of other people, especially those whom society insists are different from us.”

The question we need to ask ourselves as we vehemently take up our right to freedom of speech and dive into another round of Facebook activism is whether we are hurting or whether we are healing. Whether the energy we’re using on social networks couldn’t be better directed toward social restoration instead of unthinkingly deepening the divide.

Find ways to cross over

Speaking to my friend, the writer Andrew Miller, he reminds me that there is an “outstanding issue that is not currently in currency”. He says the words matter, but asks to what extent our words (and, by extension, our actions on social platforms), posturing and ideologies are a refuge from our physical isolation from each other? “How will we interact when we never interact save for the strict confines of corporate life?” He advocates an end to talking and calls for actions, saying we should find physical ways to cross over the physical divides we have created. And if we do, then we might find the words follow suit.

Miller’s saying that as long as we remain as structurally isolated as we are and nothing is done to bridge the chasm, we’re well and truly buggered.

Words matter. But actions matter more.



Charles Lee Mathews

Writer who likes to draw.

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