Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Racism in SA is real and it matters

By Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar

We have seen the distractions all around us.

We have been confronted with a great deal of flash but not much substance: from the protection orders urgently brought (and then discharged), to the newsletters from Helen Zille to the battle between a Chester and Ms Zille.

However, this sideshow distracts us — it makes us think that racism falls into the “exceptional” category something that we really shouldn’t be bothering about as we have so many other “pressing and more urgent” issues.

I think we miss the point that the social fabric of our democratic project is important — at the moment the blatant and brazen activity of racists is overwhelming much more than what we are seeing on our newsfeeds.

This affront to our democratic project is harmful and the current conversation is even more damaging as it discounts the reality that apartheid and the some 300 years before that was about advancing one group of people (white people, the minority) at the expense of another (black people, the vast majority).

The historical fact simply means that white South Africans (however well-meaning and noble) have benefited and been advantaged by that system of oppression. The historical backdrop to our democratic South Africa and issues in education have continued to perpetuate this inequality and South Africa without a doubt in mind is not only in fact but in spirit the most unequal society.

Cape Town might feel slighted when it is mentioned so easily in conversations about racism but the spatial geography that started during apartheid has been perfected during the past 20 years of democracy (with by-laws, improvement districts and property prices etc).

To look at such a breathtakingly beautiful city is easy but it seems much harder for us to acknowledge that resources and facilities are disproportionately placed and that in many ways we can work, live, eat and play with only those we wish to “associate with”.

The criticism that Cape Town receives for racism is fair (take it as the price you pay for being so beautiful yet so dark and twisted too) as we continue to fail to deal with that spatial geography that divides the city and its people.

A growing inequality and racism in South Africa is threatening the democratic project.  (Reuters)

A growing inequality and racism in South Africa is threatening the democratic project. (Reuters)


That is the backdrop of racism and inequality in this country — it continues to impact millions of South Africans who are disadvantaged and struggle every day to live a dignified life.

This is not the story of Twitter wars, or protection orders taken out against puppets but rather this is the harsh reality that we face as a country and as citizens.

A short year ago, Tata Madiba passed away.

It seems like a lifetime ago, and recently we have seen that racists appear to be bolder: Has Tata’s passing made them crawl out of the dark recesses within which they hide?

We must confront the truth — we know racists, some of them we call family or friends, some of them are people who have a following, some of them shock and surprise us but these people live among us.

These people are not the boogeymen hiding in some dark corner but rather “live among us” — sadly they often go unchallenged as we try to avoid conversations about race and inequality.

I have heard, sadly far too often, that we should just move on, “apartheid was such a long time ago” — NO it was not and secondly the harm of that oppressive system continues to plague millions of South Africans.

We have no need to pretend that apartheid never happened, we have no need to pretend that a certain group did not benefit, we have no time for pretending — we need to have tough and difficult conversations not this water-downed nonsense or the distractions.

Racism is often about identity and superiority and often we forget that racism does not always need to be brazen or acted out through a vicious attack.

Racism can play out in how people think. Look at gentrification, which seems to be consuming the landscape. Some people would go so far as to call gentrification a necessary event, and they often prefer words like “improvement” and of course “necessary”. We saw this plague during the 2010 World Cup, we’ve seen it with the xenophobic attacks and we continue to see it as people seem to be offended by the reality of this country — poverty, suffering, hardship and inequality.

They are not offended that such things exist in our country but rather they are offended that they must witness it. These people need a wake-up call and we must confront them and their prejudices head on.

Recently we’ve seen the unveiling of “art” pieces across the world design capital and they’ve been met, in my opinion, with justified questions about their authenticity, integrity and value in a society that is not polished or homogeneous as gentrification requires.

I am very grateful that we have a melting pot of cultures and experiences, after all that is what makes South Africa so amazing, but this white-washed (yes I had to use that phrase) approach to art/design and somehow linking it all to Tata Madiba is cheap, crude and unacceptable.

There is no new wave of brazen racism but rather we’re beginning to uncover a festering and overwhelming wound that criss-crosses race, class and age.

I remain hopeful that we will confront these people, that we will confront our politicians who have been far too silent on the issue. That we will begin to deal with the pain and suffering that inequality is meting out on millions of South Africans. That we will support puppets like Chester for so boldly taking on people like Dan Roodt and Steve Hofmeyr and who continue to provide much food for thought in his “conversation” with Ms Zille on Twitter.

Racism is a reality that many South Africans encounter on a daily basis. The democratic project that South Africa embarked on was tied to the idea of reconciliation and redemption. There is some way for us to go, the walk to freedom is long and we have many, many more hills to climb.

The words of Yolande Korkie following the death of her husband, just a day before his planned and negotiated release, of not wanting “hate to enter her heart” is a profound reminder of that grace and potential reconciliation that South Africa so boldly embraced in 1994.

We must not lose our way. Ask yourself: What are you doing to confront racism and prejudice? What are your elected officials (their silence on the issue has been very telling) doing about racism and inequality? Are you willing to let these people hijack our conversation? Can you deal with your undeserved advantage or can you transcend your (historical and sadly sometimes current) structured disadvantage?

Let us remember that “never again” is not just something you put on a T-shirt or hang in some gentrified art-house coffee shop but it is something we must all carry in our hearts and minds.

Let us confront these people, let us boldly disagree with those who wish to gloss over the historical reality, and never let someone make you think racism is a terrain we should not speak about.

We must confront it and demand from others to join us as we confront the growing inequality and racism that faces our democratic project.

Let us say “never again” and not let hatred enter our hearts. Racism is real and it does matter.

Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar, Mandela Rhodes Scholar, Mandela Washington Fellow, Lawman and a proud African who is passionate about the possibility of change and charting a different path.

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