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Reading the responses to my last blog, one can only wonder if honest introspection is at all possible in this society, rent as it is by greed and bigotry.

An anonymous little letter landed on my desk the other day. It was a photocopy of a book excerpt on the missionary, philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer, sent to me by one “Africa expert”.

“Africa expert” marked a few paragraphs that contain quotations from Schweitzer that apparently appeared in a now-defunct newspaper called Hoofstad on June 8 1981. According to these quotations, Schweitzer said that Africans are a “sub-race”.

However, while he contends that Africans are a “sub-race”, he also warns that the “White man” should desist from attempting to live on an equal footing with black people because the “White man” will be “swallowed up” and “all his work [will] be destroyed”.

Schweitzer also cautions “White men” that they should maintain the status of whites as “the master” and black people as “inferior”. Black people should be approached as “children that you would help or teach”.

Some deny that Schweitzer said these words. He has attracted controversy, with some people saying he was an “unconscious racist” and others saying he was just a racist, period.

Be that as it may, a quick internet search shows that the quotation is massively popular among racists across the globe as part of their arsenal of “evidence” that black people are “inferior”.

“Africa expert” added that s/he is sending me this racist tract in order to help me gain a “better perspective about African culture and the problems that South Africa is currently grappling with”.

“Africa expert” had apparently dug into some dusty old boxes to find the “truth” on the “real” challenge that we (meaning whites) are facing.

It is significant that the quotations appeared in 1981 in an Afrikaans newspaper — almost 20 years after Schweitzer apparently uttered these words in the early 1960s. It shows us what kind of propaganda the media were spreading willy-nilly. It also shows how racists latch on to certain discourses and circulate them unthinkingly decade after decade.

Let’s see what “African expert” wanted me to comprehend. There is a contradiction in the quotation. If black people are indeed a “sub-race”, equality between black and white would be impossible. But the quotation warns that white people should be careful to prevent equality. Implicit herein is an acknowledgement that black and white are indeed equal. Therefore, according to the quotation, white people have to apply themselves to keep black people in an inferior position.

This reminds me of two honest moments in the life of JG Strijdom, second apartheid prime minister. In 1946, he wrote a letter to the National Party hoofleier DF Malan in which he pointed out that urbanisation and education for black people would lead to equality between black and white.

The second moment was just after he became prime minister in 1954. He admitted that: “The white man would not be able to retain his superiority by merit alone and owed his dominant position to the fact that he had the vote. It was part of the essence of apartheid, therefore, that the Bantu should never have the vote in white areas.”

Schweitzer apparently said his words shortly before his death in the 1960s. But the quotation seems like it has come straight out of the 19th-century, social Darwinist frame of reference — confirming again how racists keep these ideas swirling poisonously. In terms thereof, there is a hierarchy of races with black people “closer to the apes” on the evolutionary ladder while white people are the “highest” form of Homo sapiens. (What a coincidence that white people placed themselves at the top of the racial hierarchy that they hatched!)

The alleged quotation of Schweitzer reflects the typical settler angst of white people being “swamped” and disappearing. In this case the angst is hidden behind the suggestion that black people have a “lower culture” that will swallow white people. This is the reason, it is argued, why white people should maintain their dominance.

Strijdom was slightly more honest. Modernity — urbanisation; education — would enable black people to engage with white people on an equal footing, he admitted. This had to be blocked by the system of discrimination called apartheid, he concluded.

Dr Xolela Mangcu, well-known commentator, writes about this in his new book To the Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa. Black people tackled the “violent cultural contact” with colonialism in the 19th century in two ways: by rejecting assimilation or by applying assimilation for progress and political resistance. Black people used education and Christianity at that stage as facilitators to enter modernity.

Entry into modernity becomes a weapon against colonialism and later apartheid.

Mangcu also writes how the black people entering modernity used their newly won knowledge to expose the hypocrisy at the heart of Christianity. Schweitzer appears to personify this hypocrisy with his declared (paternalistic) dedication to alleviate “Africa’s suffering” while he was propagating racial oppression in the same breath.

It is exactly because black people are not inherently unequal to whites that people such as Schweitzer and Strijdom emphasised that white people had to take specific steps to maintain their domination. But this fact about equality is obfuscated by racist ideology, constructed to justify the very oppression that causes the inequality.

The recent racist incident at the University of the Free State confirms yet again why it is essential that we confront the racist propaganda with which our society is drenched. We should expose the lies and bigotry for what they are.

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Christi van der Westhuizen

Dr Christi van der Westhuizen is an award-winning political columnist and the author of the book Working Democracy: Perspectives on South Africa's Parliament at 20 Years, available for download...

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