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The ductile edges of racism

By Thabo Seseane

There is a tide, to borrow a phrase, in the decibel level of recriminations about racism in this country. And it is usually triggered by unexpected provocative utterances or deeds by private white people. For a time this jars us all into the reality of this land and its society namely, that the demon of racism still flourishes in the hearts of many of its white citizens. Then we are lulled by the diversions of everyday activities till the next time. Journalist Max du Preez, in commenting on this, condensed it this way: Whites have broken the 1994 pact. At these times of heightened tempers, our precious legacy of democracy requires a concerted programme to deal with this cancer — otherwise, all we have built since 1994 is in jeopardy. How we deal with our nation’s racism may even serve as a model for this international problem, as happened when apartheid ended. It is a complex puzzle that needs a multidimensional, people-centred solution — and it will not happen overnight.

Take every group of people who support a cause such as racism. There will be those at the centre of the group, the hard core, which is comparatively small and from which the leadership, or the most vocal group, is drawn. Then, moving away from the core, the numbers rise till at the edges is found the majority, but the fanaticism here will only be intermittent. In society, this is ironically where most problems play out. For us it is a three-centuries old problem that lurks in every equation and conundrum of this land, and which was exacerbated — not caused — by apartheid. Not surprisingly the solution also lies here, at the edges, where the majorities intersect in all their colours and creeds.

In his book Race, author Ryland Fisher posits as the desired solution a greater interaction between black and white people. And greater interaction is without doubt truly an urgent necessity. He notes that the historical wall that continues to keep us apart is the racism of the dominant minority. He also makes the point, as do others, that the previously oppressed majority have also expressed reverse racism. Counter-racism will certainly not solve the problem, though this reaction is not unexpected. Emphatically, racism from whatever source cannot be the solution. His suggestion is that the solution needs to be piecemeal, a process and not an event or series of events. He is right, and one of the pieces to the solution is to massively boost interactions across the racial divide.

When he also calls for reparations for the enjoyment of centuries of privilege by whites, he again strikes a chord. Mark Twain, writing in a similar vein, put it this way: “We have ground the manhood out of them and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it.” Of course the ideal of reparations is not new, we have seen how the process was transformed into an orgy of self-enrichment by those in charge of it. This is unfinished business and needs to be redone to bring forth the ends for which it is intended. A transparently structured, comprehensive package of reparations projects will bring into focus our unfortunate legacy of privilege and exploitation.

But when anyone rejects calls for the criminalisation of racial utterances and acts, our paths diverge. The demands for tougher laws following the social media storms generated by recent racist outbursts, are a necessary step, though not the solution. There is presently no deterrence in any of the laws that address racism. In fact most do so indirectly: acts of crimen injuria (as racist acts are currently styled) and hate crimes are not considered crimes in the ordinary sense. Yet they are crimes, against humanity and the Constitution, which means people must be deterred from committing them, and punished for doing so. Crimes of racism occur usually at the edges, where the majority of each group meet: on the streets, at the workplace, at the shops, at the beaches and most significantly for our age, on social media.

Social media has brought a new dimension of immediacy and power to human communications, as well as one where the individual decides what is intimately newsworthy to him or her. We have not yet grasped the full ramifications regarding the potency of this new tool, as many have recently discovered to their bewilderment. Most tools are double-edged, like knives. Not so for those who use social media for constructive reasons, such as breaking down the Berlin Wall of racism that separates people in this country — they need fear no public disgrace. More South Africans must come to realise that ending racism is now the responsibility of all who have a stake in a better future for our land.

There is a need for a growing appreciation that the South African story is no longer limited to racism and its impact. The narrative has expanded beyond black anguish to solutions. It is now, as it had to be, one about crafting a better future than the dust and ashes presently on all our tongues. This was powerfully shown at the start of the fees must fall demonstrations when white students, the heirs of three centuries of race-based privilege, put their bodies in danger — some even being jailed — for showing solidarity with “traditionally” underprivileged fellow students, who were overwhelmingly black. And by so doing, they opened a new arena of positive interaction at the edges.

Without a doubt more such instances will be seen in the coming months and years. But the process needs to be accelerated — the core forces of destruction and racism toil feverishly as we speak. Putting social media to positive use in dissolving racism, would help build our nation (which is yet to come into being) and would put to constructive use one of the most forceful tools at hand to accelerate the process.

But social media communications are only one leg of the table, the others are criminalising perpetrators, giving public recognition to anti-racism activities, and rewarding such activists. Each one of us must feel personally responsible regarding instances of racism. If you are uncomfortable about a racist utterance by one of your own at the dinner table, braai or other gathering, say so. He or she must know, otherwise they take your silence as concurrence. Racism holds us all back: it must go.

Thabo Seseane is an author, poet and motivator based in Johannesburg.