“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it … How does it feel to be a problem?”
WEB Du Bois (1868-1963) asks this rather difficult question in his essay of 1897, Strivings of Negro People. Mr Du Bois was a civil rights activist whose life was consumed by the struggle to find a solution to a problem he said to be of the twentieth century, the problem of racism. Many before who confronted the problem of slavery, and many after who continued an offensive against the problem of racism, never truly arrived at any answer with some measure of certainty. The problem remains a problem of the twenty first century.
Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for his belief in the ideals that no race should exercise with impunity, dominance over another. Three decades of life wasted in captivity appear to have yielded unsatisfactory progress towards a truly non-racial society, this evident almost two decades after his release from prison. The South Africa that Mandela confronted upon his release in 1990 has not made full progress towards normality. The non-racial society that we all aspire to often proves illusive given some racial events that occasionally resurface to shock the rest of us.
Great strides have been made by patriotic South Africans determined to realise the ideals of a society where none of us is “judged by colour of skins but the content of our character”. Those opposed to noble endeavours by government to transform society through all institutions it is represented may be tempted to point fingers back at government with accusations of fomenting racism and delaying progress towards normality. However painful to some, the programmes by government of empowerment are necessary evils in the cause to bridge the racial divide.
The problem of racism in prior years was rooted on petrified precepts of white supremacy and black people were, and saw themselves as, victims of a brutish system. None of their conduct during that period could be defined as displaying inane prejudices towards their tormentors but rather a response in defence against a problem they were confronted with. A lot has changed since the 1960s. Racial prejudice manifests itself in various forms in present times. Descendants of progenitors of this crude problem now often perceive themselves subject to the same prejudices perpetrated by its historical victims.
We cannot deny that there are those today who still harbour a deep-seated aversion of the other race for reason only known to themselves. Our history entrenched particular misguided beliefs about other races, which some may find difficult to withdraw themselves from in spite of pressures from society. It this group of individuals who make no attempt to strive for understanding of others and learn something in their culture and what shapes their conduct and opinions. For them tolerance of others may be far removed from their immediate priorities as challenges presented by these testing economic times demand dedicated response. Unfortunately, their crude habits and conduct are implanted on the young minds of their children, whom society expects to be devoid of prejudice.
It is deeply troubling when incidents of racial prejudice are continuously reported and the perpetrators are young enough to have no memory of apartheid. Racial incidents at the University of North West and previously at University of the Orange Free State are the case in point. Where did a child born in the late eighties learn something about racial intolerance and prejudice? Who taught these children that in races there exist differences that should be impressed upon to form basis for conflict? We must openly condemn parents who chose to abandon their task of instilling common values we share as society in these children.
We need to carefully listen to the heart-beat of the race problem and detect with clearness and certainty the root cause of this personal aversion felt by some for other races; aversion that is the real trouble, the real burden, the real tragedy and sorrow of society in which we all need to coexist in imperfect harmony. We must resist the temptation to go astray with regard to the matter of racism; to magnify greatly the importance of it, where often none exists and create unnecessary tensions. We must not cower before blatant and repulsive acts of racial prejudice in an attempt not to disrupt harmony, however real or artificial it may be.
As the problem of racism persists we should ask the unasked question … who is the problem? And ask them … how do you feel to be a problem? Perhaps a concerted effort to find an answer to this question at dinner tables and braais when the source of the problem is apparent may help reshape and align the problematic thinking with our own. To pretend that the problem of racism is non-existent and died in 1994 would be naïve and irresponsible of us.