Thabang Motsohi
Thabang Motsohi

Resilient racism will derail our national transformation project

The Constitution, in its preamble, states that we need to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”. We therefore adopted the theme “a better life for all” as our driving vision to transform our society and eliminate the inequities of the past. This required that, more than ever, the plight of the majority poor must be at the forefront of our efforts as we dismantle the inherited apartheid social, economic and ideological systems and correct the legacy of the vast material divisions that were premised on race, gender and social class.

When we participated in the first democratic elections of 1994 we collectively and consciously embarked on a journey to transform our nation to achieve the kind of society envisioned in the Constitution. We accepted the reality that we may have different views on how to eventually achieve our vision but we also agreed that those views shall be contested under democratic principles.

It is trite to say that the transformation project will take generations to achieve. A critical element of this journey will be the challenge of changing attitudes. Attitude is the most important choice one has to make in life and it affects everything else. One of the most critical success factors for any transformation project is the need to have a clear understanding of the constraints and challenges that might impede its successful implementation. And, to develop strategies to mitigate them.

Racial discrimination was introduced by the colonialists but it was perfected into an institutionalised system of government by the nationalist apartheid regime as a means to oppress and exclude black people. The legacy of that system is still with us today, 20 years into a democratic dispensation. This in my view constitutes the biggest impediment to our social transformation project.

Black people’s experience of racism and racial discrimination is that it is a bigoted attitude that was and continues to be used to dominate and exclude them from realising their self-worth in an open society. The apartheid regime institutionalised racism in its system of government. But underpinning this paradigm was a deep-seated white supremacist attitude and conviction by the nationalist party that black people were “inferior” to white people. The Bible was even used to justify this perverse notion. This is what motivated the international community to condemn apartheid as a crime against humanity.

The post-apartheid reality is that political power relations have changed dramatically, but the undeserved wealth accumulated by whites under the apartheid system remains untouched. In fact, for many, the value of wealth that was accumulated has been rapidly increased by the global opportunities brought about by a democratic SA.

On the other hand, the economic power relations that rendered apartheid unfair and unjust have continued in democratic SA. The undeserved poverty and inequality suffered by the black majority continues to exist and, in fact, has increased on a number of measures. We are now the most unequal society in the world as a result of the policy decisions we made after the transition.

But we have not thought of a radical approach to deal with this apartheid construct of racial discrimination and its outcomes of racialised wealth inequality and lack of opportunity. The question I continue to battle with is: Is it possible to say that comprehensive democracy has been achieved if the racialised economic power relations that existed during apartheid remain intact? Did we in fact have a vision and strategy beyond gaining the political power positions that were held by others before democracy? Further, is it possible to address the question of racialised wealth inequality without considering wealth transfer from the rich to the poor in one form or another?

The reality is that we failed to address, in a very substantive way, the question of how to expand the economy in such a manner that it provides opportunities especially to the poor and uneducated. For example, we never really developed a viable strategy for the small and medium enterprise sector that targets the black townships. What we see is extractive businesses that are dominated by the liquor retailors. This is an apartheid legacy for which we should be ashamed and we live with the social pathologies that go with it.

The question of racial discrimination, and how to tackle it in a substantive way, has been avoided during the transition period. It was too sensitive and uncomfortable to deal with! For those that benefited unfairly during the apartheid era, maintaining the status quo would be the preferred option. But this is precisely what will derail our transformation project. Resolving this problem will require the full engagement of civil society to seek practical solutions.

What is sadly lacking is a credible effort by big business, for example, to come up with a strategy and plan, entirely conceived and driven by the private sector, to build what I may call “a bridge of goodwill”, a multibillion-rand fund with the sole purpose of funding social development projects that will directly benefit the poor. As a magnanimous gesture by those selectively advantaged by apartheid, it might serve as acknowledgement that, first, the system was unjust and, second, that some form of reparation or redress is morally justifiable. It might also serve to manage the growing unrest and strengthen efforts towards social cohesion and nation-building.

Listening to a multiracial panel discussion on racism, hosted by one of the talk shows recently, I was encouraged to note that the younger generation was prepared to tackle the difficult issues without preconditions. But I was also very deeply disturbed by the anger coming out of the black speakers in the audience. The theme that came through was that black people have forgiven and extended the hand of reconciliation to their white compatriots without a reciprocal response. They also stated that racial discrimination is alive and covertly practiced in the centres of economic power with the clear intention of excluding them. This must indeed be worrying.

But, why are attitudes failing to change 20 years into our new democracy? In my view the failure to discuss and implement substantive measures of redress contributes to this false sense of security and comfort. The economic elite and class have throughout the history of mankind never, out of a sense of goodwill, volunteered to give up some of their privileges for the benefit of the poor. Some degree of coercion has always driven change. We need to engage across the social spectrum to find solutions to forestall the looming uprising of the poor.

Achille Mbembe provides a sobering reflection: “But the defeat of legalised white supremacy has not meant that the struggle for racial equality is over. Pervasive material inequality between whites and blacks coexists with formal legal equality. Significant racial inequality remains, for example in average household income, wealth, home ownership, employment opportunities and access to quality healthcare. The institutional mechanisms for enforcing anti-discriminatory laws are still inadequately administered. Far too many poor blacks are still not in a position where they can create something meaningful with their lives. Too many still have nothing to lose.”

This is not the state of the nation we committed to build. The volume of anger and frustration expressed at the talk show forum is a very clear warning that those who have nothing to lose, and they are in the majority, might not wait long for change to occur.

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