Thursday, January 21, 2016

Racism in South Africa: a victim of two “isms”, colonialism and republican nationalism

Photo Copyright Shafiq Morton

In the light of racist utterances in social media we cannot lose focus now due to the distractions of the uninformed and the ignorant


RACISM – as defined by the UN in 1966 – is discrimination against another person on the basis of their race, or an event that reduces human dignity through actions based on skin colour. 

However, fully understanding the width and the breadth of racism in a few simple words is difficult. Racism is often a paradox: it’s a subtle, yet sometimes unsubtle, socially engineered prejudice.

There are also additional layers to racism: cultural, tribal, religious, nationalistic, linguistic and even socio-economic. And because racism is at times tacit, it’s not always a provable science.

In the light of recent overtly racist utterances in South Africa – chiefly on Facebook and Twitter – the question of racism, and even the legal policing of hate speech, has dominated the social media discourse.

It might be 22 years since the advent of political democracy and the wand of Nelson Mandela, but the hard reality is that over 300 years of colonialism and four decades of apartheid can’t simply be wished away, or airbrushed out of our collective psyche.

We South Africans – a self-critical nation of frequent laughter, forgiveness and generosity – are also a post-traumatic society given to violence, anger and xenophobia. Whilst not rushing to blame all our ills on apartheid, the scars do run deep.

The issue arose when Penny Sparrow, an estate agent from KwaZulu Natal, posted on Facebook that blacks, who visit our beaches in numbers over the festive season, were like “monkeys”. Her rider that “thoughtful” blacks weren’t simian just made her words even more repugnant.

It was a definite “gulp” moment. Sparrow’s post was typical of 19th century jingoism, her comments showing she was hopelessly clueless as to why the beaches were crowded in the first place.

The traditional Boxing Day beach bash – which occurs throughout the country – has become an expression of social entitlement. It has come to represent the celebration of spaces once denied to the poor by apartheid. These are mostly people who can only afford to hit the beaches once a year.

But, as it turned out, we rudely discovered that social media racism wasn’t just confined to whites only. Velaphi Khumalo, a civil servant from Limpopo, posted remarks about white South Africans being racist (even if they identified with the ruling ANC) and that they should be given the same treatment as the Jews under Hitler.

Hundreds of impassioned and eloquent column inches have since been written about all of this, but too little – I feel – has been said about the context, about racism historically so that we can begin to understand the Penny Sparrows and the Velaphi Khumalos of this world.

South Africa, to state the obvious, is a work in progress. And to understand non-racism – as evinced constitutionally – we have to fully examine its opposite.

What are racism’s roots? Theologists, particularly Muslim ones, argue that the Devil, formerly a jinn, was the first racist. Made of smokeless fire and thinking his nature was superior, he refused to bow to Adam symbolically shaped from the multi-coloured soils of the earth.

From a scriptural perspective in Genesis, it said by some that an incorrect attribution to the “curse of Ham”, Noah’s son, was used by early European explorers to justify the “otherisation” of non-Europeans.  

Others believe institutionalised racism reared a head when mediaeval Europe first came into contact with Africa, Asia and the Americas. Prompted by notions of cultural superiority and heathen-hood, nations were enslaved in the name of God and country.

Whilst much of contemporary racism can be traced back to the consequences of latter day colonialism, it does not quite present the full picture as there are lots of grey areas. This is because Africa, Asia and the Americas had met Europe long before Europe had met them.

Space precludes me listing all the examples, but Mansa Musa of 14th century Mali – possibly the richest ruler of all time – had white slaves in his huge entourage, as did the black Pharaohs thousands of years ago.  

In fact, the Islamic world at its nadir didn't even regard Europe as significant. When Baghdad had hundreds of thousands of books in its libraries, most of Europe's nobility – as historian Philip Hitti says – could not even write their names.

So how do we then understand racism in our South African context?

I would say that we have suffered from two kinds of institutionalised racism, the first being colonialism – for us the Portuguese, the Dutch and then the English. Here a key figure is Cecil John Rhodes, a mining magnate and bankist who not only believed in the superiority of the English, but who had a vision of British domination from Cape to Cairo.

The masonic structure on Devil’s Peak in Cape Town is a monument to Rhodes’ imperial vision – ironically, it is more overtly “racist” than his statues at UCT or Oxford.

Rhodes was at the helm of the Cape colony in 1899 when the Boer War broke out. The Afrikaners, frustrated by British domination, were republican nationalists in the Transvaal fighting British imperialism and its greed for Witwatersrand gold.

So Afrikanerdom was never a colonialist ideal, in spite of the later annexation of Namibia and the machinations of Cold War leaders in Angola and Mozambique (apartheid was seen as a bulwark against communism). In essence, then, South Africa has been the victim of two race-isms: colonialism and republican nationalism.

In other words, the Sparrows hail from the imperial consciousness of European colonialism and the high forts of Afrikanerdom; the Khumalos hail from the broken kingdoms of the Nguni and the despoiled pastures and plains of the Khoi and the San.

In South Africa, the challenge is the merger of these opposites, the subjugator and the subjugated into a genuine rights culture – a culture where historical imbalances are corrected and each group is part of a united whole. Nobody ever said it would be easy, but in 1994 we did make a start.  

The point is: we cannot lose focus now due to the distractions of the uninformed and the ignorant. Let the racists wither on the bough of social disapproval, we have work to do.