Onus is on whites to douse flames of racism

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In the wake of the Marikana massacre, information is trickling into the public domain suggesting that the police killing of workers was more premeditated than initially thought.

Workers released from police custody confirmed accounts of unjustified police violence against protesters, and these accounts have challenged the dominant narrative of the police having acted in self-defence.

Public opinion remains sharply divided on whether the police were justified in shooting the miners, and much opinion has been divided along racial lines, which is hardly surprising given the experiential and perception gaps between black and white people. More disturbingly, though, many responses have taken a racist turn.

Media reports of miners having engaged in rituals, ostensibly to protect themselves against police bullets, have unleashed a torrent of racist remarks on online news sites and social networks.

Commentators have referred to black people as primitive, superstitious, retarded, chimpanzees, lazy unproductive parasites, “… moronic Neanderthals who would rape a baby to cure themselves of HIV” (in the words of one commentator) undeserving of the vote and incapable of running a country.

After Marikana, social networks are seething with racial hatred.

Delighted by the fact that the black government was doing something right for a change, racists rushed to the defence of the police and ignored or rubbished evidence suggesting that the police acted inappropriately.

In gloating over the miners’ deaths and what they consider to be black stupidity, racists seem blithely unconcerned about the possibility that they may be straining black patience to the limit.

Racist utterances have become much louder in the past few years, suggesting a fracturing of the country’s social fabric. Institutions that track social cohesion have sounded alarm bells too.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) has warned that SA is not as cohesive as it should be.

According to the IJR, South Africans are experiencing a low sense of national belonging and continue to associate strongly with identity groups based on language, ethnicity and race. While day-to-day interactions across racial lines are gradually becoming more frequent – although mainly in the middle class – a staggeringly high 42 percent of the people surveyed said they did not socialise across racial lines.

SA is clearly ill.

Why are more South Africans retreating into racial laagers, quicker to recognise their differences than their commonalities, and why do public displays of racism seem to be on the rise?

Racism did not simply wither away after apartheid. Appropriate anti-racist strategies cannot be developed without a correct diagnosis of the problem.

It could be argued that racism continues to exist because of the residual consciousness left over from the apartheid era, and that racists merely need to be educated out of their attitudes. This approach ignores the social function of racism in post-apartheid SA.

Racism allows whites to portray the country’s continuing inequality as natural and inevitable, existing because of the inherent weaknesses of black people, rather than as a result of how society is organised (and which therefore can be changed).

In the case of Marikana, racism played a particular ideological role, justifying violent repression of workers’ wage demands. It is in the interest of whites – who still largely remain at the apex of the economic power structure – to keep race thinking alive as a mainstay for black exploitation, and to demonise resistance to that exploitation.

Many white people do not appreciate that the transition to democracy did not have to unfold in the way it did. The transition created a democracy while leaving the commanding heights of the economy in white hands, and the government’s Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment strategy has largely failed to change this racialised economic structure.

The ANC could have insisted on widespread expropriation of property without compensation, an entirely justifiable position given the historic dispossession of black people.

Instead of recognising and appreciating black magnanimity, racists are rebuffing the hand of reconciliation that has been extended to them.

The ANC’s cardinal error – informed by errors in its theory of national unity – was to assume that it could legislate the nation into being, without creating the material conditions for people to experience a common identity.

Deepening inequality has made national unity even more elusive, and created fertile ground for racists.

The ANC’s top-down, idealistic approach to nation-building was naive, dangerously misguided and ultimately unsustainable.

The danger is that, in this recessionary period, organised responses to intensifying racism may not be guided by anti-racist principles; that is, principles that seek to make race thinking disappear entirely by creating the basis for a truly non-racial society, rather than the cosmetic one SA has.

The rise of Julius Malema has shown that SA is still capable of a rightward shift towards reracialised, even proto-fascist politics, and a racial backlash along these lines is possible.

If this shift happens then SA’s dream of a non-racial society will be shattered, and the country could descend into a spiral of strife that it may not be able easily to emerge from.

This is why racists need to think deeply before speaking; blog by blog, tweet by tweet, they are courting disaster for themselves, and for the country.

It is important to note, though, that white people are not the only racists in SA, and many are decidedly anti-racist.

But whites remain the most vocal culprits because they command inordinate amounts of social, cultural and economic capital.

Whites need to realise that the country’s social inequalities – expressed starkly in the massive wage gap between the Lonmin managers and workers – are unsustainable.

Whites need to start sharing their wealth, if they are to have a future in this country. Admittedly, they are unlikely to do so without a fight, but as the unfolding events at Lonmin and other mines suggest, that fight has already begun.

  • Professor Jane Duncan is Highway Africa chairwoman of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University.

This article was published on www.iol.co.za.