SA’s race relations – and the way forward

CARL COLLISON

In response to what appears to be an increased amount of racist slurs – particularly on social media platforms – the national Department of Arts and Culture held a panel discussion in an attempt to address the scourge of racism in our society.

Taking place under the banner “Building a Better South Africa: Confronting Race and Racism”, the discussion was held at the Centre for the Book on Wednesday May 11, and forms part of the Department’s month-long programme of events aimed at celebrating Africa Month.

The panellists were author Sindiwe Magona, political analyst Professor Sipho Seepe and Harry Garuba, associate professor at UCT’s African Studies Unit.

In his opening address, Nathi Mthethwa, Minister of Arts and Culture, said: “Nation-building cannot degenerate into the mere perpetuation of hierarchies of the past, based on pre-given or ethnically engineered and imposed divisions of people rooted in prejudice, discrimination and exclusion.

“Despite the progress we have made, the structural legacy of colonialism, segregation and apartheid remains deeply entrenched as reflected in the colonial, sexist and super-exploitative structure of our economy; the spatial patterns of development and underdevelopment; and the social, human resources and infrastructure backlogs.

This structural legacy finds particular expression in mass poverty and extreme inequality, which were inherent to colonialism and apartheid. The privilege attached to race, class and gender has not been fully reversed. The recent upsurge of racially perpetrated incidents in our society is a grim reminder that our struggle to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa is not yet over,” Mr Mthethwa said.

Ms Magona added: “What came out strongest for me at the panel discussion is the realisation that none of us are going anywhere. We’re all in this space, South Africa, together. We are here now and have to, as a matter of urgency, find a way to achieve peaceful co-existence.”

Addressing the upsets caused by the recent racist remarks expressed on social media platforms, Mr Mthethwa said: “The likes of Penny Sparrow, Matthew Theunissen and Mabel Jansen are a constant reminder of where we come from – and where we don’t want to find ourselves as a nation.”

As to whether these incidents are indicative of an upsurge in the prevalence of racist thinking nationally, Ms Magona said: “There may be an increase, but we also need to be mindful of the fact that bigots do not have the backing of the law that they had under apartheid. It is therefore easier for us to voice our dissatisfaction with it. We swallowed a lot under apartheid.”

Although Mr Mthethwa said, “it would be naïve to expect even the best-drafted laws to eradicate decades and centuries of oppression and institutionalised discrimination in the space of two decades”, he added: “the South African Constitution, which articulates a broad framework of the national aspiration for a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa, is our lodestar in the efforts to build a society we envisaged.”

Ms Magona added: “We have to live by our Constitution. We have to constantly educate ourselves and each other around what it means to be a citizen of democracy. We should voice our grievances in a responsible manner. There is nothing that is not covered in our Constitution.”

In a recent opinion piece, the former Robben Island prisoner and human rights activist, Ahmed Kathrada, said: “Activism means continuing to keep racism in the spotlight. It means exposing racism, and refusing to allow racist talk or action to go unchallenged. It means taking on not only the prejudices of colleagues, family and friends, but one’s own discriminatory views. It means being empowered and knowledgeable enough to be able to go to an Equality Court and lay a complaint if one encounters racism.”

Said Mr Mthethwa: “Our democracy is founded on political, socio-economic and other human rights that are enshrined in the country’s Constitution. The realisation of these rights in actual practice requires, among others: the mobilisation of the nation around a common vision of the kind of society we seek to attain, acting in partnership with each sector for the realisation of the common good; and the means for citizens to exercise the full range of their human rights, including progressive realisation of socio-economic rights, and for checks and balances in a law-governed society.”

Ms Magona added: “The first rule for achieving peaceful co-existence is simply to listen. If we are ever going to live together peacefully, we have to really listen to each other.”