By Ahmed Kathrada
Over the last few weeks, South Africans have once again expressed their outrage at several cases of very overt racism. In three of these incidents, the k-word was allegedly used. First, it was Matthew Theunissen venting his frustration over transformation; then the SPCA Matlosana branch manager, Suzette Kotze, who reportedly used the word in a social media rant calling for black people to die a “suffering suffocating death”; and just recently, Magistrate Mphafolane Koma’s vehicle was attacked by a white youth, who allegedly used the k-word in the process.
I don’t think one can be shocked that the k-word is still used. If these incidents tell us anything, it’s that the k-word is very much a part of the socialisation of some individuals and may well be used without blinking an eyelid in some South African homes. These cases however, should leave us deeply perturbed. We cannot take it for granted that 22 years of democracy would have entrenched anti-racism amongst all South Africans.
That the k-word is still considered a ‘normality’ amongst some, is an indication that not enough has been done to educate people about the history of hurt, indignity, prejudice and sheer hatred that these six letters contain.
It is also an indication that tougher action has to be taken against racist offenders. South Africans can no longer accept half-hearted apologies and excuses that having black friends absolves one of racism. I am of the view that existing legislation against racism must be strengthened. Civil society organisations and political parties must canvass parliament to do more in terms of developing stronger policy against racism. Law will not change people’s attitudes overnight, but it certainly will clamp down on overt displays of racism.
This scourge however, cannot only be fought through the law. It requires all – individuals, organisations and communities – to ‘stamp their dignity’. I use these words very deliberately, because in fighting the apartheid system, this is what activists were required to do. Let me provide two examples. In prison, the guards would sometimes ask prisoners to strip naked and bend over. They would then search prisoners’ private parts. As political prisoners, we stamped our dignity by refusing to undergo these deeply humiliating searches.
I refer to another incident, when years ago, together with some friends, I used a ‘Europeans only’ lift. A white woman, who also wanted to use the lift, told us to read the sign. We responded by saying that “we do not mind sharing a lift with Europeans” and that she was welcome to join us. Of course, she must have been horrified at the attitude of us ‘non-Europeans’ and chose not to take the lift. But, we asserted our dignity, and made our point. The 1952 Defiance Campaign, as well as the 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign will offer up numerous other examples of how ordinary people asserted their rights. Similar examples can be found in the American Civil Rights movement.
Today, this form of 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.
I have been impressed at the many individuals who have voiced their anger over the recent racist incidents, especially via social media. Although not much of a social media fan, I’ve heard that #MabelJansen was trending on Twitter, with various people challenging her racist notions.
I also read about staff at a shop in Springs, who refused to accept reportedly racist remarks, aimed at them by a manager.
Importantly, individuals and organisations have seen the necessity to take the various incidents to institutes like the South African Human Rights Commission, and in the case of Judge Jansen, to the Judicial Service Commission. One hopes that these institutes investigate the cases with the seriousness that they deserve and that stringent action is taken against those found to be guilty.
While I am calling for a heightened assertiveness in tackling racism, I am not for once saying that racists cannot be humanised. Through education and learning, even the worst racists can unlearn their prejudices. We must not forget that some of those who were heavily tied in with the apartheid state – prison warders, government officials and supporters of the regime – have changed their views and turned a new leaf.
For individuals to recognise and admit to their own racism will require ongoing education and awareness around issues of race, with everything from the school syllabus, to dedicated programmes and columns in the media, focussed on challenging racism. It will require hard, on-the-ground work aimed at fighting structural racism and racist notions. This work is the duty of political parties, government, civil society, communities, schools, universities, the sporting fraternity, the arts sector, corporates, families and individuals. Citizens, various organisations and business must support initiatives that seek to address racism and create platforms for engagement and understanding. Initiatives, such as the Anti-Racism Network South Africa (ARNSA), must be strengthened, supported and resourced.
I am afraid, that if we do not commit to tackling racism now, South Africans will continue reading headlines of individuals who very blatantly use the k-word, call black people monkeys or baboons and dehumanise and attack others based on race. We will continue seeing examples of individuals who find it so very easy to overlook the legacy of years of oppression, inequality and systematic racism.
I fear that racial tension will continue bubbling under the surface of our society, and that sweeping, false generalisation, such as ‘all whites are racist’, will start emerging. We cannot allow South Africa to retrogress towards the divisions and attitudes of the past. We cannot allow the re-emergence of the type of mentality that paved the way for the National Party of 1948, to advocate such a blatantly racist election slogan.
I am often reminded of the words of Madiba from the dock: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Today, we must realise that the fight for non-racialism, equity and equality is not short-term work, but generational work. It requires united effort, and a lifetime of commitment for which, as Madiba alluded, if needs be, we should be prepared to die.
* Ahmed Kathrada (86) is an activist for non-racialism, and has a foundation in his name that promotes this ideal. He is former Robben Island prisoner, having been sentenced to a lifetime in jail during the Rivonia Trial for his political activities against apartheid.