By Edward Kieswetter 

I was a young church marriage officer in 1985 when the ‘Immorality and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Amendment Act’ was repealed.

This was the law that made it a criminal offense for white people to have sexual intercourse or marry a person of another race. It was one of the first legislative changes towards the ending of apartheid.

I received a letter from the Department of Marriages informing me that my commission had been revised and I was now allowed to perform marriages between people of different race groups. This was not previously allowed. I was interestingly advised that under the new dispensation, when two persons of different race groups were married, the race classification of the subsequent family, will always be defined by the race classification of the husband, except when a “person of color” married a white man. In the case of the latter, the husband would adopt the race classification of the wife. In other words you could change your race classification through marriage into any of the so called “non-white” race groups, but one could not become white through marriage. This was indisputable evidence that the apartheid government considered whites as superior to blacks.

Is racial intolerance an inevitable social reality? Will we ever see a world where one race group will not think of themselves more superior than another? Is a country like South Africa, with such a centuries-long, ugly legacy of racial oppression of black people, condemned to be forever shackled with the disease of racism?

By all accounts, the abhorrent scourge of racism is stubborn. Nowhere in the developed world has society managed to eradicate racism. It’s reportedly on the rise in the US as well as the UK. It is certainly alive and well according to the 2015 Institute for Justice and Reconciliation Report, which found that although almost 70% of South Africans feel that we have to pursue national reconciliation as a goal, more than 6 out of every 10 respondents feel that race relations have either deteriorated or stayed the same since 1994.

Simply because the explicit laws which entrenched racial discrimination were repealed in the period leading up to our 1994 democratic miracle, it does not mean that racial prejudice has ended. Racism is significantly more than what’s crafted in law. In the South African context, this unequivocally implied that most white people believed that being “white” meant that they were not only different, but superior to black people. The apartheid laws did not create racism, but merely sought to “make legal” what had been perpetrated over centuries of white colonial rule. Just as the law did not create racism, no law can eliminate racism.

With reference to our psyche, the 82-year-old Athol Fugard, arguably one of the greatest SA playwrights, and by nature an optimist, is reported to have said in a published interview with David Smith (Guardian African Network, 12 August, 2014), that “prejudice and racism are still alive and well in South Africa”, and that despite real attempts to deal with the issue, asks “How do you take prejudice out of a human heart?”

That question underscores the deep-rootedness of racism – at the core, it is a matter not only of the heart, but deeply embedded within the human psyche.  In other words, we accept social constructs that continue to unconsciously entrench inequality, and thus racism.  This failure to address inequality detracts from the ideal of a racially tolerant society.

Even as we acknowledge that racist tendencies are deeply embedded in our human psyche, by no means should we use this as justification of this dehumanising behavior, nor should we accept that racial intolerance is a given.

The question is often asked whether black people can be racist?  According to a commonly accepted definition, racism is “a prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”. Technically, thus, the answer is that any person can demonstrate racist behavior towards a person of a different race, and therefore, it is possible that black people can be racists.  Many arguably often are.  Last year’s spate of xenophobic attacks against Africans of different ethnicities or nationalities more than ever, demonstrate that the minute we degenerate into an “us versus them” mentality, we create the basis for discrimination and racism.

In the vast majority of cases, however, we have to concede that black South Africans are more often victims than perpetrators of racist behavior.  The fact that we have seen a spate of appalling racist incidences in the past few months is a stark reminder that we have not completely dealt with the ugly realities of our oppressive past.  Comments that “we have come so far since 1994”, and that “we should stop bringing up the past and move on,” deny the current hurtful reality that black people in South Africa still experience on a daily basis.

It is an unfortunate fact that extreme poverty and economic disenfranchisement of the black majority stubbornly persist in our country.  This high degree of inequality is what fuels our current and growing levels of social discontent, such as the widespread protests taking place on our university campuses. I cannot condone violence and destruction as a means of protest, but recognise that there is a strong case for this discontent. That this inequality is also obviously racially biased simply aggravates a potentially explosive situation. Martin Luther King profoundly said that “an injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere”. All of us ignore this at our peril.

(File photo: A child carries anti-racism messaging at a school in Lenasia South.)

Our goal of national reconciliation will remain elusive so long as the majority who suffered greatly under the dehumanising system of apartheid continue to experience a similarly dehumanising level of poverty. We can argue how it is to be done, but the fact is we simply have not done enough to end our people’s suffering.

Having a few successful black industrialists or thriving politically-connected individuals simply does not reduce this large, unjust and still growing divide. We need to spread wealth more broadly, not just to a few.  This sense of injustice is compounded by the perception that some political leaders work to create economic benefits for a select few – including themselves – rather than for those whom they purport to serve.

In business, the lack of a critical mass of black leaders is also a matter for concern and impacts directly on the slow progress we see in the workplace. In figures reported in the October 2015 Jack Hammer Report, the number of black CEOs running the JSE Top 40 companies has declined from 15% to 10%.  Only 21% of the 334 individuals making up Top 40 executive teams, were black. This report argues that not only do we have a dearth of black CEOs, we have also not created a healthy pipeline to change this significantly over the next 5-10 years. Company boards, equally, reflect 70% white directors out of a universe of 537 individuals. Less than 3 out of 10 boards are chaired by a black individual.

For rank and file workers, given our history of what Eddie Webster called “racial despotism” where the practice of white supervision of black labour had historically entrenched ideas of white superiority over the black majority, the workplace is an important and necessary place to build greater inter-racial understanding, and thus break the backbone of racism. In the 2015 Institute of Justice and Reconciliation study, more than 60% of the respondents reported that the apart from shops, their places of work and study provided the highest opportunity for interaction between different race groups. Our democracy ushered in new laws to address race and gender based discrimination including the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the Employment Equity Act, the Labour Relations Act, as well as the economic empowerment laws.  While these are necessary, we must do more to change core attitudes and values that entrenched a racist psyche.  Programs that raise sensitivity to and awareness of the need to respect different races and promote racial harmony should be expanded.

Finally and importantly, I believe that promoting economic growth is inextricably linked to the eradication of inequality and therefore, integral to tackling racism. This means inclusive growth that creates jobs, encourages entrepreneurship and self-reliance.  Economic growth, coupled with well thought out redistributive policies, can be a powerful weapon to alleviate poverty and inequality. Neither growth on its own, nor redistribution on its own can be as effective as when the two are combined.  We need to unite around a common purpose of promoting business, trade and investment in order to create jobs, rather than seeing these as the enemies of empowerment. We must work harder at finding ways to “grow the pie”, instead of finding ideological reasons of why we shouldn’t.  No one should accept our current low growth projections as inevitable.

Anti-Racism Week is good, but we need to take greater individual and collective responsibility for the unacceptable fact that racism still plagues our country, and we each need to pledge to do much more. Just as apartheid was finally conquered because of intense programmes of consciousness raising, activism, sustained campaigns, and selfless sacrifice by many, similarly, we need to uproot the foundations of racism – a deep rooted historical psyche of racial oppression, glaring economic inequality, and leadership which fails to address either.  We need to step up activist programmes and campaigns that raise consciousness and identifies racism for what it is. We need to speak about it and against it more often and publicly; and as a society, we have to learn to speak as one South Africa, regardless of our own racial identity.

It is encouraging to see the renewed commitment between government and business to grow our economy, but this effort has to translate into immediate and sustained action. We have a beautiful country, richly endowed; we need to ask ourselves what each of us can do with this amazing gift.

* Edward Kieswetter is a Board member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. He is also the former CEO of Alexander Forbes. He writes in his personal capacity.

This piece forms part of a series of op-eds being written for Anti-Racism Week, being held from March 14-21. Visit for more information. This piece was first published by the ‘Saturday Star’. 



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