Racism – A Permanent Feature of Our Society – Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

st3A few weeks ago on Africa Day, in a speech I gave at Stellenbosch University, I used Matthew Theunessen’s infamous Face Book post as a reference point to advance some thoughts about racism in South African society. I pointed out that it is not the “K” word that concerns me so much about Theunessen’s and others’ insults hurled at black people. “Kaffir,” I argued, still recognizes the humanness of the other—it is a devalued, and dehumanized humanness, but the image it coveys is still in human form. The other part of Theunissen’s insult, where he conjures up the image of black women’s collective private parts to refer to black people, obliterates the very humanity of the black Other. It is a total annihilation of the human beingness of black people, making them into “things.” It gives one pause for such wrath and anger to come out of the lips of a young man born in 1990.

If “we the people of South Africa believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity,” it is important to create alternative conversations in pursuit of the goal of healing the divisions of the past, while the social media runs its course of endless tweets and retweets of hateful and racially charged insults. Anger among young white South Africans who cannot get jobs, who may see their black friends from their elite private schools getting jobs, and may not experience the kind of privilege they have grown up believing their race is supposed to bestow upon them, is part of the reality of contemporary South Africa. This condition of post-apartheid whiteness—and the white rage it breeds—is something that should not be dismissed simply as racist rants. The response should not be that of dismissal, but rather engagement with the question of what conversations are necessary in schools, the workplace and in churches at a national level in order to break the intergenerational cycles of racial hatred in South African society.

At the same time, young black South Africans’ lives are burdened with the legacies of generations that were deprived education, and denied opportunities to own property and other economic privileges. Many of them suffer daily the humiliation of knowing they are born “free,” yet they lack the means to bring that freedom into being in order to reclaim their human dignity. The slow, sometimes stagnant, process of transformation in the lives of many young black South Africans and their families is in plain sight. This crystalized for me most poignantly in some of the stories performed at the Baxter Theatre’s Zabalaza Festival earlier this year. The actor Thabiso Nkoana, for example, reminded audiences that stories of black pain, of woundedness and of dreams deferred cry out to be told in the voices of young black people who endure the worst of the problem of cycles of poverty. “I just want to write [these stories],” he said in a refrain that looped throughout his performance, adding that the desire to write these stories is “not in that #hashtag revolution kind of way.” His message and the message from other plays, and the deep sense of betrayal that their voices conveyed, shook the audience, confronting both white privilege and the black privilege that has eluded the young actors’ grasp with the question: what is your role in all of this?

And what of the meaning of the racism debate in the lives of the young people whose stories Thabiso Nkoana wants to tell? “That racism thing is beginning to annoy!”

And so it is, an “annoyance” for many South Africans, perhaps in different ways. Even for blacks who are privileged, whose professional positions and economic positioning in society are a kind of ticket of escape from white contempt; race continues to define their lives in fundamental ways. The issue of race in our country is a complex one. The complexity is at the core of our collective woundedness, which should be addressed through thoughtful dialogue and appreciative listening. Recently I was on a panel with a former student activist who in her closing remarks argued, “We cannot eat dialogue.” She is right of course; dialogue alone will not address the monumental problem of inequality. Yet to engage meaningfully and collectively in this debate as citizens, we have a responsibility to avoid descending into the chaos of hatred and violence, and instead to reclaim the hope of living in the future of our dreams. Black voices matter; perhaps white voices matter more, partly because the weight of privilege is tilted in their direction, but also because they should be active partners on this journey towards calming the troubled and mad waters of our democracy.

Black voices matter. Yet politicians continue to use black voices in a manner that subjects black supporters to voices of protest donning Zuma-emblazoned ANC yellow shirts. This kind of dehumanization is hidden in plain sight. It is the violence of the privilege of power – difficult to name in the same way we are able to identify the violence and open racism of white bigots. There is something perverse about the busing in of people to confront Andre Slade and his immigrant partner about their racist exclusion of blacks from their Sodwana Bay Guest House. Why does the ANC leadership, a government in power in KwaZulu Natal, need black supporters to raise their voices of protest when they could use the power of the Constitution? It was painful to witness Andre Slade, standing behind a fence on land he has converted into business property, openly mocking, humiliating and ridiculing black people, telling them that they are “not people,” while they, the blacks, did the toyi-toyi. With many black people knowing the tantalising lure of freedom, facing the daily humiliation of poor education, cycles of poverty in their families, landlessness and joblessness, the scene at the gates of the Sodwana Bay Guest House were painful to watch. Thabiso Nkoana is right: “This racism thing is beginning to annoy!” It is a deflection from the other reality of black pain.

Racism, it seems, refuses to go away, from the pulpits to the corridors of the corporate world, from the beaches and coursing through the digital sphere, the language of hatred is deepening the divide in our society. I am inclined to think, with Derrick Bell, “racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component” of our society. This is the overriding message in Bell’s book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well. It is a profound observation, coming from someone who has stood outside the circle of what is accepted as a norm: the first tenured black professor at Harvard, a legal giant in his own right who served as a civil rights lawyer in the United States. Yet the message is not that of despair, but one that challenges us to continue searching for solutions that can offer the best possibilities of building mutual respect, understanding and sustained interactions as an important starting point.

 Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is professor and Chair of Research in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She also holds a research fellowship at University of the Free State, and appointment as the SARChI Chair for Historical Trauma and Memory.