Tag Archives: race

Why this pale male is shutting up (for a little while anyway)

Six weeks ago I touched down in London: a born-and-bred Cape Town boy about to start a new job in another country.

While the online smorgasbord of Politicsweb, the Mail & Guardian and Business Day still form a daily news staple, an inevitable sense of detachment from the roiling intrigue of South African politics has crept in. And not merely detachment: perhaps it’s because I’m living in a country, far, far away, that I feel less able – or qualified – to comment about day-to-day political issues.

But I’ve also succumbed to ennui. I’m tired of participating in a debate riddled by crass racial accusations – a discourse where identity prevails instead of ideas, rash insults instead of reason. South African debate is lively – thankfully so – but arguments are too often drowned out by the din of racial politicking. It’s become reflexive – a lazy tic employed by so many commentators. It’s easier to resort to racial stereotypes, or accuse people of being racist, or place blame on our racialised history, than it is to grapple seriously, thoughtfully, considerately with the mammoth challenges South Africa – and Africa – faces.

At the back of my mind every time I consider piping up, is the thought of my own impotence – condemned to irrelevance, almost, thanks to my perceived identity. I can’t avoid those thoughts: what’s the use in saying anything, when whatever I’ll say will be dismissed by a cursory “But he’s just another middle-class, white male”? It would seem my love for South Africa, my desire to see positive, long-lasting change in this country, counts for nothing in the eyes of many. I dream of a nation where all South Africans – black and white, and every shade in between – are prosperous; where children receive a good education; where families receive the support they need; where men and women are able to chart their own lives and shape their own destinies through their own efforts.

That counts for nothing in a media environment palsied by identity politics. Apartheid’s scars were often physical – and certainly social. Glance through the pages of our newspapers or tune into our talk shows, and you will witness that the wicked system’s lingering effects are psychological too. Sadly, the obsession with race, and with what race supposedly says about a person, has only deepened.

After more than 16 years of democracy, an implicit racial bias underpins much of South Africa’s media’s ouput – both in its commentary and reportage. Many journalists, it seems, are tempted to reinforce a narrative in which the legitimacy of people’s motives or actions are based purely on their skin colour.

I find this particularly evident in coverage of the DA’s governance in the Western Cape – the Makhaza toilet saga being a perfect example. Coverage on the issue laid bare the media’s inherent hostility towards a party perceived as “white”, as well as journalists’ reluctance to obtain facts on the ground that might contradict their sly suggestion that the DA was hell-bent on humiliating township residents.

Now that I’m living in London, a new label – that of expatriate – will of course be slapped onto me, further undermining the “legitimacy” of my contribution to political debate. South Africans can easily misinterpret moving countries as a sign of indifference about the migrant’s homeland: he’s run away; he’s given up; he doesn’t believe in our future. Staying is equated as a vote of confidence in the new South Africa, leaving merely shows contempt for it. Those who believe this forget, of course, that our world is an increasingly globalised one – and that leaving often has very little to do with the faith (or the lack thereof) in the country of one’s birth.

A part of me says this all shouldn’t matter, and that I should be writing about South Africa regardless, in the hope that my views won’t always be completely discarded as self-indulgent musings from an ivory tower. But, for the moment, that argument doesn’t hold sway and, wearied and wary, I’ll be letting my typing fingers rest for a little while yet.

Rest assured: I won’t remain silent forever. That would simply allow victory for the bigots who say political debate is a territory that can only be occupied by those who claim victimhood. For South Africa to move forward, we cannot allow that belief to prevail.

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Racists, decolonise your minds!

During the past few weeks I seem to have spawned a fan club of charming individuals who leave comments on my Thought Leader blog informing me that because I am white I have no right to tackle issues such as the Zimbabwean crisis.

It’s interesting because they don’t demand that I censor myself on the basis of the points that I’m making. In fact few – if any – of those who tell me this have actually bothered to contest my assertions. Instead my white skin marks me out – apparently – as a colonialist, an imperialist and a racist. It’s sad that that’s the best they can come up with. But furthermore it points to how endemic racialised discourse and thinking is.

“Race” is an artificial construct, invented by the perpetrators of western hegemony in days gone by. They thought that by “othering” people perceived to be ethnoculturally “different”, they could then create a justification for slavery and colonisation.

So, when I am told to shut up because of the colour of my skin – or if I’m labelled a racist because of it – it shows that these accusers remain chained and colonised by antiquated western hegemonic discourse.

These racists remain trapped in a worldview consisting of crude racial binaries that were constructed, ironically, by the racial supremacists they so vociferously claim to oppose.

Racism, from whatever quarter, needs to be exorcised. It won’t be, so long as people remain imprisoned by outdated and faulty racialised absolutes – poisonous relics from an altogether less liberated age.

Factors like age, culture, language, education and geographic location undoubtedly influence people’s perceptions, thinking and behaviour. Skin colour – or “race” – does not. It is unfortunate that there are those who cannot seem to look beyond their blinding bigotry and understand this fundamental reality.

It is time to look beyond race, to challenge and, if needs be attack, arguments and opinions according to their merit and veracity – not according to the colour of the skin of the person who dared suggest them.

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Niki Daly on cross-cultural storytelling

Niki Daly, the world-famous South African children’s book illustrator and storyteller, gave a wonderful talk at the Obs Library in Cape Town on Tuesday. I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity as his books were a special part of my childhood. Masha du Toit, multimedia navigator at my wonderful college, Vega, was also there. She writes about it on her blog, Nightcity:

One of the themes of his talk was the question of why he creates what he calls “multicultural” books – he asks himself the question – “how can a white man tell stories about black people – and why would he want to do so?”

He reminded us of his question – how can a white person tell the story of a black person – and then proceeded to suggest some answers.

“There is more to a person than their race, or their cultural practices. We are all human.” He spoke about being “inoculated against hatred” by the very system that dehumanised black people – because he was brought up by two black women who he grew to love. He emphasized that where apartheid focused on “difference” and “separateness”, what one should do instead is to find the common ground, that which we share. “As humans, we have the amazing ability to empathize. And after all, a writer can dare to imagine”.

He said that it is a mistake to classify his books a being about black children. They are about working class children. Children who like himself, did not have all the toys, all the parental attention, all the advantages. Who might also have spent most of their time “sitting on the sidewalk, picking the scabs off their knees.”

Click here to read Masha’s full post.

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Malaysia’s lessons for South Africa

Malaysia’s governing coalition which has been in power since independence in 1957 has suffered a blow to its hegemony in the latest elections. In the federal legislature, opposition parties more than quadrupled in representation – from 20 in 2004 to 82. Opposition parties now govern 5 states, up from 1 in 2004.

The key cause of this seismic shift is an increasing disillusionment with the National Front coalition’s race-based policies. An article in The Economist explains:

Many Chinese Malaysians have tolerated the New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced in 1971 to redistribute wealth to the poorer Malay majority, as a guarantor of communal harmony at a time when all ethnic groups were getting richer. Now even some Malay voters appear to have turned against it, seeing it as an excuse for cronyism and corruption. Some voted for the opposition, a loose alliance of three parties, which called the NEP obsolete and, on taking power in Penang, has started to dismantle it, saying its provisions will not apply to state-government contracts.

The situation faced in Malaysia has parallels with South Africa’s own politics and race-based policies. While economic empowerment of the previously oppressed is vital, the way in which it has been implemented has to a large degree been a failure.

Afrodissident wrote last year:

Half our black population lives on $1 a day or under. In 13 years of freedom, unemployment has swollen by an official 25%. The number of South Africans living in relative poverty (calculated on income) increased from 40.5 (in 1996) to the whopping 47% currently.

We continued with:

BEE is an insult to the millions of poor South Africans and their ancestors who were oppressed under apartheid and colonial rule. It is an insult because it has resulted in little more than the creation of tiny black elite and an economic system based on patronage and cronyism rather than merit and innovation.

Moeletsi Mbeki, the president’s brother, says: “BEE looks deceptively like a form of reparation. The reality, however, is very different. BEE is a formula for co-opting – and perhaps even corrupting – ANC leaders by enriching them as private individuals.”

From Malaysia’s history it is clear that SA is not the only country where ethnically-based policies inevitably lead to self-enrichment and patronage. What I sincerely hope for is that this will lead to disillusionment with the party who perpetuates these divisive and ineffectual policies – just as it has done so in Malaysia.

True empowerment is not one black woman being on the boards of 71 companies (Danisa Baloyi – before Fidentia hit the fan). It it is not ANC funding fronts being awarded massive deals from state parastatals.

For the impoverished to receive true socioeconomic emancipation we need to create an equal and open opportunity society where an education system can provide much needed skills and catalyse innovation.

We need loads of scholarships (especially for teachers and other sectors facing personnel shortages). We need academies for promising pupils (perhaps modelled on Oprah’s school). We need small business resource and skills development hubs in the townships and rural areas.

As long as the ANC remains in power in its current form, BEE and other racially-based policies will continue. They will persist because they are a useful mechanism to plunder resources for the personal gain of a politically-favoured few. One day other parties will eventually pose a significant challenge to that at the ballot box. But who knows when that will be. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 50 years – like it did in Malaysia. South Africa – and especially its poor – deserves much better than that.

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Timeless lessons from the bard

The Merchant of Venice

I watched the Maynardville production of The Merchant of Venice on Thursday evening. Roy Sargent’s poignant and compelling interpretation of the play holds many contemporary lessons for us, most notably of the danger of grudging racial co-existence acting as proxy to true reconciliation.

Without reconciliation the barriers remain – as do the hate and hurt and blind emotional insanity of groundless malice which has simmered and grown over generations of segregated ignorance.

We live in a country where unreconstituted prejudice still remains rampant, where, like in the play, interracial interaction appears for many people to be a means to an end – out of necessity, not of pleasure.

I am happy to say that not everyone is like this. In younger generations especially, there is an unprecedented level of integration, tolerance, “colour blindness” and a melting pot of multi-ethnic friendships, relationships and interaction.

Yet apartheid’s tendrils still have a hold over segments of this country. A teenager’s racially-motivated shooting spree in the North-West township of Skielik is a tragic reminder of this. What kind of family, one must ask, was that young murderer living in to have done such a heinous, shocking crime? For the 18 short years of his life what kind of vitriolic racist poison was he being indoctrinated with? It’s almost certain this boy has never come across Shakespeare’s eloquent case for racial equality in Act 3. Scene 1 of the The Merchant of Venice:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?

The Merchant of Venice runs at Maynardville till 16 February. Book at Computicket.

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