Tag Archives: racism

Should I go or should I stay: the South African’s conundrum

Have you ever thought about leaving South Africa? Do you feel like spitting on someone who would even consider it? Or have you already left?

At one point or another, I’ve been all three. So perhaps that’s why I’ve found “Should I stay or should I go”, a collection of writing about leaving South Africa (or, in some cases, returning or staying put), has a special resonance.

The stories are always riveting, always compelling, sometimes infuriating. Andre Brink’s piece was written after the brutal murder of his nephew. He wrote why he chose, in the aftermath of such a tragedy, to stay in South Africa. Brink harbours no illusions about this country – and he captures, with brutal precision, the corrosive decline of our young democracy, weakened by corruption and its leaders’ contempt for the rule of law. But his decision to stay is because of his love for South Africa – a love that even this most seasoned of scribes struggles to define or explain, but which so many of its citizens, myself included, have experienced.

I relished Ways of Staying author Kevin Bloom’s appreciation that South Africa is the best possible place to map out his own identity. It is in this place of bewildering complexity and excitement, that the writer can determine his own place in the world.

Journalist Gillian Tucker’s grappling with homesickness is understandable, but the conclusions drawn from her visit back to South Africa after living for 14 years in Canada, were not. She contrasts the opulence of her accommodation with the shoddy service she received. To her, this somehow embodies what South Africa has become. I found that strange – poor service is an issue in many parts of the world. Her bad luck to experience it both in Johannesburg and Cape Town is more indicative of insufficient research on TripAdvisor than a meaningful truth about the country.

I wondered whether this was merely the excuse she found for finding the country she had longed for no longer “worthy” of that longing. South Africa has changed hugely in the years since she left. In some ways it is a different country – one that she may simply no longer have an affinity to.

Another excruciating piece was by Barry Levy, who dedicates much of his article on establishing his anti-apartheid credentials and undoubtedly genuine love for South Africa. One wonders why he hadn’t bolted back to Mzansi ages ago. He devotes merely a cryptic line to answer that – claiming “life had conspired against me”. That doesn’t wash.

I wonder whether, like Tucker, he can’t quite come to terms with today’s South Africa. Despite him loving it and wanting it to do well, perhaps there’s a subconscious impulse to remain anchored in Australia’s safe, if staid harbour, far from the storms and raging uncertainty that can beset his homeland.

Only one contributor (to my knowledge) was black — the indispensable Jacob Dlamini, whose eloquent musings in Business Day every week are a must read. The ensemble’s lack of ethnic diversity amongst its contributors is my main gripe about the book. In some ways this is understandable. Emigrants tend to be from the middle class (those who can afford to leave if they want to), and because of our tragic history, that middle class is overwhelmingly white.

Nevertheless, there are many of a darker hue who have left South Africa. Some went during apartheid – apparently Golders Green in London is a haven for exiled ANC apparatchiks lacking the stomach to return home. Others went later: lured away to Perth and other pastures when the democracy dividend didn’t quite deliver what had been hoped for – or because opportunities arose overseas that weren’t available back home. It would have been nice to hear these voices.

Angst and political tones tend to shade South African emigration, regardless of why people have left. Perhaps this is because some of those that have left are embittered racists that can’t bear blacks attaining political power after centuries of oppression. Then there are those who have gone because they’ve lost faith in the new South Africa – or in its capacity to provide a safe and secure environment for their families. Others (like me) have departed for more prosaic reasons — I moved because I was offered a job here in London.

Regardless of the reasons for people leaving, South Africans – of all races – face huge uncertainties. They live, after all, in a country where crime is rampant, corruption has become endemic, law enforcement is toothless and basic services often remain inadequate or continue to deteriorate. Meanwhile, ruling party demagogues get away with murder (or at least urging it — “I’ll kill for Zuma” springs to mind). If certain factions in the ANC have their way, then nationalism is on the cards, agricultural property rights are threatened, and media freedom is on the verge of being neutered.

Against this backdrop, staying or leaving is a valid conundrum for anyone with the means to consider it. But it is a conundrum made all the more complicated by the kind of place South Africa is. It is a nation of warmth and colour, vibrancy and breathtaking beauty. It also has superb quality of life (the space, the food, the weather!) for those privileged enough to afford it.

We easily forget that emigration — and migration generally — is a global phenomenon. As contributor Daniel Ford points out, most people don’t have the same hang-ups about it — and leaving one’s country is not interpreted as a sign of betrayal. Perhaps South Africans should attempt to be a little more liberated about this vexed issue. No one should feel forced to stay or go; it’s up to them, and their own circumstances.

My favourite philosophical approach to emigration was summed up in the piece by peripatetic English teacher Anne Townsend. “Life,” she wrote, “is just too short to spend it all in one place.”


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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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5FM broadcasts Malema’s racist rants… as “music”

Driving home from the airport early this morning, I thought I had gone back to sleep and was dreaming when, from the interminable “mix” concocted by 5FM’s DJ Euphonic, I heard the voice of Julius Malema. A recording of the ANC Youth League president castigating the BBC journalist Jonah Fisher was being played against a buzzy backtrack. (Watch Malema’s original tirade here.)

As the malevolent snarls died away, I wondered why they had been featured in this song. Was this some sort of not-so-subliminal warning to those with “white tendencies” that they ought to behave? Was it satire – an attempt at mockery? Or had the petulant little tyrant’s outburst been included in the song just for the sake of it – a reason that surely justifies many artworks?

A double espresso or two later, it still remains a mystery to me as to why this vehement, racist attack was broadcast on public radio long after it ceased to be a news item.

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Criticising corruption isn’t racist

Steaurt Pennington wrote a letter about liberal thinkers, criticism and subliminal racism which was published in the Business Day last Friday. I responded with:

By implying that when “thinkers who position themselves as custodians of our liberal values rail about cronyism, corruption and the collapse of our civilised norms” they are merely “falling foul of their own aversive racism”, Steuart Pennington has got it wrong.

While aversive racism may indeed be the underlying cause of some persons’ criticism, it is scurrilous to suggest that this applies to everyone who dares criticise the steady erosion of accountability and governance that SA is experiencing.

By Pennington’s logic, these critics (who he incorrectly assumes are all whites) are simply not entitled to criticise the government because to do so is racist. He does not realise that most who espouse liberal values such as constitutionalism and ethical governance would criticise governance failures regardless of the government’s racial composition. Indeed that was amply evident during apartheid when Helen Suzman, Colin Eglin and other liberals vociferously condemned the Nats’ wicked policies.

Incidentally, middle-class whites such as Pennington remain largely unaffected by dodgy tenders, fat-cat black economic empowerment deals and public service plundering. It is the poor, mostly black, majority that suffers the most from rampant malfeasance. Thus to remain silent about cronyism and corruption is to show contempt for this impoverished majority.

It is time for Pennington and the others held hostage by their racial identity to liberate themselves, evaluating and, if need be, attacking arguments according to their merit — not according to the colour of the skin of the person who dared suggest them. If our democracy is to survive, ideas, debate and criticism cannot — and must not — be constrained by the paradigm of race.

As a 20-year-old who has grown up in the new SA, I “rail against corruption and cronyism” not because I’m racist — but because I am furious that African National Congress members’ relentless pursuit for power and self-profit continues to entrench apartheid’s lingering oppression among the very people the ruling party purports to represent.

Read Pennington’s reply to this letter in this morning’s Business Day here.


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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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Race torture at UFS

For those of you who thought that the racist UFS [University of the Free State] student video was a storm in a teacup, think again. The Mail & Guardian has uncovered accounts of race-based victimisation, torture and intimidation at UFS residences. Much of this occurred during drunken initiation rites but it is clear from the article that day-to-day life for black students in formerly white hostels hasn’t been much better:

One student complains of being “yelled at, jerked around by clothing, limbs, neck or head, being locked in smelly dark rooms, humiliated, degraded, tortured, profane language used”, while black first-years were continuously required to serve their white seniors.

Another black student recounts how he was locked in a cupboard with a sack of rotten potatoes after being forced to read a Freedom Front Plus poster.

It would appear that letters by persecuted black students to UFS authorities have fallen on deaf ears. But not only this: the staff have turned a blind eye to the ritual initiation which was banned and yet still tolerated.

JC Van der Merwe [head of philosophy at UFS] said he had “felt terrible” after sitting in on initiation ceremonies at which black students were verbally and racially abused.

“I felt I was condoning this racist abuse and went to speak to the rector. The orientation of first years is no longer allowed, but it happens and we’ve been keeping quiet because we don’t want to tamper with traditions and cultural issues.”

So there you have it: the UFS authorities effectively condoning heinous, degrading racism. This is shocking and completely unacceptable. The university needs to investigated by a credible and unbiased commission without delay. Racism has been allowed to continue to flourish because the university never had the guts to stamp it out. By tolerating racism, a precedent was set.

Some thought that the revelation of the student video was blown out of all proportion in the press. My view is that it’s merely opened a can of worms. Despicable, racist worms.

To read the M&G exposé click here.


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Unreconstituted racism at its very worst

The anti-integration video made by several University of the Free State students is unreconstituted racism at its very worst.

It is abhorrent that these cretins believed that they were entitled to voice their opinions in such a dehumanising, degrading way. The video shows the utter contempt these young white students have for black people. It illustrates the blind, seething bigotry that has no place in the new South Africa.

The bill of rights states unequivocally that everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected. In treating those cleaners as lower than animals, the filmmakers have violated not only the constitution, but the cleaners’ intrinsic humanity.

Integration of hostels at the UFS should have been done years ago. To separate students on the basis of race is as ridiculous as it is divisive. Race is an artificial construct – a barrier that was erected to divide us. Of course everyone is different. South Africa has a wealth of ethnic, cultural, religious and language diversity. But that should be harnessed as a strength, not as means of separating us.

The fact that there is opposition to integration now – fourteen years into the new dispensation – coupled with the method through which protest has been expressed sadly shows that the reconciliation project has failed to quash the racial intolerance and victimisation that characterised apartheid.

South Africa is – or should be – a home to all. This is lost on the protesting students. Under the constitution, we are all equal – no matter what our colour, race or creed might be. Those who disagree with this inalienable truth should find another country to inhabit. And fast.


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