ACHILLE MBE­MBE: THE YEAR OF THE mon­key

Only a sus­tained and sys­temic as­sault on those who spew anti-black in­vec­tive will rid SA of racists and their colo­nial-era histri­on­ics, writes Achille Mbe­mbe

CityPress - - Front Page -

The rules are now set and the game has be­come bor­ingly pre­dictable. Late in the night – gen­er­ally be­tween Thurs­day and Satur­day – a white per­son of some re­pute, whom many, in­clud­ing blacks, had pre­vi­ously thought to be a more or less de­cent hu­man be­ing, sud­denly loses it and goes hys­ter­i­cal.

Hid­den be­hind an open screen, and more of­ten than not un­der the spell of some in­tox­i­cat­ing sub­stance, he or she records on Face­book, Twit­ter or any other avail­able dig­i­tal me­dia plat­form an id­i­otic, re­pug­nant and dis­jointed set of ut­ter­ances.

Most of these are of­ten lifted al­most ver­ba­tim from some of the crud­est dic­tio­nar­ies of colo­nial racism.

The com­ing out of clos­eted racists of­ten takes the form of an ex­er­cise in vul­gar­ity. This en­tails hurl­ing pro­fan­i­ties at black South Africans – or Africans whose hu­man­ity is thus put on trial and, as in the most re­cent past, thor­oughly de­based.

This form of nano-techno-dig­i­tal lynch­ing is of­ten in­dis­crim­i­nate and usu­ally fol­lowed by all man­ner of apoplec­tic in­dig­na­tion.

The dust usu­ally set­tles once a re­luc­tant apol­ogy has been ex­tracted from the for­merly dis­guised racist.

But deep down, the pre­sumed cul­prit and his or her tor­men­tors know very well how patently in­sin­cere and in­au­then­tic such a the­atri­cal ges­ture is.

So it goes – at least un­til the next round when the same re­frain is in­toned, un­leash­ing in re­turn the same storm and the same histri­on­ics.

That on a mat­ter as fun­da­men­tal as racism we set­tle so quickly for so lit­tle can only mean one of two things: ei­ther South Africa does not ex­pect much of it­self, or the coun­try is rid­dled with so much bad faith that it has kept telling it­self lies that nei­ther its cit­i­zens nor the world at large are pre­pared to be­lieve any longer.

Other­wise, how does one ex­plain the fact that at ev­ery turn the same in­vi­ta­tion to com­pla­cency seems to pre­vail? We might not have de­feated racism, we are told. But at least, un­like other so­ci­eties, we en­gage with racism overtly.

Such a neg­a­tive com­par­i­son is usu­ally fol­lowed by a call for yet an­other round of ro­bust na­tional con­ver­sa­tion, as if an­other one of those end­less talk shops that never re­sult in any­thing but more bad faith will stem the ris­ing tide of racism in the coun­try.

If, un­der Mbeki, anti-black racism was forced to re­treat into the pri­vate sphere, the Zuma years have seen its force­ful re-emer­gence in the pub­lic do­main.

Racists of all stripes have been em­bold­ened by the end­less spec­ta­cle of ve­nal­ity, crony­ism and in­com­pe­tence.

Con­ve­niently for­get­ting decades of white cru­elty and mis­rule, they now pre­tend that things used to be bet­ter un­der apartheid.

Since blacks took over the reins of gov­ern­ment, goes the story, the coun­try has been jour­ney­ing on the road to a full-blown klep­toc­racy.

The racist brigade be­lieves Zuma and his side­kicks have re­deemed whites from any sense of guilt, shame and re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Rightly or wrongly, Zuma in par­tic­u­lar seems to con­firm the worst stereo­types that racist South Africa has al­ways en­ter­tained about blacks and their mores.

To re­cover the lost ground, a num­ber of things need to be done ur­gently.

The end of apartheid did not bring anti-black racism to its knees. This racism is nei­ther ac­ci­den­tal nor anec­do­tal. It is struc­tural, cul­tural and sys­temic. Only a sus­tained and sys­temic as­sault can de­feat it. Such an as­sault must be­gin with the re­con­sti­tu­tion of in­tel­lec­tual cap­i­tal, with­out which we can hardly get a grip on the on­go­ing trans­for­ma­tions of racism lo­cally and glob­ally.

More in­sti­tu­tions or pro­grammes de­voted to ap­plied re­search into the chang­ing faces of race and racism in con­tem­po­rary South African life are needed.

For the last 22 years, gov­ern­ment has adopted a lais­sez faire at­ti­tude on mat­ters re­lated to the fight against racism.

It is now time to set up a na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion de­voted ex­clu­sively to mon­i­tor­ing de­lib­er­ate acts of racism, to re­port­ing on racist in­ci­dents and, where nec­es­sary, to en­sur­ing that the most bla­tant of these are sys­tem­at­i­cally pros­e­cuted.

For such an or­gan­i­sa­tion to be fully ef­fec­tive, it must be en­dowed with a le­gal fund.

And it must seek to un­leash a broad so­cial move­ment against racism that in­cludes trade unions, busi­ness, churches, uni­ver­si­ties, the arts and civil so­ci­ety in gen­eral.

It is also time to beef up ex­ist­ing leg­is­la­tion and, where nec­es­sary, in­tro­duce new laws to com­bat racism.

If in­deed apartheid was a crime against hu­man­ity, any apol­ogy of apartheid – un­der any form – should in turn be crim­i­nalised.

On­line racism rep­re­sents one of the most per­ni­cious forms of big­otry in con­tem­po­rary South Africa. How do we crack down on on­line hate speech with­out cur­tail­ing free speech?

As long as prop­erty and fi­nan­cial re­la­tions re­main skewed, and lev­els of in­equal­ity keep spi­ralling, not much will be ac­com­plished on the road to a non-racist so­ci­ety.

Can we de­ra­cialise prop­erty re­la­tions with­out in­cur­ring the wrath of the transna­tional cap­i­tal­ist classes?

The of­fi­cial walls of seg­re­ga­tion may have fallen, but the drive for self-en­clave­ment has never been as alive as it is to­day.

To break the walls of ig­no­rance and in­dif­fer­ence, es­pe­cially among the younger gen­er­a­tions, a fu­ture­ori­ented, non­par­ti­san youth pol­icy that priv­i­leges ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties and nur­tures cross-racial friend­ships is des­per­ately needed.

Count­less ex­per­i­ments in bridg­ing the colour gap are hap­pen­ing across the land. They must be given more voice and more recog­ni­tion in the pub­lic sphere.

Now is the time to steeply raise the cost of be­ing racist in South Africa.

To achieve this goal, we need to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where to be racist amounts to putting at risk one’s for­tune, rep­u­ta­tion, pro­fes­sional stand­ing and friend­ships, and one’s in­ter­na­tional con­nec­tions.

We must make the life of the racists in our midst so un­com­fort­able that their only re­main­ing op­tion will be to pack up and leave. Mbe­mbe teaches at the Wits In­sti­tute for So­cial and

Eco­nomic Re­search

IM­AGE: RISE OF PLANET OF APES / TWEN­TI­ETH CEN­TURY FOX

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