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Long be­fore he coined the now dis­cred­ited no­tion of a rain­bow na­tion, Arch­bishop Des­mond Tutu had this pro­found mes­sage for black South Africa: “Be nice to the whites, they need you to re­dis­cover their hu­man­ity.” It was 1984, when PW Botha’s gov­ern­ment was en­trench­ing hard­line apartheid and town­ships were on fire as mass re­sis­tance to the sys­tem in­ten­si­fied. Tutu could feel the anger in the air and wanted to coun­sel blacks not to let their suf­fer­ing lead to a ha­tred of white coun­try­men.

In those days, the gospel of non­ra­cial­ism was preached with zeal by the United Demo­cratic Front and al­lied or­gan­i­sa­tions. They saw the end re­sult of the fight against apartheid be­ing a non­ra­cial, non­sex­ist so­ci­ety that would af­ford all cit­i­zens equal op­por­tu­ni­ties and sur­vive and soar.

Blacks gen­er­ally em­braced this mes­sage and many whites fought along­side them to achieve this dream. Come 1994, Tutu and Nel­son Man­dela once more urged blacks to for­give those who had op­pressed them. The blacks obliged and took the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion project to heart.

If Tutu were to emerge from re­tire­ment this week to again ad­vise blacks to be “nice to whites” and help them to re­dis­cover their hu­man­ity, chances are he would be chased into the sac­risty – such is the level of anger at open and per­sis­tent racism in the coun­try, and such is the level of racial po­lar­i­sa­tion.

If you en­tered 2016 be­liev­ing eco­nomic stag­na­tion and po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty would be the great­est chal­lenges of the year, think again. There’s no doubt we will be ham­mered by the slow growth rate, a strug­gling cur­rency, weak com­mod­ity prices and stub­born un­em­ploy­ment. Sure, we will be treated to a feast of scan­dals and own goals from Nkandla and Mahlamba Nd­lopfu.

The peo­ple will be on the streets protest­ing about ser­vice de­liv­ery and stu­dents will con­tinue to ha­rass the es­tab­lish­ment. Tur­moil within the ANC and wide­spread pub­lic dis­ap­proval will fur­ther weaken the hand of Num­ber 1.

But the is­sue that should have us shud­der­ing with fear this year is racial ten­sion. The sear­ing po­lit­i­cal and so­cial tem­per­a­tures we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing at the very be­gin­ning of 2016 are an in­evitable con­se­quence of the ne­glect of this crit­i­cal is­sue in our 22 years as a democ­racy. In our first five years as a demo­cratic re­pub­lic, we were so grate­ful that we had averted con­fla­gra­tion that we sang Kum­baya and didn’t deal with the psy­cho­log­i­cal legacy of the apartheid ide­ol­ogy.

Black peo­ple cel­e­brated the fact that they were now free and there was real hope of a bet­ter life. White peo­ple were over­joyed that not only would they not be driven into the sea, they would also get to keep liv­ing the life­styles they were ac­cus­tomed to. They could get on with life with­out be­ing judged by the world as the im­ple­menters and ben­e­fi­cia­ries of an evil sys­tem.

In that happy mood, there was lit­tle done to sen­si­tise white South Africans to the evil that the apartheid sys­tem was. To them, it was just a word, a con­cept that could be cast into his­tory’s dust­bin and for­got­ten about. When the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion came around, they shut their ears to the hor­ror sto­ries. White South Africa came out of that process mired in the self-im­posed ig­no­rance that had shielded its con­science from the in­jus­tices of apartheid.

With this level of com­fort, it is no sur­prise that many whites don’t quite get why this trans­for­ma­tion ir­ri­ta­tion has to hap­pen and why racially de­fined eco­nomic in­equal­ity is a mas­sive prob­lem. This com­fort has been ex­ac­er­bated by gov­ern­ment’s lethargy in en­forc­ing trans­for­ma­tive mea­sures that are en­abled by leg­is­la­tion and gazetted reg­u­la­tions. It has also been en­abled by the re­ten­tion of old ge­o­graphic and so­cial spa­ces that kept South Africans apart.

As the In­sti­tute for Jus­tice and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion pointed out in its 2015 Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Barom­e­ter, apartheid may no longer be on the statute books, but the ge­og­ra­phy of cities, towns and the “dis­tri­bu­tional pat­terns of our econ­omy have largely re­mained in place to re­in­force the tem­plate cre­ated by the ar­chi­tects of apartheid”.

“Leg­is­la­tion is no longer re­quired to sus­tain apartheid. It has evolved in ways that al­low it to sus­tain it­self,” says the in­sti­tute.

Shock­ingly, the barom­e­ter, which was re­leased last month, showed that 61% of South Africans be­lieve race re­la­tions have ei­ther de­te­ri­o­rated or stayed the same since 1994, and more than 50% of peo­ple never in­ter­act in pri­vate and so­cial spa­ces with other race groups. They find each other where they can’t re­ally avoid each other – in places such as shops and work­places. A scary find­ing was that 67% “in­di­cated that they gen­er­ally have lit­tle or no trust in peo­ple of other race groups”. This is a coun­try that has had “na­tion build­ing” as a ma­jor mis­sion for 22 years.

Given this pic­ture, it is clear the so­lu­tion to wors­en­ing race re­la­tions does not lie in the kind of re­sponses we had this week. Faced with a tin­der­box, South Africa’s po­lit­i­cal for­ma­tions chose to grand­stand in an elec­tion year. But they are fan­ning a fire no one may be able to put out.

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