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.