The racists are winning
In the US thriller film The Siege, New York is under attack from terrorist bombings. As the situation escalates and the city goes into panic mode, the military moves in, pushing aside FBI- and CIA-led efforts to curb the attacks. Hard-line Major General Devereaux (Bruce Willis) rounds up and locks up young Arab-Americans en masse and approves the torture of key suspects.
Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington), the FBI man on the scene, is appalled by this, as he feels it flies in the face of American values. The men clash viciously, as they have since the military moved on to New York’s streets. What follows is one of the most prophetic statements about the US’s treatment of terror suspects, given that the movie was released in 1998, three years before 9/11 and the advent of the Guantanamo Bay torture prison.
It is a monologue by Hubbard in response to Devereaux encouraging the torture of a suspect named Tariq: “Come on, General. You’ve lost men; I’ve lost men – but you can’t do this! What if they don’t even want the sheik? Have you considered that?
“What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we’re doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General ... we do that and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for is over. And they’ve won. They’ve already won!”
It is a monologue we South Africans should keep in mind as we battle the racist terror that is trampling on our quest to forge a common nationhood. We have noted in recent times, particularly in the past fortnight, how those who are outraged by racism have been allowing themselves to be dragged to the levels of those they condemn. What we can glean from the racism discussions is that the concept of nonracialism, one of the holy grails of the liberation struggle, is on death row. We can also see that South Africans would be willing to sacrifice long-term principles of free speech for the immediate gain of silencing racists.
The discourse on how racism should be fought has become coarse and unsophisticated – at times as crass as Penny Sparrow and Justin van Vuuren themselves. There is a thread emerging that white people are visitors and should behave as such. They are being told that they should only speak when asked to and should say only the things the majority approves of.
At the risk of sounding like an ou toppie from a time gone by, this is not what the Africanist, black consciousness and Charterist movements were about. They were about the affirmation of the humanity and dignity of all. They were about the overthrow of white supremacy and its replacement with a system that would seek to change social, political and economic relations among South Africans. They were never about the diminution of the role of whites in society.
What we are finding with the reaction to racism and white supremacy is unguided anger disguised as ideology. The obsession with whiteness is beginning to border on irrationality, to the extent that the racists are now conducting the direction of national discourse.
This anger is understandable, given the largely unchanged economic relations, the stubbornness of many white South Africans and rising levels of racism. The problem is that the rest of society is allowing itself to be dragged into the cesspool by racists. The racists are winning.
It does not help that the organisation that once boasted the slogan “ANC lives, ANC leads” is playing follower. The governing party, the century-old custodian of nonracialism, is failing to rise above the noise and give direction to society. As a party that commands the support of more than 60% of the population and reaches into every corner of the land, the ANC has a greater responsibility to keep the nation-building project on track. Instead, the party is behaving as if it is just another player.
The other area in which the racists are being handed an easy victory is in allowing them to set the parameters of free speech. In the wake of the public vomit of Sparrow and Van Vuuren, we behaved like frenzied sharks who had just smelt blood in their corner of the ocean. Suddenly, we were detecting racism everywhere. People were guillotined left, right and centre, instead of simply being whipped into line. It was very discomfiting watching institutions set terrible precedents about the nature of public conversation.
By being quick to the guillotine, we are creating terrible precedents that will soon begin to affect genuine public commentary. It may not be long before commentators, analysts, cartoonists and satirists are decapitated for speaking out of turn. The democracy we are building must be resilient to earthquakes.
It is important that in everything we do in reaction to the racists, we do not compromise the long-term quality of our democracy. If we do, the racists will already have won.
It’s taken a couple of days and all my stoner acumen and negotiating skills, along with Tebza’s linguistic abilities, to get us access to a field of weed