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years ago, South Africa and the US faced sim­i­lar chal­lenges: in­sti­tu­tion­alised racism that de­nied and dis­pos­sessed peo­ple of their hu­man rights on the ba­sis of their skin colour. Racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in South Africa was en­trenched and po­liced by law, preached from pul­pits – and the idea of white supremacy was a lived ex­pe­ri­ence for blacks and whites. The cir­cum­stances of black peo­ple in both coun­tries were not that dif­fer­ent: an apartheid slav­ery im­posed by the white colo­nial­ist on a na­tive pop­u­la­tion here; and in the US, a peo­ple un­able to es­cape their en­slaved past long af­ter the abo­li­tion of slav­ery.

In 2016, we are no longer de­bat­ing the equal­ity of all races, so we have come a long way. Here in South Africa, with democ­racy and our Con­sti­tu­tion that en­shrines the val­ues of the Free­dom Char­ter, no one can be dis­crim­i­nated against on the ba­sis of race. And so it is in the US.

But have we truly in­ter­nalised that truth, or do we mouth words that mask long-held and deep-seated prej­u­dices? Both our coun­tries con­tinue to deal with racism, de­spite laws that make dis­crim­i­na­tion il­le­gal. Prej­u­dice stems from ig­no­rance, a value sys­tem so deeply in­grained that it is un­con­scious. We as­sume that an ed­u­ca­tion is a guar­an­tee of an il­lu­mi­nated, shackle-free mind – that the scales of ig­no­rance and prej­u­dice will fall away and be re­placed by re­spect, a true ac­knowl­edge­ment that our blood runs red, that we all have a com­mon an­ces­tor and any sur­face dif­fer­ence is purely the re­sult of evo­lu­tion.

Right now in South Africa, we are talk­ing about racism and seem shocked by the fact that it ex­ists de­spite April 27 1994. But in the con­text of free­dom, we need to re­mem­ber that, de­spite African-Amer­i­cans se­cur­ing the vote with the 15th Amend­ment of 1870, many South­ern states pre­vented AfricanAmer­i­cans from vot­ing un­til 1965. In 1994, when many South Africans voted for the first time, we made a num­ber of naive as­sump­tions – in­clud­ing that our lead­er­ship would rise to the chal­lenge of be­ing a gov­ern­ment that could re­sist the snare of power, and that for­mer pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela’s rain­bow na­tion would erase the blood­stains of apartheid.

As an ac­tivist, it was hard to en­vis­age free­dom in my life­time, but it came to pass with the un­ban­ning of the ANC, the free­ing of Man­dela and the first demo­cratic elec­tion in 1994. Tonight, there are no spe­cial branch agents in the au­di­ence (I hope), none of us will be de­tained or im­pris­oned or placed un­der the in­fa­mous house ar­rest that Al­bert Luthuli was, when Robert Kennedy paid him a visit in 1966. Yes, South Africa and the US have walked a long road and our free­doms were hard won.

To use Robert Kennedy’s words, “What is the bat­tle to which we are all sum­moned?” Here to­day in 2016, it is to en­dorse his words – a bat­tle for the fu­ture.

Bernie San­ders [US Demo­crat pres­i­den­tial con­tender], in a re­cent cam­paign speech, said: “The is­sue of wealth and in­come in­equal­ity is the great moral is­sue of our time. It is the great eco­nomic is­sue of our time and the great po­lit­i­cal is­sue of our time. Truth­fully, there is some­thing pro­foundly wrong when the rich­est 80 peo­ple of the world own more wealth than the bot­tom half of the global pop­u­la­tion: 3.5 bil­lion peo­ple.”

Even more as­tound­ing is that it is ac­tu­ally 62 in­di­vid­u­als who earn more than the com­bined wealth of 3.5 bil­lion peo­ple. Kennedy was a pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate for global hu­man rights and I won­der what he would have made of this world we live in to­day. A profit- and bot­tom line-driven busi­ness ethic of “win­ner takes all” pre­vails, di­vid­ing our world be­tween the very rich and the very poor – an un­bri­dled global con­sumerist so­ci­ety cre­at­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal havoc, driven by avarice, blind to in­hu­man­ity, led by the morally bank­rupt where the lives of or­di­nary men and women, whole coun­tries even, are traded like the slaves of old. The Cold War has been re­placed by an­other, more in­sid­i­ous one waged across board­room ta­bles by multi­na­tion­als, ac­coun­tants and com­pro­mised gov­ern­ments, ne­go­ti­ated with crim­i­nal in­tent, fuelled by ha­tred and fos­tered by fear.

Our bat­tle for the fu­ture is a bat­tle for de­cency, for good to pre­vail. It is less about money and more about peo­ple, less about pre­serv­ing bor­ders and more about ac­knowl­edg­ing our com­mon hu­man­ity. In South Africa you would think that we would learn from our his­tory – but his­tory re­veals that, for some rea­son, we never do.

Pather is di­rec­tor of the Wits The­atre. This is an ex­tract from a speech de­liv­ered at the 50th an­niver­sary com­mem­o­rat­ing Robert

Kennedy’s visit to South Africa

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