Racism Still a Threat to South Africa’s Democracy

Thursday, 27 March, 2008 - 08:50

Sinothile Msomi & Westen ShilahoThe issue of racism has once again been front page news in recent weeks. Its damaging manifestation is a reminder that it is one issue we cannot afford to wish away

Sinothile Msomi & Westen Shilaho

The issue of racism has once again been front page news in recent weeks. Its damaging manifestation is a reminder that it is one issue we cannot afford to wish away. Arguably the most degrading of all acts of racism to have been reported in our country in the recent past is the one illustrated in the racist video from the University of the Free State. It was clear from the humiliating rituals that white students subjected black female staff to at the institution that a lot is yet to be done in building a non-racial and democratic South Africa.

It is obvious to most South Africans that racism remains a key challenge to our democracy. As such, as a society we owe it to ourselves to engage with this issue with truthfulness and openness. Inequalities created and institutionalised by apartheid are still prevalent 14 years into the new dispensation. Coupled with attitudinal shift, combating these inequalities in all their manifestations would be one way of addressing this challenge rather than waiting till we are shocked by a demeaning act such as the University of the Free State and Riverlea Secondary School sagas.

What we cannot overemphasise is the fact that we cannot undo the legacy of a unique system such as apartheid overnight. It is our responsibility to continuously strive towards reconciliation, transformation and nationhood as South Africans. After all, nation states are political constructs and therefore have to be consistently moulded through social engineering. It is dangerous to our democracy for anyone in this society to hold the view that racism is a given. Since time immemorial all justifications advanced by apologists of this prejudice have been proven untrue. That notwithstanding, some people in our society are still prone to racism and this psychic problem is what we have to address. 

One of the most disturbing deductions we could draw from the University of the Free State video is that a racist mindset is being passed down from generation to generation in our society. The students portrayed in the video are young people, but are depicted engaging in appalling acts that affront our very essence as human beings. It goes without saying that a human being deserves dignity, their racial background or social economic standing regardless. It is the socialisation of the young generation out of all forms of prejudice that we ought to promote. The issue of racism is a multi-pronged one and approaches geared towards fighting it must be equally diverse.

As a country, we have to confront and truthfully engage with issues of social justice. Identity politics in which challenges such as racism, clannism, ethnicity and the like become pronounced find fertile ground in a society faced by scandalous socio-economic differentiations such as South Africa. Efforts towards integration in our society need not be hampered by those among us who subscribe to racism and its attendant virulence. Nowhere provides a better point of departure than our institutions of learning for these are meant to be spaces for proper socialisation and character formation in our society.  We are alert to the fact that many people in South Africa, not least young people, will continue grappling with integration much as we strive to overcome the apartheid legacy.

What was reported to have taken place at the University of the Free State where white students allegedly fed junior black female staff on what Sky News evocatively referred to as ‘urine stew’ is a blemish on South Africa’s new democracy premised on non- racialism, among other values. Most South Africans are not under any illusions that racism will vanish into thin air. Concrete measures at the legislative level geared towards preventing, reducing and even eliminating racism and its accompanying manifestations in our communities should perpetually be in place. It is imperative to create and consistently mould a society that has no room for racial discrimination or any other discrimination for that matter. In addition, people have to socialise themselves, as well others, out of behaviour and choices of language that pander to racial profiling.

South Africans owe it to themselves to oppose racism for it bodes ill for our society particularly in its quest for integration and nationhood. There is no magic stick to this problem. Racial biases perpetually find expression in our speeches and practices in subtle ways. Many a time people deny any intentional biases. This subtle form of racism remains complex thus dangerous since it is real. We cannot afford to gloss over our differences as a multicultural society and the legacy of our history of segregation which is still in existence in our society. Our homes, schools, churches and workplaces continue to bear testimony to this. The question of racism must invariably remain in the public limelight so that South Africans can engage with it in public forums and the media in order to guard this country against any form of divisions. 

Racism must be addressed through the regeneration of our moral fabric. Lofty ideals such as ubuntu (humanity towards others), the concept of a rainbow nation and even African renaissance must find form and relevance in our interactions and lived experiences. These philosophical concepts that have core cultural values drawn from the cosmology of our society should invariably be the centrepiece of our sense of nationhood. Ultimately, anti-racism efforts are anchored in the morality, science and politics of our society for these were used to support and promote the same.

The constitution must provide recourse to those aggrieved as a result of racism much as it may be sometimes difficult for the law to define an offence as having been purely racial. Equality courts are a promising step towards that direction. However, sensitisation needs to be carried out so as to alert people to their existence and role in arbitrating prejudice related offences. Consistent denunciation of racism by top government leadership as well as other leaders in different spheres of our society would be important in promoting coexistence, especially to young growing minds. Racism is a scourge that humiliates both the perpetrator as well as the victim and so we need to guard ourselves against it lest we lose our dignity.

The challenge that racism poses to sustainable peace and reconciliation in South African cannot be overemphasised. Until we address the social divisions as a result of the history of segregation our quest for the same is likely to remain illusory.

(The authors are associated with the Race, Identity and Citizenship Project of the Peacebuilding Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation)

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