Race is back in fashion

Douglas Gibson on the return of South Africa's old and destructive obsession

Thirty five years ago a little white boy aged three, standing in his bathing costume next to the pool, stroked the arm of a little black girl, also in a bathing costume, and said, "Ooh, you've got a lovely tan." My son didn't see race and certainly had no race prejudice. That was at the height of apartheid. He is still not a racist, just as many other whites are not.

We survived apartheid and have had twenty years under a constitution that movingly proclaims the essential worth of all of us. Our liberal democratic constitution - billed as the most progressive in the world -carefully spells out measures to promote equality.

Our government has spent two decades uplifting the poorest of the poor and in creating middle class status for several million black people. Our public service has attained racial targets so that black officials predominate almost everywhere. We have a growing official opposition that is broadly based and is a testament to the most ambitious effort yet seen in our country to create a truly non-racial political home for the voters.

And yet; and yet. Race is suddenly - again - all pervasive. Everyone is talking about it; everyone is writing about it; racial incidents are rearing their heads; the media are full of comment and discussion.  Instead of rational debate aimed at being constructive and intended to promote the idea of non-racialism, there are people who pour paraffin on the fire. A fading pop-star who should know better, assisted by some adoring fans and convinced racists, had the gall to accuse blacks of being responsible for apartheid. I wonder if he thinks women are responsible for rape and children responsible for child abuse?

The American situation is not helping. A president who was elected, partly because he was seen as a new beginning and a role model for black people worldwide, seems unable to articulate the American dream - and help realise it for those left behind.  Despite his sometimes soaring and even thrilling oratory, millions there and elsewhere, including here, feel let down. Race is again on the march and millions of Americans have been appalled at racial incidents centered around the treatment of black people by the police.

A few racial incidents here have also attracted vast amounts of attention, and rightly so. Anyone who cares about South Africa's future must know there is no room here for racists. White racists are cutting their own throats if they think they can go on showing their contempt and their supposed superiority over others and still look forward to a decent future for their children.

There are black people also who are racists. And that includes coloured South Africans and Indian South Africans. Some blacks deny that there can be such a thing as a black racist; they are wrong. There is a vast difference between wanting to promote black people to take their rightful place in all spheres of our national life, on the one hand, and a determination that whites as a group must forever be the subject of action that deprives them of their own constitutional rights to equal treatment.

There is also a mindless group that sees all people as a mass, instead of as a mass of individuals, each of whom has human dignity; each of whom has feelings and aspirations and each of whom is entitled to respect. All whites are not racists. All blacks are not victims.

Quite properly, some leading commentators and some politicians have sought to deal with the new racism. People like Songezo Zibi, Helen Zille, Martin Williams and Gareth van Onselen, among many others have made impressive contributions to the debate.

One hopes that others will also do so because the public needs to be aware that the cancer of racism cannot be permitted to flourish and gather strength underground. Helen Zille, in particular, made it quite clear that the Democratic Alliance is not a refuge for racists. She was right to say it because while it represents the overwhelming majority of whites, the DA today has more black supporters than white exactly because it is dedicated to a non-racial future for all in South Africa.

One hopes the ANC will also be heard in talking up non-racialism. It has an honourable history of providing a political home for people of all races and was served by some remarkable people of races other than black African. But recently it seems satisfied with representing only black South Africans.

Perhaps the reason the ANC's political support among other population groups has fallen to almost derisory levels is that it devotes so little time to promoting non-racialism and a broad South Africanism. While lauding the spirit of Madiba and what he stood for, it is starkly obvious that his nation-building efforts have not been taken up with any great enthusiasm by the next generation of politicians in the ruling party. Surely there is someone in the ANC leadership who will speak out.

It is fascinating that Steve Hofmeyr's ancestor, General Louis Botha, together with his successor, General Jan Smuts, dedicated themselves to bringing Afrikaans and English-speaking people together after the bitterness of the defeat in the Anglo-Boer War. The other strand in our country then was the nationalist one, dedicated to the upliftment of one section only of the white population.

Those who today work to end racism by bringing black people and white people together as equal citizens might not recognise it but they are following an honourable and often forgotten striving in our politics: that of a broad South Africanism. In seeking and finding each other, this time black and white together, a sort of ‘Louis Botha and Smuts meet Nelson Mandela,' we might well be able to bury the racism and the bitterness of our divided past.

Douglas Gibson is a former Opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Follow him on Twitter @dhmgibson.

This article originally appeared in The Star, Mercury and Pretoria News.

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