The Steve Hofmeyr question

Eusebius McKaiser on confronting the prejudice that lies in all of us

I wonder if Steve Hofmeyr wishes he was still on the set of Agter Elke Man? In that make-belief world of the 1980s soapie that thrust him into our social reality he didn't need to engage blacks. It was a ‘whites only' world other than black extras around OK Bazaars where his beloved Suzie was working.

Courtesy of that nuisance called ‘democracy', blackness and whiteness can no longer be so neatly kept apart. And it shows. It shows in the callousness of generalisations about race groups in the spontaneous utterances of too many public personalities, both black and white, from politicians like Julius Malema to tired and tiring Afrikaner superstars like Annelie Botes and Steve Hofmeyr.

Botes would not offer a black courier service worker a glass of water. Hofmeyr sees in a black skin the genetic make-up of a would-be criminal. And, in their black counterparts like Julius Malema or commentator Andile Mngxitma, whiteness signals the presence of a "bloody agent" or an inherent racist. All of this raises the question, "Is there a downward spiral in the quality of race relations in our delicate, still-new(ish) South Africa?"

The good news is that race relations is not getting worse. The bad news is that it has been terrible all along. The problem is that we South Africans prefer false consciousness to authenticity. Instead of being honest about the deep mistrust that apartheid necessarily saddled us with, along race lines in particular, we plaster over this post-traumatic reality by pretending, falsely, that all is well.

Helped along by motifs like that tired ‘rainbow nation' refrain, and the drug that is mass sporting events like the Rugby World Cup of 1995 and the 2010 Soccer World Cup, we constantly succeed in affirming the lie of a ‘miracle' nation. As soon as an event like the death of right-winger Eugene Terre'blanche threatens to unravel it all, we manage - "Phew!" - to find a quick antidote like arranging Blue Bulls supporters on beer crates in Soweto for a photo shoot.

And so the manic cycle goes; and, in the process, the deep psychological crisis lurking beneath it all goes untreated.

The very first step out of this mess is to accept that Desmond Tutu's Rainbow Nation never really existed. We are a functioning society to be sure. But healthy and functional are not the same thing.

We have been sidestepping a deeper, and much more authentic conversation. Botes, Hofmeyr, Malema and Mngxitma are symptoms of this national self-deception. They are not isolated, self-contained problems that can be laughed away as exceptional bits of madness.

There are two possible modes of reaction: either we can nihilistically throw our hands in the air and live in laagers (as many of us do, evidenced by the gigantically different social realities reflected and affirmed, for example, in the Afrikaans and English media) or we can do as many self-appointed elders and analysts sometimes implore us to do, and "have a conversation." I think the latter is a winning strategy. Only if that strategy fails should we think of anti-social options like neo-Apartheid. But there is no need to be sceptical as yet.

Here is the really challenge thought: we need to move away from banal and predictable "calls for debate" and start to think about what, in practical and normative terms, it actually means to have a conversation about race. Even a fool can "call for debate". Indeed, many fools do that every week on national platforms. That is hardly an achievement. What does it actually mean?

First, it means that we need to become comfortable with letting each other speak. That might seem trite. It is not. What stops us from making dialogical progress in the conversation on race is that we do not listen to each other and often, related to that, misconstrue each other. This, in turn, stems from the assumption that only some have a right to opine on race and identity. We all do - whether liberal or conservative, black or white, and even, for that matter, whether we hold racist prejudices or beautifully progressive insights about humanity.

 Achieving this fist step will be much more difficult than might seem to be the case when asserted this casually. Unless you recognise the full humanity of your interlocutor, why would you care to listen to her, let alone take her viewpoints as deserving of engagement? Do you take Hofmeyr seriously? What about Malema? Creating a discursive environment in which there is an unqualified right to speak is a crucial first step. We are not there yet.

Second, debate is not just about ‘the other'. It is also about a critical self-examination of the cogency of your own beliefs. Has Hofmeyr asked himself, silently, "Is there robust evidence for my generalisatiosn about black people?" Has Mngxitama asked himself, in a moment of solitude, "Can the concept of racism be reasonably stipulated to render all members of a certain race group, even before they are born, inherently racist?" Has Botes asked herself, "What are my ethical responsibilities as a writer? What will be the impact of the tone of this particular set of word choices?"

None of us should construe debate as a project of holding onto our own beliefs till Jesus comes. We should be as self-critical of our own beliefs as we are of the beliefs of those we disagree with.

Last, we need to be open to a change in attitude and behaviour when we are confronted with counter-evidence to our own views. A second-best solution, should we sincerely not be convinced by the race views of others (which, by the way, is acceptable), is to reflect on what it means to live in a liberal democracy that cherishes diversity.

If we cannot reach an overlapping consensus about particular issues (say, for example, affirmative action) then we need to at least respect everyone's entitlement to be treated with dignity. The burden of our bitter sweet history demands that we all dig deep.

McKaiser is a political analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He hosts a weekly talk show on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. This article first appeared in Rapport.

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