Over the last 150 days we have learned much about the power of the habitual in post-millennial, post-apartheid South Africa. We have heard it in the grumbling, cavilling, quarrelling and grousing about the logic (or lack of) of government decrees. We have also seen it in the defiance of logic among the many bourgeois folks who mistook their entitlement for rights, whether to go running, do yoga on the beach, surf, get takeaway coffees, or to purchase items subjected to restricted trade… We saw it in the contradictory messages relayed by official government channels, in the conflict between some experts advising government, between government officials and such experts, and in the ways in which opposition parties contradicted themselves as they opposed government proclamations.
When that well known Afrikaans “singer” Sunette Bridges made blatantly racist comments and I posted a Blog on it, several readers of this Blog argued either that racism was justified or that it was an aberration. They hardly knew any racist white people and there were hardly any racists left in South Africa, many readers claimed. (Some argued that Sunette Bridges was not well known, but they obviously know little about Afrikaans music and have not suffered through one and a half hours of hell – for anthropological reasons, you see – by watching the smash hit movie Liefling like I did last week.)
I suspect the same readers would not have heard of Annelie Botes (pictured below – no comments about her lack of dress sense allowed), one of the best selling (if not one of the most highly regarded) Afrikaans novelists that sells tens of thousands of books every year. She has now created a storm by making the most blatantly racist comments in an interview with Rapport newspaper.
I don’t understand them!…. I know they are people just like me. I know they have the same rights as me. But I do not understand them. And then I do not like them. I avoid them because I am scared of them…. My neighbour was brutally murdered. For what? When black people are hungry, why don’t they just break in like in the old days and steal food from the fridge and leave? I know where this anger comes from. It has fuck-all to do with apartheid. They are angry because of their own ineptitude.
We all know now that this is not an aberration. These sentiments are rife and are supported either tacitly or more loudly by many white South Africans. Yesterday in the Sunday Times it was reported that Ezanne Jacobs, SIU member in Durban made a racist slur against, Bongani Mpungose in October. Jacobs is alleged to have compared Mpungose to a monkey during a team-building exercise at Giba Gorge, an adventure park near Pietermaritzburg, on October 6. Mpungose was seated with colleagues when Jacobs walked past him with a white consultant and “unexpectedly called me by my name, asking whether I saw my brother and I must go chase him”, a letter says.
These are not isolated incidents and they do not represent the views of a small minority of whites. They represent the world view of large numbers of white people. Today I am not going to rail against these people. Merely calling them idiots and racists will not change anything.
What I am wondering about is this: how do such people live in a country in which they fear, hate or find disgusting the large majority of people who live here? Don’t they know any people who are not members of their own race? Do they ever socialise with black people? If not, why not? Do they know how warped their lives are?
I mean really, it seems to me far too many people are prisoners of the apartheid past. They live in their own private worlds and avoid those who are not like them. How can a writer, for goodness sake, someone who is supposed to know about the human heart and the human condition, have lived such a narrow and sheltered life that after 50 years of living in a country where 90% of people are black, she has never made one black friend, never once had a black lover or a black colleague? What lack of imagination and inability to live a full life lead to such a barren existence? How does one wake up in the morning and face the day if one is so scared and ignorant and so lacking in understanding of those around you?
What is sad is that many white South Africans harbour these kinds of thoughts (although only some are stupid enough actually to say it out loud) and when they do encounter people of another race, they might think they are hiding their racism, but they are not. Don’t they have friends of a different race than themselves? Or at least colleagues which they respect and talk to? What kind of narrow, diminished, lives do such people live? It’s like living like Osama bin Laden in a cave of one’s own making, a prison which cannot but make one bitter and fearful. What sad lives such people must lead.
This reminds me of the words of justice Laurie Ackermann in the case of National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality v Minister of Justice who said in a slightly different context:
The desire for equality is not a hope for the elimination of all differences. The experience of subordination – of personal subordination, above all – lies behind the vision of equality. To understand “the other” one must try, as far as is humanly possible, to place oneself in the position of “the other”.
It is easy to say that everyone who is just like ‘us’ is entitled to equality. Everyone finds it more difficult to say that those who are ‘different’ from us in some way should have the same equality rights that we enjoy. Yet so soon as we say any . . . group is less deserving and unworthy of equal protection and benefit of the law all minorities and all of . . . society are demeaned. It is so deceptively simple and so devastatingly injurious to say that those who are handicapped or of a different race, or religion, or colour or sexual orientation are less worthy.
It is this inability of so many South Africans to put themselves in the shoes of others who happen not to share their language, their race, their beliefs, their sexual orientation, their gender, that seems to lie at the root cause of all the hate and anger and prejudice in our society. (This kind of self-imposed fear and ignorance cross the racial, sexual orientation, language and gender divide.)
What I cannot understand is why many white people – who are a small minority who, according to its own mythology – has become the “other” cannot see the “other” in fellow South Africans who happen to be black. What lack of humanity and lack of basic decency make it impossible for them to deal with “the other” in their midst?
Is it the structural inequality, the attitudes about racial superiority, the arrogance that comes with 100 years of world domination, that is so deeply embedded in Western culture that still allows white people to believe in their own intellectual and moral superiority and in the basic goodness of their own kind – despite all the revelations at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of what they and their fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters did during apartheid?
Or does Annelie Botes have a point, sort of, in that many white South Africans are angry, perhaps not at their own ineptitude, but because of the knowledge of their own turpitude and moral corruption and their lack of basic decency and humanity which was so vividly exposed at the TRC hearings?
What people like Annelie Botes do not realise is that one can be liberated from the fear and the hate by opening oneself up to the other – in its many forms. Hiding in one’s cave makes one just nasty and bitter and unhappy. It leads to discrimination and prejudice and long dark nights of the soul. What a waste of human life.BACK TO TOP