My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
The strong reaction from many whites to the claim that the paranoia about crime is at least partly influenced by a deep seated fear of black people, seems to suggest that it hit a raw nerve. Is this perhaps because in their hearts of hearts they realise that their views on crime is enmeshed in a very complicated and uncomfortable way with their deeply ingrained racial assumptions and attitudes?
I sadly recall the time when my partner and I were held up at knife point in our flat by four young men. We were not physically harmed but were quite shaken, having been locked in a toilet and threatened. A few days later as I walked to the shop a few blocks from our flat, I spotted two young black men walking towards me and without even thinking I crossed the road. Just to be safe, see. Why? Well, our attackers were young black men and I had somehow linked them with the two guys (probably UCT law students or Telkom technicians, who knows) walking towards me. My fear was based, surely, on nothing more than ingrained assumptions on race, reinforced by an experience of crime involving black people.
We will not get very far in this country if we as whites do not begin to confront our prejudices and fears – instead of denying them and pretending that we are all fair and just and non-racial. These are the difficult issues we have to grapple with and President Mbeki’s letter attempts to open up a conversation on the topic. The letter was harsh in places but it was not unfair and it did not deny the reality of crime.
It is sad that newspapers like Rapport and even a columnist in the Sunday Times chose to ridicule the letter instead of engaging with it. If we do not talk about race with others but especially with ourselves, if we do not confront the demons that we have within ourselves, then we will help to destroy this country.
There ends my sermon for the day – Die Burger did once hint that I was as preachy as the worst dominee!