We must recognise that racism exists – Lindiwe Mazibuko
DA parliamentary leader says only reconciliation and redress will free us from fear and angst
Recognising that racism exists is first step to realising reconciliation
Note to editors: This is an extract of the speech that will be delivered today by DA Parliamentary Leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko MP at Stellenbosch University on the topic: ‘Rising to the Challenge: Achieving Reconciliation in South Africa’, May 8 2012
I would like to believe that the vast majority of South Africans were angered by the racist tweets of Jessica Dos Santos and Tshidi Thamana. The tweets and many people’s responses have trended and re-trended over the last few days. They have been the subject of news reports and political satire.
They have led to intense and heartrending introspection, and rightly so. But what they must not be allowed to do is paralyse us. Nor can they divert attention away from the cause of reconciliation.
The racist remarks of both women offended because they dealt a blow against the country’s proudest achievement; an achievement which President Nelson Mandela expressed in his Presidential inaugural declaration that: “never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another”.
As a nation we have to accept that remarks such as these are not one-off exceptions. The fact is that they reflect the deep complexities of what race means in South Africa today.
‘Yesterday’, after all, ‘is not another country’. We cannot wish the potency of racism away, any more than we can wish away the very divisive history of our country.
As a young leader, I had to face some tough realities when I read these young women’s tweets. They were not made by people who grew up during apartheid, or even in the turbulent transition period. They were made by two young South Africans eighteen years after our first democratic election.
One might have thought that these two young people were part and parcel of a newly emerging non-racial society free of racism and bigotry.
My initial response after reading Jessica’s tweet was of anger at both the words and their public platform. I felt anger that she was able to express such sentiments with apparent impunity.
Then I realised my initial anger was the wrong, if human, response. My anger was also stirred by a thousand slights that will be familiar to many other black South Africans. More often in life it is the indiscernible and unspoken that troubles us.
I have experienced the haughty tone in a store, an icy stare, the unspoken insinuation that I might not have quite grasped a point, the patronising put down – often because I am black. Some are so oblique and subtle to almost be invisible. And sometimes they have nothing to do with race. Yet their effect overtime is to construct a worldview which can feed paranoia.
The other sad reality is that there are some who would have silently agreed with Jessica and Tshidi’s online remarks.
Perhaps their silent anger is even more lethal because it is internalised. It seems to me that many people’s anger – on both sides of the racial divide – has intensified, not abated.
We cannot afford to let this hatred simmer. We are stronger when we stand together, not when we are divided. It is each of our responsibility, no matter who we are, to take a firm stand against racism.
It would be naïve to believe that racism can be eliminated in eighteen years – in one generation.
For many black South Africans, the challenge remains to overcome the burdens of the past without becoming embittered by memories of its many injustices.
For many white South Africans, the challenge is to acknowledge that racism does not just exist in the minds of black people. It is a real and debilitating fact of life in South Africa. However, I do wish to make one thing clear here: by condemning racism, I do not seek to give ‘race’ a meaning that it does not deserve.
The concept of race is a fiction that has been mobilised and twisted by political and ethnic despots for generations. Even Adolf Hitler knew this, despite elevating race as a central concept. His own words and the subject were chilling:
‘I know perfectly well…that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race…but I as a politician need a concept which has hitherto existed on historical bases to be abolished and an entirely new and anti-historical order enforced and given an intellectual basis…And for this purpose the concept of races serves me well…’ (Quoted in John Toland’s biography ‘Adolf Hitler’)
Race also served apartheid’s architects well. So well, that we live with its dreadful consequences today.
My party, the Democratic Alliance, has, like all people who care about South Africa, been carefully considering the full meaning and measure of reconciliation.
We define reconciliation as the process which brings together South Africans who have been divided by our history of discrimination and oppression.
The Constitution enjoins South Africans to: ‘Recognise the injustices of our past’ and to ‘heal the divisions of the past’.
The impatience of the first part cannot be overstated. Reconciliation requires an acknowledgement that apartheid was wrong; that it caused incalculable emotional pain and material deprivation.
Reconciliation informs us that every South African is a full and legitimate part of our new democracy.
In 1994, the pain and the divisions were so deep on both sides of the racial divide, that only a national process of truth and reconciliation could begin to bind the country’s wounds.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) established the need for the telling of ‘truthful narratives’ and a push to forgive wrongdoers. I think we need to rediscover this spirit of this model of reconciliation. We have lost the momentum that Mandela gave to us.
As political leaders, we must take some responsibility for the mood of our country, which has lost the hope of the Mandela years. The decline of civility and dignified engagement in our politics means that, often, social solidarity has been replaced by defensiveness.
Groups circle their wagons around ‘identity’ concepts of race, ethnicity, language and religion.
The only way we will ever be able to build one, united nation is if each community – be it formed upon political, racial, ethnic, religious or any other line – makes the defence of the rights of other communities part of its daily activities.
This work must continue with you; in the taxi on the way to campus, in the classroom, at the petrol pumps, in the mosque and church, at the gym -in every encounter of our daily lives.
Only reconciliation and redress will free us from fear and angst. Reconciliation is a matter of the individual’s heart and soul, as much as it is a national endeavour. Reconciliation is toothless without it attendant process: redress. The legacy of racial discrimination is real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds.
Black South Africans were subject to a ruthless form of asset stripping and restrictions: labour laws that prevented their advancement, land expropriation, business regulations banning ownership, Bantu education, and laws that kept black South Africans from living in the metropolitan areas, and enjoying the economic benefits of home-ownership there.
Putting right the wrongs of the past requires a number of strategic interventions, like BBBEE, for a period of time. Again, like reconciliation, these interventions are imperfect, but they are necessary.
However none of these interventions will be successful if we do not settle on an understanding that one group of people’s dreams do not come at the expense of another group’s. Every one of us must find a home in South Africa. We all have a stake in this beautiful land.
We must all come to the understanding that being united in our diversity makes us stronger.
Reconciliation means binding our particular grievances – for better schools, for better jobs, and for better healthcare – to the larger destiny of all South Africans.
We will know reconciliation and redress are working when we start to see ourselves reflected in each other. We know that this work is far from done because Jessica and Tshidi did not see themselves reflected in the eyes of those they tweeted about.
I hope that each of them loves what Nelson Mandela stands for. I hope that each of them would choose love over hate. We must give them hope that unity is our future, not division.
This is why sensitivity is so important when we choose our words, and frame and deploy our thoughts and arguments. Our words and thoughts, if we do not watch them, become actions we regret.
Reconciliation moves us to embrace Jessica and Tshidi with love. These two young women are a part of this country, and their lives must go on too. Our worst response would be to reject them. I have chosen not given up on them, and neither should you.
Finally, reconciliation also requires openness to the experience of those who do not share one’s own history and perspective; to see with open eyes. Empathy is more than sympathy.
Empathy, as a fruit of reconciliation, entails a willingness to embrace diversity; a society whose members respect the intrinsic value of the individual and the rights of people different from themselves.
The way to build a strong diverse society is not to make everyone the same. The challenge is not to make ‘them’ like ‘us’. It is to build a new ‘us’.
So each one of you today, as the next generation of South Africa leaders has an important task ahead of you: to bear Mandela’s torch of reconciliation. Do it with pride.
Be part of the generation of South Africans who build a united South Africa, in which racism has no place.
And remember, we are all stronger together.
Issued by the DA