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The Tumi Incident Is Racism 101 To Many Of Us Who Work In The Field

Why is it that South Africans, as shown by this incident, appear polarized on an understanding of our past?

21/09/2017 15:26 SAST | Updated 21/09/2017 15:55 SAST
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Let's get one thing straight: Tumi Morake's comments about race, apartheid and South Africa were not at all controversial. For those of us who work directly and daily on matters of anti-racism and real inclusion, acknowledging that apartheid was a crime in all the ways it oppressed black people is nothing cutting edge.

From school learners to those at varsity and anyone who has read even just a little about race and white supremacy, Morake's words are a given. It's basic. Water is wet, the sky is blue. There are even memes for it: When you're accustomed to privilege equality feels like oppression.

I had two immediate thoughts. First, I find it a little odd that Solidarity is taking offence at basic historical facts, having an issue with, as reported in The Citizen, "apartheid was about the oppression of black people". What else was it about? Are we so far down the fake news rabbit hole that reality is something people want to contest?

Second, the Morake 'debacle' comes right on the heels of ESPN host Jemele Hill's tweet about Donald Trump being a white supremacist and its subsequent backlash. It made clear in its very obvious parallels how race and patriarchy work to attack black women. Daily. As a routine.

What's more fascinating is how something like this is Racism 101 to some of us yet it is shocking, even disturbing, to others. Why is it that South Africans, as shown by this incident, appear polarized on an understanding of our past? Didn't we all applaud Madiba when he stated the barest minimum, that "never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another"?

The unfulfilled ambition of the struggle is economic justice. A decent life. A living wage. The ability to give our children more than we had.

It tells me a few things. As a nation, we must be vigilant about collective memory. We cannot allow ideologues on either end of the spectrum to rewrite our shared past, its trauma, its woundedness, its inherited pain. We must remember what apartheid was and how even into this day it continues to divide us, personally, economically and socially. And then work to dismantle the structures that still privilege some of us over the other.

We also need to break the myth that 1994 solved everything in one fell swoop and not sugarcoat the past in the spirit of togetherness and sameness. Apartheid was, in its prefacing of whiteness and white people, directly linked to the oppression of black people. Apartheid was a system where white people could progress at the expense of black people.

Instead of castigating people who don't understand this key notion, whether, through choice, implicit bias or plain old privilege, there are lessons to be taken from how far we still have to go. It tells me that the long-held dream of real reconciliation is still just that. A dream.

And the reason for that is in large part about money. One of the failures of the Rainbow Nation has been its shortcomings on economic justice. While inter-race group perceptions are improving [according to IJR's SA Reconciliation Barometer], the issue is no longer so much about identity, about white and black getting along. We've long crossed the point where we can share a beer together.

I think this is why Morake's bicycle analogy hit a nerve. The unfulfilled ambition of the struggle is economic justice. A decent life. A living wage. The ability to give our children more than we had. So when Morake made the point about sharing a bike with a bully, people were forced to acknowledge the elephant in South Africa's living room –- our economic inequality crafted on the back of apartheid.

Acknowledging elephants in the collective conscious -- especially if they're stinking up our neurons -- might just get us somewhere.

And I have a hunch that the fear of what this may mean for privileged groups [the bully now having to share] is fueling much of the backlash. And causing an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge accepted knowledge.

Our challenge, as a nation, is to move beyond this polarization and tackle economic injustice. And to do that in a way that doesn't coddle the privileged but still takes us forward on a shared journey to real progress.

Morake can and will speak for herself but I do not believe anyone is asking that the bully should now be punished. Zero-sum games never get very far. But acknowledging elephants in the collective conscious -– especially if they're stinking up our neurons – -might just get us somewhere.

Ayesha Fakie is the Head of Sustained Dialogues at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town.