THE BLOG
19/02/2018 15:21 SAST | Updated 19/02/2018 15:21 SAST

Underneath A Veneer Of Politeness, Colour Still Matters

In South Africa, identity politics has driven communities into language and racial enclaves instead of drawing them out into shared spaces.

The South African

A black academic, a man in a senior management position at a Gauteng university, once told me during a conversation about race relations on campus how he had to have serious conversations with himself after his son brought a white girl home for the weekend.

He had to interrogate, and consider the possibility, that he was not as racially neutral as he thought he was. Many fathers and mothers, black and white, should acknowledge that their nonracialism may not yet have evolved to include a scenario where their children arrive home with romantic partners who are of a different race.

So I have news for you if you are one of the people who say: "I am not a racist, but... I will not allow my daughter to have a relationship with a man who is not the same colour as she is." You are a racist, and your coding as a South African has not evolved.

Whereas black and white South Africans do share suburbs, schools, shopping malls and swimming pools, many of us still become jittery when race enters the front door of our homes in noncustomary roles.

In addition, the times that we are living in appear to have reinforced rather than suppressed racial differences. Globally, Donald Trump constantly reminds us that racism in the U.S. is thriving. Europe's struggle with refugees and immigrants has given racism a firmer foothold in many regions.

In South Africa, identity politics has driven communities into language and racial enclaves instead of drawing them out into shared spaces. This is more profound in nonurban, areas where the economic disadvantage of black people has kept old social and economic structures intact.

Racial intolerance is fuelled by crime, the lack of leadership, poor service delivery and corruption in municipalities, which in North West is a great source of concern.

So when you arrive in a town such as Potchefstroom, the words "baas" and "miesies" may still, to your absolute horror I hope, be used on you. This is also true in the Bult area, where an alleged racial assault involving 5,000m athletics champion Thabang Mosiako recently occurred.

What should also not escape you, is that these words are used by beggars and car guards who have learnt that if you tap into many people's racial superiority complex, they may respond more positively towards you. So the language emanates from economic necessity to earn a larger tip.

At other levels of this society, the racism is in the type and tone of language and gestures – such as the comments some would make about the white couple with the adopted black baby, the requests of some parents to prevent their kids from readily mixing with black children at school, and the many public spaces that remain overwhelmingly and comfortably white.

Racial intolerance is fuelled by crime, the lack of leadership, poor service delivery and corruption in municipalities, which in North West is a great source of concern. Too often though, these issues are only associated with one race. The involvement of people of all races in corruption and poor management are glossed over.

So underneath a veneer of politeness, colour still matters to many here. As they protect their positions, their bottom line, their children, many will remain silent about racial abuse rather than face victimisation and violence.

This is why the attack on Mosiake has reminded many of us of the ongoing fight against racism – our own, embedded in our South Africanness, and that of others when we see it and hear it. Mosiako and his friends, if reports are to be believed, said: "No" when a group of white guys allegedly swore at a cashier.

A town like Potchefstroom, where some believe the seeds for South Africa's political transformation were germinated many years ago, also allows young people to meet. They are not yet always meeting as equals thanks to our education system and economic structures.

The vulnerability of the cashier – a black woman – should not be underestimated here. Although the facts are still sketchy, there is no justification to beat up another human being. None. The attackers should be found and prosecuted. In the meantime, the rest of us should keep on confronting our own racism, which we often struggle to acknowledge, and that of others.

We forget that even if we will never be able to climb into another skin, we have to keep on trying, boring and limited as it may sound, to understand others' lives; their motivations, their fears and their anger. I believe there are many people in this town who already do that. But I also believe we should try much harder.

A town like Potchefstroom, where some believe the seeds for South Africa's political transformation were germinated many years ago, also allows young people to meet. They are not yet always meeting as equals thanks to our education system and economic structures. Often they are not welcomed on local soil, but at least they are meeting.

White and black students from diverse geographical areas enrol at one of Potchefstroom's many educational institutions – from villages, towns and cities like Worcester, Matatiele, Reitz, Musina, Soweto. Many come from worlds where they have had very few encounters with people of other races as intellectual equals.

Many of these temporary Potchefstroom residents have no understanding of their own racial makeup, or if they have, they prefer to mingle only with those who think like them and hate like them. They are the ones who swear at women cashiers and assault other people. Because they want to, and they can.

But the flipside is that a large section of the young people who meet in Potchefstroom also get to learn and respect their peers. They stop being racism denialists and begin to understand and confront their own behaviour, words and ideas towards those of a different race. They want to learn from fellow South Africans.

Hopefully, in time more of them – and also more of the permanent residents of Potchefstroom – will speak out and act against racism together.

Cornia Pretorius is a lecturer at North-West University. She writes in her private capacity as a resident of Potchefstroom.