Bigotry is More Than a Subculture in South Africa
An Austrian colleague of mine relays a dinner story. We are talking over lunch at a little side cafe in idyllic Stellenbosch.
There was a discussion about Obama and the historic moment for the United States when he took the presidential oath.
Obama holds great symbolic significance to all black and other non-white people of the world.
It is an important affirmation because he rose through the ranks on the basis of merit. But many whites also voted for him.
He is of course a highly intelligent leader, if not America’s greatest of presidential orators.
A certain woman, well travelled, a seemingly cosmopolitan lady, chirps in at the dinner table, to make what she thinks goes for intelligent commentary, she remarks: “But wait till he behaves like the rest of them.”
By the ‘rest’ she meant black people and one must assume by extension any other person of colour because Obama is actually half-black, half-white. He is also of mixed culture, not uniquely American.
In talking of the ‘rest’ of us, she failed to mention unintelligent Bush, the terror of Hitler, the skulduggery of Rhodes and the corruption prone megalomaniac Kruger, what about Vorster or the clumsy Terreblanche — the list goes on.
The ‘rest’ did not include them in her limited exposure or selective appraisal of white history. As always, it was black people who did not shine in history.
The rest of the audience, mostly European expatriates, sat in utter silence and disbelief at the shocking remark, their jaws dropping, their forks in hand; staid and momentarily immovable.
They say nothing. They change the topic. They don’t throw her out. They are far too polite towards her crass bigotry.
Their shock and silence comes from being confronted by the sheer audacity of the woman, who after fifteen years of democracy in South Africa, holds such strong, rabid and bigoted views about people she perhaps only sees and occasionally bumps into in the street, in malls or other places, but always at a distance and far removed.
It is not as if she was willing to confront her own stereotypes by gaining intimate knowledge of the ‘other’. But rather that she preferred to be uninformed and always guided by this lineage of three hundred years of racial stereotyping.
She was more confident in the truth of this than her plain lack of knowledge about others. Her false superiority appears to have predisposed her to see stereotypes as sure knowledge and not sheer ignorance.
She would not know either that by 2042, America will no longer be white. It will be non-white in almost every respect.
It is presumably the reason she can, with utter hubris, feel it her right to pass judgement on whether a person of colour is worthy of being human and possess intelligence.
In the meanwhile, here these expatriate Europeans were sitting, idealistic, thinking that things have changed in our country. So, too, have many of us who have come to accept the myth of the Rainbow Nation.
All of us thinking fancifully that bigots would have grown up or at least that their children would be more enlightened; that the umbilical cord that tied many whites to archaic stereotypes would have been broken.
We romantically also believed that in generations to come, the lineage of racial stereotyping will slowly be diluted, extruded, until it vanishes, forever, from their veins.
The answer to all of this is: No! And yes! They have and they haven’t. But crude thoughts continue to inhabit uneasy racist minds.
The woman in Stellenbosch took liberty to speak freely her mind because, as she must have assumed, she was amongst her own – European folk, who share the same skin colour, western taste and other outer things that she identifies as being of her own. People and attributes that mark white civilization. Things and ways of life that settler communities who came from Europe wanted to model in the hope of refashioning African landscapes, culture and its people in the image of European civilization.
She was part of superiority and very happy to be in white skin, evidently.
Of course what she doesn’t realise is that this imagined Europe, as it squats in her mind, is very different from what the settler descendents truly know about Europe from which their forefathers had once come, about three hundred years ago. A lot has happened in three hundred years. To even think of themselves as European, as my friend reminded me, is a stretch.
In the end, the commonality of white skin does not imply commonality of culture. Europeans themselves are as different from each other as the French will tell you, how dissimilar they are to Germans, in many respects.
The whole episode requires a response. For one, it makes me very angry. I am almost confronted with it on a daily basis in a town like Stellenbosch. It happened even the day I spoke to my Austrian colleague. She is a woman and a certain white person in the restaurant kept gazing at us. It was an intrusive and penetrating gaze latching onto us without hesitation or doubt.
The second reason for my anger and more importantly, is that under the false illusion of the Rainbow Nation, things have long been swept under the carpet and we have not built the institutional mechanisms to deal with bigotry openly and critically. We have left things to be determined by fate and the courts.
The incident also made me wonder if her views were that of a minority, as often white folks like to argue. Tony Leon was famous for suggesting that race is a red herring in post-apartheid South Africa. Of course he was in denial just like we are still in denial about xenophobia.
Every time somebody says we don’t have a race problem, we then have a mad white farmer feeding his farm-worker to a lion after a dispute, or a young white boy goes shooting black people in Skierlek, or the Free State students humiliating black cleaning ladies in order to claim back their lost status as ‘baas’.
I have of recent come to think that this stereotype, as displayed by this woman, is typical and pervasive.
The inability of the woman in Stellenbosch to gaze beyond her own prejudice stems from a parochial view of our own history — this myth of tranquillity and civilization under colonial and settler rule.
We had three hundred years of bloody brutal internecine conflict. We had many wars and deaths as a result. Only in the last fifteen years, have we collectively created the conditions for trying to avoid those bloody conflicts of the past and live in peace amongst each other. These gains stand to be lost if bigotry continues abetted from one generation to another.
Little does she know either, nor possibly cares, that there were always morally conscious whites that fought against racial prejudice.
Not all whites think like her. Certainly not Obama’s mother and his maternal grandparents, who took care of him most of his life while his black father, lived in Kenya.
Consider the anti-slavery or abolitionist movement in Britain. It all started somewhere in 1760 when selfless individuals like Granville Sharp took on the cause of black slaves in London.
Then there was Thomas Clarkson who travelled 35 000 miles across Britain collecting petitions, giving out pamphlets and rallying fellow white citizens against the British Empire’s reliance on slavery to make profit and bolster the Empire’s economy. He was famously called the ‘Moral Steam Engine’.
Even the once slave-trader, John Newton, repented, became an evangelist priest and wrote the famous hymn ‘Amazing Grace’.
Slave ship-owners often stood at wilderment at how white people, in so many numbers, could be fighting in defence of black slaves.
Yet, it was a significant turning point in British history; if not the most significant movement in the world against the abolition of slavery, as Adam Hochschild narrates in his book Bury the Chains. Many, many people participated in the campaign against slavery.
From our own history there were many whites that fought for the rights of blacks and other races. South Africa gave birth to many white sons and daughters who fought against apartheid. They were, though, a minority.
This narration of a little bit of history of white actions against bigotry is to make us aware that the movement against anti-slavery and the human rights movement in general were movements driven by empathy by one set of humans from within the same system that brutalised others in their name.
It would be wrong to see them just as whites defending blacks, but rather morally inspired humans who laid the foundation for the human rights movement.
The reason we need to speak out against bigotry, all the time, is to remind ourselves how hurtful and harmful it is. It is also to protect the good work of the many ‘moral steam engines’ that fought on behalf of other humans all over the world.
They did it because an inner force of empathy tilted them towards what they knew is just. Often against great odds and danger to their own lives.
Our moral compass should be universal and not selective in favour of parochial privileges, nor should we be quiet against our own who think that bigotry is acceptable.
By Saliem Fakir, an independent writer based in Cape Town.
Read more articles by Saliem Fakir.
From The South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za)