Max du Preez joins the debate that has raged since the extraordinary outburst on Twitter by City Press editor Ferial Haffajee.
Durban - Perhaps we’ll look back one day and say the one positive thing that Julius Malema did was to give black South Africans licence to speak more frankly about their anger and vent their frustrations more openly.
Then again, perhaps we’ll look back and conclude that he was the catalyst for the blossoming of a new black chauvinism that bedevilled relations in our fractured society and deteriorated into blatant racism.
Yes, I did say racism. Black on white/coloured/Indian racism. Because despite what those who specialise in insulting South African minority groups say, black people are indeed capable of racism. It would be racist to say they are not capable of this universal human phenomenon.
Their argument that the powerless are incapable of racism is valid, of course, if we agree that negative racial attitudes held by, say, an unemployed and impoverished squatter camp resident should rather be seen as protest and an expression of powerlessness.
But this example highlights another point: is it valid for this person to direct all his anger at the white minority because of apartheid and colonialism, or should some of it be directed towards those who were mandated by the voters 20 years ago to ensure a better life for people like him and didn’t do it?
These debates raged all last week after the extraordinary outburst on Twitter by the editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee. She had a bruising confrontation with some of her black colleagues on the paper and then accused them publicly of racism and cultural superiority. She was, in turn, savaged by Malema and his ilk, some calling themselves Black Consciousness adherents. The interesting twist is that Haffajee is black herself, but not “black black” or “black African”, whatever term you prefer.
I found it interesting that those who attacked Haffajee with the defence that blacks can’t be racist, but insisted that she was guilty of racism, implied that a person formerly classified as a coloured or Indian South African can’t really be seen as black. So here’s the apparent hierarchy: white people aren’t allowed to have prejudices against anybody, coloureds and Indians are allowed to be prejudiced against whites but not against black blacks, and black blacks have permission to be prejudiced against all but fellow black blacks (unless they’re foreign).
Question: is a feeling of racial superiority a prerequisite for racism? On the face of it, the answer is yes. Are black blacks incapable of it? No. Remember ANC media adviser Blackman Ngoro, who declared a few years ago that “coloured culture” was vastly inferior to “African culture”?
When a white beggar or resident of one of the Afrikaner squatter camps uses the K-word at a black person gliding by in an expensive limousine, is that really an expression of a feeling that he was racially superior? Or could it also be an expression of his own poverty and hopelessness, perhaps simply of his resentment that he had lost the privilege apartheid had once accorded people like him?
Should we say this white down-and-outer has some right to be racist because he has no power, not political or economic? Should we forgive the white person who had survived a brutal farm attack by black criminals for harbouring racist feelings? How should we understand the motivation of the Newcastle traffic officer who insulted his town’s ANC mayor because he was of Indian origin? Is the violent xenophobia we witness so often in our townships purely an expression of powerlessness?
More questions: is “cultural superiority” the same as racism? Is fear of a person of another colour a form of racism? Is it, with our peculiar history and demographic composition, racist to say Africa belongs to the Africans and all whites are settlers or colonialists, even if we add the euphemism “of a special kind”? Is it racist to call all white people racist just because they’re not black?
Writers and philosophers like Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral have made valuable contributions towards the understanding of decolonisation. But we should be careful not to forget that they wrote for a time more than three decades ago and that South Africa 2013 is a very different place. The black majority cannot perpetually plead powerlessness even after two decades of complete political power. At some point that starts smacking of an excuse and of victimhood.
It’s all very complicated. But the one thing that isn’t complicated is that white racism is still alive in South Africa in all its blatant and not so blatant manifestations. Eradicate that and the fertiliser that feeds other forms of racism will be gone.
Van Zyl Slabbert wrote these words some years ago: “If you make yourself and others hostage to a racist past, you can budget generously for a racist future.”
* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.