Johannesburg - Johan and his wife thought their home in Bassonia, Johannesburg, was perfect. Their townhouse complex is near good schools, shopping malls, a golf course and city highways for easy access to provincial highways. In this quiet neighbourhood they owned a spacious house and were proud of their achievements.
But Johan (not his real name) and his wife were shocked when, during a residents’ annual general meeting one resident wanted it minuted that owners would never sell to black people should they decide to leave the complex. The AGM duly minuted the resolution.
When Johan called Talk Radio 702’s show host John Robbie, he was surprised and speechless. And so were the listeners. But when callers flooded the station with similar experiences of residents who want to keep their streets and neighbourhoods purely white, it became apparent that race-based house sales and residential segregation are here to stay.
To some, this may be surprising because we would like to believe that residential differences are mostly based on market capacity and whether you can afford to live in Sandhurst, Bassonia, Camps Bay, Waterkloof and even Soweto and KwaMashu. It is hard to accept that race is still a very important barrier.
These sentiments are not an anomaly because we want to think, believe and act like racism is a deviation from the norms of a fundamentally rational society. We ignore the fact that racial discrimination is often prevalent in a racially imbalanced society like ours.
The truth is racial stereotyping like the example Johan experienced is daily practice. While it devalues other races as biologically and morally inferior and one’s own as biologically superior, it is done in the guise of cultural and religious assimilation.
However bigoted this may be, it becomes an internalised belief and attitude. Once it becomes an externalised public practice, as in Bassonia and, as it happens, everywhere, it becomes a deadly powder keg of racial emotions.
The truth is, racism is about skin colour. It is about the denial of equal rights and equal opportunities to people based on the colour of their skin.
Why are we surprised? Racism, racial discrimination, has been called South Africa’s worst sin. It is. But it was not invented here. South Africa perfected racism and gave it nuances such as apart-hate (apartheid), homelands, townships and squatter camps, and it became so deeply rooted that it bred the “us” and “them”. It has given birth to Little Italy, Little India, Little Greece, spreading xenophobic tendencies and ending up in “us” and “them”, “our people” and the “other”.
Why are we surprised? Racism starts in any Bassonia, Sandton, Soweto, Mamelodi or Constantia home.
The family grows into a clan. The clan grows into the tribe. The tribe becomes an ethnic group. The very act of pulling together for cultural or racial assimilation and for purposes of survival, as among the Bassonia complex residents, however rationally motivated, leads to anger and hatred with deadly consequences, just because of the choice of a territory for racial, tribal and ethnic assimilation; not so much because of skin colour but because there is a common foe.
In Bassonia the common foe is black people. I wonder why? Because beyond individual acts of racism displayed in the suburb, other insidious forms of institutionalised racism continue to affect negatively millions of black people.
The situation means that blacks and whites are still living apart even as the population becomes more diverse.
Given the numerous ways in which white racism continues one may wonder why more time and energy are not directed at ameliorating this problem.
One of the major factors contributing to the lack of attention directed to this area is the broad-based sense of denial that some whites exhibit in response to this problem.
There are several reasons white people tend to deny this broad-based social pathology.
White racism manifests itself in a covert manner and, consequently, many white people prefer to believe this problem does not exist and sometimes feel personally helpless to do things to help reduce it.
Therefore confronting the problem of white racism involves addressing the privileges white people typically experience as a result of their racial heritage. To avoid the discomfort associated with acknowledging one’s own racial privileges, many whites minimise or psychologically deny the various ways in which institutionalised racism continues to benefit white people in our society.
Johan has put his house up for sale and will be leaving in three months. When a “rich black man driving a BMW” came to view the house, Johan was confronted by one of the residents who wanted to know what the black man was doing there, virtually declaring him a sell-out by defying the AGM’s resolution.
In our country racism helps panic-peddling real estate agents and homeowners fearful of racial change, causing them to do whatever they can to keep neighbourhoods similar in colour, let alone culture and religion.
There are stories going around that, in any encounter with an estate agent, black people have a greater chance than whites of experiencing discriminatory treatment, such as being shown fewer homes than whites, receiving less information, experiencing more discourteous treatment and finally being steered to look at houses where some of their own live.
If this is true, it underscores the real barriers that black people still face in trying to achieve racial equality,for the housing market distributes not only shelter but jobs, schooling, wealth, safety, sanitation and health. Thus, if people are denied access to housing on the basis of skin colour, they are blocked from these benefits as well and a principal mechanism of social mobility is undermined.
What is missing from too many suburban neighbourhoods undergoing racial change, like Bassonia and others, is mere interaction between the races. Blacks and whites go to work each day, raise families and we are not talking to one another.
Racism is a part of South Africa’s cultural heritage. It is a result of the combination of the instinct of self-preservation, the insecurity of the human mind and the force of inertia.
Bassonia residents and others like them should and must relinquish their truncated view of fairness to pursue a truly egalitarian South Africa.
It is sad for people like Johan because continued high levels of segregation, fuelled primarily by persistent apartheid-created suburbs and the housing market, will condemn a majority of our public school learners to segregated and inferior education in the absence of voluntary school desegregation initiatives or more integrated housing patterns.
Research has shown that racially integrated suburbs and their schools and other amenities better prepare students to be effective citizens in our increasingly pluralistic world. As Johan had hoped, integrated neighbourhoods and suburban schools promote cross-racial understanding and reduce prejudice.
While the prospects for voluntary school desegregation efforts look bleak for people like Johan, much can be done to integrate the nation’s housing markets and, therefore, to build a more diverse nation.
Racism is nowhere more apparent than in the segregation of our suburbs and townships.
Residential segregation is a factor in settlement patterns in virtually every region. It has relegated blacks to communities with inferior schools and restricted access to jobs, and has led to high levels of crime and violence, and centralisation of poverty. Racism is a problem whose effects are not readily apparent to white South Africans, but are a daily fact of life for black South Africans.
Working against racism starts with recognising that, wittingly or unwittingly, many of the things that individuals and entire communities do contribute to the problem.
* Rich Mkhondo is executive for corporate affairs at MTN Group. He writes in his personal capacity.