HONOUR: Sushma Swaraj, India Minister of External Affairs, in front of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Pietermaritzburg.
Because Julius Malema and his lieutenant Floyd Shivambu are no saintly exemplars in promoting racial harmony and co-existence, a counter-intuitive approach is the best way to open up an honest intellectual discourse on the topic. Emotive finger pointing will be both injurious to race relations and very counter-productive.

We South Africans are certainly a loose synthetic amalgam of diverse people. We are not an organic nation with a unity of belonging, vision or purpose.

The continuing negative legacy of our inherently weak educational system and the mounting pressures of making ends meet in a faltering economy with a junked rand to boot have forced people to be inward-looking, apprehensive and suspicious of the other. 

To quote Shiva Naipaul, with some poetic licence, we have devised our own “strategy for survival by reducing the image of (South) Africa to (ourselves) in total identification with the cultural struggle, or by isolating (ourselves) to the extent of solipsism, or by maintaining a deliberate but vulnerable neutrality”.

That is our problem collectively. We are for ourselves and not for one another.

In my view, what Malema is really attacking is the relative prosperity of many “Indians” and the cultivated insularity our forebears arrived with to these shores coming from long exposure to the caste system, religious differences and language prejudices prevailing in India. Speaking for myself that is the reality I know. The “Indian” is a mix of many separate Indians. “Indians” often times are at odds with one another.

That is one part of the narrative. The other part relates to “Indians” getting a comparatively better deal from the colonial and apartheid governments than their fellow Africans. In 1994 or thereabouts I had a letter published in a KwaZulu-Natal newspaper where I fully and readily accepted what Malema is now saying: “We were not all oppressed the same.” Yes, indeed we were oppressed in different ways. His assertion that “Indians had all sorts of resources Africans didn’t have”, however, overlooks context and agency. “Indians” established many so-called state-aided schools where the infrastructure was built by the “Indians” themselves. The state paid for operational costs which, admittedly, was more than that offered to our fellow Africans for their education. “Indians” also recruited some talented teachers from India. I, therefore, have no argument with Mr Malema on that score of doing somewhat better under oppression.

When we had a chance we showed that we were alive to the above problem. In 1990 Solidarity in the House of Delegates opened up all of the schools in its control to all children regardless of their race and colour within the limited budget it was allocated. Dundee Secondary where I completed my schooling, Dawn View Primary where my wife taught and ML Sultan Secondary where I had previously taught, had a significant number of black pupils leading up to 1994. Other schools elsewhere did the same.

No Indian parent demurred with the decision we had taken. Everyone accepted that it was the right thing to do for the right reason. It would be important to hear from those black children who attended the apartheid designated “Indian” schools how they were treated there and how they fared in their lives thereafter because of the education they had received from those schools.

History will reflect that “Indians” made a contribution to South Africa and still continue to do so in many ways.

Therefore, how Mr Malema determines that “the majority of Indians are racist” is worth ascertaining. If that is empirically proven, it will be a grievous fault needing immediate rectification. Our future hinges on de-racialising our politics and forming a common national identity.

The work of the Gift of the Givers, a proudly South African charity recognised the world over, should serve as an inspiration to all of us.

None of us as “Indians” or whatever race we belong to would have had any problem with Mr Shivambu if he had objected on principle to Ismail Momoniat undermining his superior or the deputy minister and even minister. If he had come to their defence as a knight in shining armour, he would have had the backing of everyone. That kind of behaviour from a senior official would have been intolerable. Even now Mr Shivambu can ask for a parliamentary enquiry to determine whether Momoniat had behaved improperly or shown any racial impropriety.

However, Mr Shivambu’s characterisation of Momoniat as a “non-African” and that of President Cyril Ramaphosa talking about “our people” have been begun to create an “us and them” separation. The minority groups in South Africa are being politically excluded from the EFF and ANC tents on the basis of race. The better narrative would be to enlist the support of the wealthy and the middle class to help improve the education of black children and to help propel the sagging economy. That was how Nelson Mandela went about it.

The best interest of the “masses of our people”, as Mr Malema calls them, can only be served by our standing together and pulling together to make our education and our economy work for all. If Mr Malema is aggrieved about “big tenders” being given to Indians, “especially in Durban and KwaZulu-Natal”, he and the EFF should take the political elite to task for that. Such a thing should not happen. He should call for an inquiry. Furthermore, if there are “Indians” who are not sharing with the black people or in Malema’s words “ill-treating our people worse than the Boer Afrikaners treated our people” he has a duty to point them out rather than generalising.

To paint most “Indians” with the same brush is wrong. Let me make it clear that I want for my fellow blacks what I want for myself; and my view is that the best way of attaining that is by sharing expertise and knowledge. 

Two years ago Mr Mosiuoa Lekota and I met with then deputy president Ramaphosa regarding what I could do as a qualified educator for making mathematics widely and more easily accessible to the children of South Africa without any material benefit for myself. Ramaphosa listened attentively but never came back. Mr Malema can visit the website http://mathsinthepark.co.za/ to understand how motivated many “Indians” are in sharing knowledge and genuinely seeking a better life for all with particular attention to long disadvantaged black children.

* Farouk Cassim is Cope councillor in Cape Town.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus