There is a slogan we used to shout in the old days, by that I mean the Struggle days. The slogan was “A people united can never be defeated”.
This signalled our commitment to working together, despite our diverse backgrounds, against a common enemy which we identified as the apartheid regime. We did not care where you came from or how you grew up. All that mattered was a commitment against apartheid and racism.
There were many people who could be described as white who played a significant role in the Struggle. Some were imprisoned, some were beaten or tortured by the police, while others were killed by those who were intent on keeping in power the minority who had subjugated the majority for too many years. Some of the names that come to mind include Beyers Naudé, Bram Fischer, Trevor Huddleston, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Neil Aggett, Rick Turner, Denis Goldberg and Ben Turok.
But there were many others, such as Raymond Suttner, Graeme Bloch, Marion Sparg, Janet Love, Derek Hanekom and Trish Hanekom, who also played important roles.
For many whites, joining the Struggle meant being ostracised by their families and community who did not understand why they would oppose white privilege.
Not everybody who played a role in the Struggle was from South Africa or made their contribution here. But there were some who came from abroad to see how they could help locally.
One of those was Amy Biehl, a young woman from the US who studied at UWC and became involved in local women’s organisations. She was only 25 when she was brutally stoned and stabbed to death on August 25, 1993, as she was dropping off some colleagues in Gugulethu where they encountered a protest.
Of the men who killed her, four were subsequently pardoned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, while two went to work for a foundation founded in her honour. They did not see her as the anti-apartheid activist she was, but merely as a white person. In their eyes, all white people were bad, supported apartheid and did not deserve to live.
Amy’s parents, who visited South Africa many times after her death, realised that they should not seek vengeance. They realised that they would do more justice to Amy’s memory and legacy by attempting to uplift people in the community where her murderers came from. They realised that, in the end, their anger was in response to oppression and exploitation.
I found myself thinking about Amy Biehl this week, especially as tomorrow marks 26 years since she was killed. But I have also been wondering and getting worried about the recent utterances by some young people, who might not understand where we come from and who have expressed some seriously worrying attitudes about race.
For them, if you are white, you cannot be committed to the transformation process in South Africa. You have to be an enemy agent or a proponent of white monopoly capital, whatever that means. Part of the problem with our politics in South Africa is that we do not really understand the national question or, for that matter, the international question.
We are so obsessed with race that we overlook the role of class in our society. Ultimately, racism was the tool used to oppress black people (and here I include Africans, coloureds and Indians) but the oppression was a way to cover up exploitation.
While oppression has a racial profile, exploitation is always based on class and is more dangerous. People throughout the world are being oppressed because of race and exploited based on being poor.
Ultimately, if we want to properly transform our country and the world, we need to deal with the structural realities which lead to poverty. We need to look beyond race, as difficult as that might be.
* Fisher is chief executive of Ikusasa Lethu Media. Follow him on Twitter: @rylandfisher
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.