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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

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‘Educators actively fan racism flames’

The exposé of yet another incident of racism at Stellenbosch University is part of a litany of such incidents in the country’s institutions of learning, including the arrest and conviction of the Reitz Four, top left, who were involved in racist acts at the University of Free State, and the black hair controversy at Cape Town’s San Souci Girls’ High school. Twenty eight years into democracy, the minority continue to deny the reality of racism that we are collectively responsible for perpetuating, says the writer. Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA)

The exposé of yet another incident of racism at Stellenbosch University is part of a litany of such incidents in the country’s institutions of learning, including the arrest and conviction of the Reitz Four, top left, who were involved in racist acts at the University of Free State, and the black hair controversy at Cape Town’s San Souci Girls’ High school. Twenty eight years into democracy, the minority continue to deny the reality of racism that we are collectively responsible for perpetuating, says the writer. Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 22, 2022

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Twenty-eight years into democracy and with a lofty Bill of Rights that many of us have been relying on, especially in the political and legal sectors, South Africa remains a deeply divided, often navel-gazing and self-engrossed country of zealous ethnicities.

The country is a place where the scourges of racism, sexism, violence and intolerance are palpable, abnormally consuming us, preventing us from moving forward at the best of times. On the streets, in leafy suburbs and squalid settlements. At home, in work, school, public and private settings. On and off sports fields. At prayer. There is no sanctity from the inherited crimes that have become commonplace features of our lives, lived on a deathly knife-edge of constant vigilance, emotional numbness, even attributing blame to victims and finding excuses for perpetrators.

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None is spared, save for those who benefit from such an unnatural situation. The economic and cultural minority continue to deny the harsh reality of racism that we are collectively responsible for perpetuating.

Our children are educated and socialised in insecure, uncertain and downright dangerous conditions, mimicking outrageous learned behaviour towards those deemed less than human, even subhuman, not deserving of the respect we expect but fail to reciprocate.

At the height of Covid-19 in mid-2020, a coterie of white UCT academics race-baited fellow academics who protested against unscientific research, which the Academy of Science of SA published as a commentary. Besides the numerous incidents of naked racism at white-dominated schools that are reported on from time to time, Stellenbosch University (SU) is attempting to do damage control for plainly criminal behaviour, which any rational person would condemn.

Predictably, the inadequate few have corralled a vocal choir to justify the unjustifiable, yet will scream allegations of arson, rape and bloody (farm) murder that they assert is directed against them. After all, did we not take complete power from them, while allowing them to retain their sense of superiority, entitlement and privilege?

The cumulative costs incurred by a strident few, who keep on falsely insisting that they were brought up to respect and treat everyone equally, are huge and includes the further physical and psychological castration of the majority who bear the brunt of our inherited evils.

Three years ago, SU’s Sports Science academics made the racist claim, unsupported by evidence, that SA coloured women “have an increased risk for low cognitive functioning, as they present with low education levels and unhealthy lifestyle behaviours”.

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To add insult to injury, they used National Research Foundation of SA funding. The article was withdrawn, but it is unknown if any funding was returned.

Elena Kamanga’s Master’s thesis, “Lived Experiences of hidden Racism at an Historically White University” (2018, SU), addresses the factors that give rise to the obscene incident that gripped our media this week. SU academics and administration ignored the research, as they have others emanating from within SU.

The 2008 Ministerial Report on “Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions” has gathered dust, with SU, the government and our other public institutions ignoring the even-handed, if conservative, recommendations. SU’s only black rector, Rev Dr Russel Botman, who has since passed on, told me a decade ago in his office that he could not afford to fail in his quest to transform SU, higher education, SA and Africa.

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His opposition was the crass millennialist alumni and privileged students who were bent on retaining the past, only giving way to his inimitable strength of personality.

His Hope Project lies in tatters. Racism is alive and well in SA, and some of our educators actively fan the flames which unfailingly engulf all of us.

Is it too much to expect that those we entrust to shape our children’s minds and future will themselves be free from prejudice or work actively at overcoming the prejudices? Are we doomed to forever witness what is emerging as the revenge of racists who cannot bear to deal with the South African reality – a country on the southern tip of African, not a microcosm of Europe or Asia, with its rich diversity of colours, textures and sounds, which make us uniquely one of the most diverse countries on Earth?

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Most of us have become accustomed to being on the receiving end of racist violence, visited by bigoted thoughts, hateful words and despicable deeds. Humans are remarkable organisms, able to not only rise above their oppressive and exploitative circumstances (the privileged cannot put themselves in those demeaning situations), but show their lighter and compassionate sides, despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them, which racists wrongly see as signs of weakness.

A few years ago, I wrote: “For too long now, we have tolerated such behaviour as mere aberrations that we simply overlook as being inconvenient, and for the sake of moving on. Even without a murmur of apology by the perpetrators, there appear to be any number of defenders who try to minimise the deleterious effects that such dangerous behaviour causes.”

A veteran journalist has been “agonising about the absence of a discussion of the inferiority complex of the Stellenbosch victim to allow that white student to urinate on his laptop and do nothing – even when he was called a ‘boy’. Like Steve, he should have died defending his dignity, I feel. Especially because I am convinced that if the urinator had been black, he would have responded differently”.

Not all of us have the courage of our conviction or depth of understanding of the human condition that Steve Biko had. His late teens/early twenties black university student cohort was the “spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa” (president Nelson Mandela).

Dealing with the nuances are a subject for another article. Bokwe Mafuna, another journalist and activist with whom I was banned and house-arrested in 1973, said: “Racism, like respect, is sucked from the breast! Not from books or friends! Let that be clear when we rear our offspring!”

I repeat: Children should not be made to feel inferior in any way, let alone question their biology, which they play no role in creating. Why should anybody be reduced to feeling negative about the way they look, the way they speak, what they believe or how they see the world?

All of us have the same rights to assert our integrity and humanness. Those who are unable to accept this reality should seek counselling and rehabilitation, without inflicting their venom on our innocent and often defenceless children.

It is time to review the form and content of our education, giving particular attention to the apartheid-era policies that are allowed to fester in our democracy, causing untold damage to our future, our children.

It is overdue for the SA Council for Educators, the 10 departments of education and the various other entities that make their living from education to stand up and be counted.

It’s time to stop the continued betrayal of our children, and ensure that “every child is a national asset” as the Department of Basic Education rightly claims but which we ignore at our peril. Recidivist racist rants cannot dominate our energy. We have to shape the narrative of a peaceful, inclusive democracy.

Undercurrents of white privilege, entitlement and rage must be outed by those classified white who stand for all of us, not limited by the amount of melanin one has. Racists should be called out for seeking to restore some bygone glory, perhaps past hegemony.

This infantile pastime of fomenting an adversarial trajectory harms all of us, and destroys that which underpins our hard-won democracy. We can deal with structural racism, but unless the personal racism is dealt with, openly and without rancour, we will be the laggards in transformation.

Can there ever be overreaction from those who have endured and who still experience racism, which overt and covert perpetrators refuse to acknowledge?

Just as the Covid-19 virus is hosted in individuals, racism spreads, and finds succour in the public. Racism is personal, very personal, and we must get over ourselves and stop the spread of this virus in order to realise the quest for our common humanity.

* Cooper is President of the Pan-African Psychology Union, past president of the International Union of Psychological Science and the Psychological Society of SA, and a member of the 70s Group of activists and the Ex-Political Prisoners Association.

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