From the Inside: What is Racism?
This is a very difficult and vexing question to answer, but perhaps the application of the 3D test will shed some light on this highly emotive and divisive issue.
Of all the important debates South Africans need to have, the most crucial is this: how does an economy generate jobs? What is preventing ours from doing so? How can we fix it?
Almost neck-and-neck with the economy, is: how can we fix our education system?
But there is another issue that absorbs our energy and attention, almost wiping out considered debate on every other topic critical to our future. It is the issue that defined our past: race and racism.
During a month in which the rand lost 18% of its value, youth unemployment rose to 52.4%, and the petrol price hit record highs, South Africa was obsessing about who was accusing whom of being racist.
These episodes included:
- Ashwin Willemse’s allegation of racism against co-commentators Nick Mallett and Naas Botha, during and after a dramatic on-air walk-out following the Lions/Brumbies match on May 16 2018;
- Repeated EFF barbs about South African Indians, culminating in Julius Malema’s generalisation that “South Africans of Indian descent think of indigenous Africans as less human and less capable”.
- Carl Niehaus’s accusation of “downright unbridled racism” against North West University Politics Professor Theo Venter after he said on radio that Jacob Zuma was the worst president South Africa had ever had (which led to the university launching a formal investigation into Venter).
- The Public Protector’s finding that I violated the Constitution by advocating racial hatred (constituting incitement to harm) for tweeting, during an online conversation that “for those claiming the legacy of colonialism is ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc”.
The intensity of these debates dwarfs anything I have seen on the economy or education. So perhaps it is necessary right now, despite all our other challenges, to address the question: “what is racism”?
According to the online dictionary, racism is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
But how does one detect or measure prejudice, discrimination or antagonism? Is it merely in the eye of the beholder, (and if so which beholder)? And, if any of these feelings is detected or experienced, how does one determine whether it is the result of an assumption of racial superiority, or on other grounds?
The easiest way of answering these questions is to avoid them entirely and define racism as a personal experience. “If I perceive it as racist, it is racist. You cannot deny my pain”.
Of course, feelings and perceptions are very important in this discussion, especially given South Africa’s history. They are all too real to the people who experience them. There is also a pressing need to include, in the discussion, things like patronisation, paternalism, micro-aggressions and condescension. We need ways of defining them and dealing with them.
But the potential abuse in subjective definitions of racism overrides their value.
Thomas Sowell, the renowned economist, made the point when he said: “The word ‘racism is like ketchup. It can be put on practically anything – and demanding evidence makes you a ‘racist.”
In South Africa today, even quoting Sowell makes you racist, as I learnt in a recent discussion. Although he is black, the validity of his arguments are simply discounted by dismissing his “white mentality”. This is the ultimate ketchup smear.
This neatly illustrates my point that unless we get to some acceptable definition of racism, it never ends. Any black intellectual who does not conform to the prevailing orthodoxy can merely be redefined as white (and therefore automatically racist) in order to shut them out of the debate. And so on. And on.
Looking back, the most profound zeitgeist shift in democratic South Africa has been on the issue of race; during the 1990s, non-racialism was still our lodestar; it was progressive to be a committed non-racialist; Somewhere, during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency (probably kick-started by his “two-nations” speech which sought to undo Mandela’s one-nation legacy), the commitment to non-racialism began to change, culminating in Jacob Zuma’s stated view that white monopoly capital was to blame for all South Africa’s problems.
This coincided with the shift towards critical race theory, which defined “whiteness” as South Africa’s core problem and “decolonisation” as the solution.
One of the loudest current online race debates illustrated the point. A group of UCT students advertised a “Decolonised Winter School” which organisers described as “challenging the notions of colonisation and putting the theories of decolonisation into practice”.
Significantly, the suppers were advertised on the Winter School programme as “POC only” with POC standing for “people of colour”.
We are so far gone that reintroducing apartheid is seen by some students at our best universities as part of “progressive discourse”