The Constitution enshrines the values, rights and principles of the society we aspire to be, yet are still struggling to become. These values – including dignity, achievement of equality, the advancement of human rights and freedom, non-racialism and non-sexism – have little value on paper, unless given life by a society. We still have to achieve real and substantive equality in many areas of our society. For some of us – irrespective of race – the real meaning of equality still evades us. It is quite often viewed as what to get or keep instead of what to give. The biggest hurdle we are facing as a society in this regard, is not how to achieve equality by way of policies, programmes and legislation (although the latter certainly deserve some scrutiny of its own), but rather how to overcome our own prejudices.
As a result of the injustices of our past, committed primarily against black South Africans by a system that left our society divided, unequal and understandably sceptical of one another, race remains a relevant and highly emotive driver in our daily lives. We read about it in almost every newspaper, almost every day. It drives politics, labour relations, questions about education, and personal relations. The list is endless.
The issue of race lies at the heart of inequality and divisions we are still facing after almost 20 years of democracy. However, in order for us to reap the fruits of a truly non-racial society – a society in which racial factors and racial discrimination have no place – we must come to appreciate and truly subscribe to the constitutional values of, and rights to, dignity and equality – without preconditions or qualifications. We have to be heedful of how our actions and comments may be viewed by those around us. We have to be mindful of how we as individuals treat one another and respond to each other, more so than how others treat and respond to us. That is what dignity and equality – what reconciliation, nation building and mutual respect – are all about.
A recent editorial by the Sowetan newspaper (“React to Racism”, Sowetan, 7 October 2013), asserted “white South Africans must condemn racism in the same way that black South Africans – invariably the victims – do”. The editorial also contended that white South Africans must condemn incidents of racism, since consistent failure to do so might, according to the editorial, give the impression they condone racist acts, are indifferent to them, or have not yet “fully appreciated or accepted the values of non-racialism embedded in our Constitution”.
The fact is that some South Africans have not fully come to appreciate or accept the values of non-racialism embedded in our Constitution. This is certainly not limited to any race. Racism is not a one-way street, just as non-racialism does not benefit only a single group of people. Strange as it may sound, racism and non-racialism know no colour. Victims of racism in general are not limited to any single group of people and the perpetrators come in all shades of our rainbow nation.
We all have to condemn racism in all its forms and manifestations, not only when one is the victim of such undignified and unconstitutional conduct, but also whenever and wherever it may occur, and by whomever it may be committed. This holds true not only of public condemnations, but also how we conduct ourselves in our respective communities. This is where every South African, as an individual, has the ability to influence, for the better or worse, the daily lives and perceptions of others.
If South Africans, regardless of race, are silent about acts of racism and discrimination – be it in the form of grand organisational policies which exclude anyone from participating in any part of society, or individual acts of bigotry denying a person his or her dignity – it may well be perceived as indifference, or worse, as suggested, tacit approval. Given our past, white South Africans must, just like other South Africans, be vocal and clear in their condemnation of racism as well as preconceived biases, cultural convictions or personal preoccupations, which may result in, or give rise to, racism. The Sowetan’s contention, however, that all black South Africans are necessarily outspoken when other South Africans are being discriminated against, may perhaps be an extrapolated assumption.
Be that as it may, there is no place for racism in our society. Each one of us must denounce racism and any conduct that may negate our pursuit of an equal and non-racial society. We must, however, guard against fuelling racial divisions in the manner in which we denounce racism – whether in ignorance or as part of subjective self-serving aspirations. Unless we do that, race becomes an emotional shield and easy diversion from other real and common concerns such as threats to the rule of law, the lack of accountability, transparency and responsiveness in government, corruption and cronyism, and the failure to provide adequate education and health services.
We may be surprised to find that the best part of South Africans do believe in, and do want a truly equal society. But we will have to talk about race and non-racialism in order to allay wrong assumptions and skewed conjectures we may hold about each other. Moreover, in pursuit of equality and non-racialism – in treating everyone with dignity – we have to remain aware of, and guard against, our subjective assumptions, biases and possible racially-tinted lenses when we engage one another in good faith. The Sowetan’s use, for instance, of the term “white-led organisations”may be falling into just such a trap of stereotypical labelling. After all, that would also include the national Departments of Trade and Industry, and of Tourism, would it not? We will have to consider how our actions and words – and sometimes our silence – may be viewed by others, especially in our own personal lives and our respective communities. We may have many differences, but we share a common future. Whether that future will be one of a society united or divided, is fortunately not up to politicians, but up to each one of us.