Debating race isn't backward

It’s been pretty clear over the past few weeks that South Africa’s Rainbow Nation is still paying the price for papering over its differences and cracks. Anyone following Mail & Guardian‘s Thought Leader bloggers on the Caster Semenya, John Hlophe and Brandon Huntley sagas, the comments left on the blogs, and discussions in living rooms across the country will agree that we are a still one of the more polarised nations on Earth.

Thought Leader blogger Michael Trapido wrote: “I don’t know if many of you lot have noticed but there is a worrying trend that is starting to develop every time an issue crops up that grabs national attention—individuals or groups getting behind those who share their race rather than their ideas.

“Though I accept there is a definite partisanship that has emerged from apartheid as well as racism down the centuries, this cannot be allowed to continue to destroy the fabric of South African society heading into the future,” he added.

In a blog on Julius Malema, Marius Redelinghuys lamented that: “Nobody can crash a party and dash hopes quite as well as Comrade Julius. Not only did his ‘pointed observation’ about the lack of white people at the [Semenya] airport welcoming taint an otherwise good article about the extent of anger among South Africans in the New York Times; it also confirmed and demonstrated to me that—as much as Zuma may claim he and his ANC are non-racial—Comrade Julius is trapped in and held hostage by an acute racial gaze.
It’s sad, almost sick, that someone can stand in a crowd of people in support of a humiliated and unfairly treated athlete and not express gratitude for the level of support but rather survey the demographics of the turnout.”

But Theo Mapheto took a different view, saying “there will be many Malemas demanding change if we don’t engage in meaningful dialogue”.

“Let’s face it, the Rainbow Nation is a monumental farce; I cringe every time the Arch swoons about it. It is clear here that wishful thinking (you see, the Arch is an eternal optimist) is at odds with practical reality ... Malema is the sacrificial lamb on the altar of political correctness. Since the halcyon Mandela years, we have excelled in papering over cracks to the fallacy that is the Rainbow Nation.

“We make the mistake of thinking that an interracial hug in celebration of a Springbok win (for that is the only time that South Africans rally behind a single cause) seals the non-racial pact of Mandela et al ... I suggest a solution. Take time to look beyond the rhetoric and reflect on what the young man says, particularly on thorny issues we conveniently put on the back burner of our national consciousness. Rather than dismiss his statements as kindergarten claptrap, this should be a cue to engaging on an honest discussion about race relations. Yes, about black dispossession and white privilege, and more.”

Rod MacKenzie, an ex-pat who blogs from Shanghai, China, said he was worried about the message South Africa was sending to the world.

“Rather like my piece on Brandon Huntley, I am not so much interested in whether or not Caster Semenya should be disqualified. I am more interested in the response of South Africans, particularly the mass cry of racism and various leaders. Instead of letting fair law be applied and acknowledging that gender verification is a complex matter, the issue is reduced to one of racism. So what message is South Africa sending to the world about how it deals with delicate, complex matters? The picture of a self-destructing sledgehammer where a scalpel is required is what comes to mind. South Africans continue to polarise themselves over accusations of racism, where there are none. It just deepens the rifts and sends a bad message to the international community.”

In “Debating race is not backward”, Redelinghuys said it was “idealistic and naive to believe that race, for all South Africans everywhere, is not factor or a part of their social gaze”, so he was taken aback last month when he heard that President Jacob Zuma had expressed his opposition to an ANC national executive committee (NEC) call for a national debate on race.

NEC member Lindiwe Sisulu had made the call when Malema questioned why black people were overlooked for key economic portfolios in Zuma’s cabinet. The president said such a debate would take the country “backwards” and called instead for a deeper understanding of non-racialism.

Race is “central to understanding and navigating the modern South African social landscape”, wrote Redelinghuys, and that “having hoped for an era of meaningful deliberation on the state of race, race relations and racial identity to transcend the racial nativism of Thabo Mbeki, it seems I have set myself up for disappointment”.

Read the Mail & Guardian’s special report on race, available Thursday September 24.

Aliki Karasaridis

Aliki Karasaridis

Aliki Karasaridis is the Mail & Guardian's Women and Thought Leader editor. In between juggling bloggers, trolls and running after her toddler, she's desperately trying to get some sleep. Technicolor films make her happy and she loves a good digital or home-made feed. Read more from Aliki Karasaridis

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