Opinion: Oscar Pistorius – what’s race got to do with it?

Oscar Pistorius's father made some incendiary comments when he said that the ANC-led government does not protect white people, which is why they have to arm themselves.

The complexities of race in South Africa have been exposed once again. Who is the greater victim of crime? Pistorius's father suggested – without any facts to back his comments – that white people were greater victims. He was only supported by emotion. He reminded me of a parent who blames the school after their son is expelled for being a bully.

One of the debates the Pistorius case brought about was violence against women, which is where the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, entered the fray. She told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "Young Afrikaner men are brought up in the Calvinist religion believing that they own a woman, they own a child, they own everything and therefore they can take that life because they own it." She later apologised for these comments. This shows South Africa is a truly racialised nation and it will take us some time to get over it. Pistorius's case is going to open one debate after another about how we see ourselves as citizens of this country.

When Hilton Botha, the investigating officer in the case, was called to the stand during the bail hearing of Pistorius, we came to realise that he made one blunder after another. His appearance before the court turned out to be a massive embarrassment for the country after the world's media reported every word he said. The defence stopped short of calling him incompetent, as did magistrate Desmond Nair. The world did not care that Hilton Botha was a white man. It just saw an incompetent police force in South Africa.

What does his race have to do with anything, some will ask? If Botha were a black man, I have no doubt we would have heard murmurs that he was advanced in his career because of black economic empowerment. We would have heard about how the government keeps pushing people to positions even though they are not qualified to do the job, simply because they are "the right colour". The suggestion that black people get jobs even when they cannot do the jobs would have lived on for a long time. And some might have been thrilled that the international media was there to see it. We would have heard words like, "cadre deployment" and "employment equity" – all not so subtle hints suggesting that unqualified black people are employed in jobs they cannot handle.

Botha is an Afrikaans-speaking white man. He has the good fortune of being presumed competent because he happens to be a white man. Black people in senior positions are generally presumed incompetent until proper evidence has been demonstrated. Do not think that they are presumed incompetent by just white people; black people make the same assumptions too. I have even heard of cases where black people would rather go to a white doctor than a black one because they assume the white person knows more. It happens.

But it should not happen. 

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr: I have a dream that man's competence shall not be judged by the colour of his skin but by his ability to do the work. The skin of a person does not define his competence or lack thereof. 

This is the reason many black people, who are good at their jobs, feel that they need to work twice as hard as a white person just to prove that they are as good as a white person. This is not very different from what women face; according to a McKinsey study men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted on accomplishments. It's probably the case with black people too.

We come from a society that is used to having black people as housekeepers, gardeners and tea ladies. It is no wonder then that it is taking us so long to adjust to the fact that all South Africans can be capable and competent, no matter what colour. Some day the scars from our past, which cause some to doubt the capabilities of another simply because of their race, will be healed. But until then, we must continue with legislation which enforces companies to promote diversity so that people can see competence is not a colour, nor is it owned by a single race and lacking in others. 

When the world looks at South Africa, it does not look at colour, it looks at us as one country. We should remember that too. South Africans forget that we are one people who like to look at each other as "those people".

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Tall inside, but not short of opinions

Navigating the world as a little person is no big deal. But it can be exhausting when other people feel entitled to comment on your height

NPA insider tells NDPP panel Abrahams refused to tackle interference

Advocate Andrea Johnson revealed that former NPA boss Shaun Abrahams ‘chose not to listen’

Oscar Pistorius’s murder sentence increased to 13 years

The SCA in Bloemfontein has sentenced former Paralympian Oscar Pistorius to 13 years in prison for the 2013 murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp

State to challenge Oscar Pistorius’ jail sentence at SCA

The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in Bloemfontein is on Friday expected to hear the States' appeal to have Oscar Pistorius' jail term lengthened.

Kalekuzi is a champion in waiting

The story of the boxer carrying the hopes of his father is a complicated one

Law fails women who kill partners in self-defence

Those who find their lives threatened in violent, abusive relationships have little recourse to justice

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed

White men still rule and earn more

Women and black people occupy only a few seats at the JSE table, the latest PwC report has found

The PPE scandal that the Treasury hasn’t touched

Many government officials have been talking tough about dealing with rampant corruption in PPE procurement but the majority won't even release names of who has benefited from the R10-billion spend

ANC still at odds over how to tackle leaders facing...

The ANC’s top six has been mandated to work closely with its integrity committee to tackle claims of corruption against senior party members

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday