​Racist stereotyping threatens SA

“Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness with an increased ability to wish the offender well,” according to the American Psychological Association.

Offences of any kind can be petty and, as a result, can be subjectively interpreted by perpetrators and victims. Sometimes they are so egregious as to be universally acknowledged and globally condemned (even if this is on a post-hoc basis).

Apartheid was one such offence. As a system of segregation, discrimination and appropriation of wealth, apartheid has been well explored by academics and storytellers. What has not been well appreciated are the emotional and psychological consequences of apartheid experienced by professionals, labourers and politicians.

These consequences, called “social contingencies” in the field of sociology, are causing a schism in society that cuts deeper than class, ethnicity or, for some, morality. South Africans are carrying the scars of apartheid in their day-to-day, split-second judgments of each other, which take the form of stereotypes. The “black equals lazy and incompetent” stereotype was the backbone of the apartheid government’s attempts to support a body of discriminatory laws. The “white equals all-knowing and powerful” stereotype has crippled other racially defined groups for decades.

Over the past eight decades, these stereotypes have been internalised and used as shorthand by white parents to justify racist policies and the disproportionate privilege they produced. Prior to the Black Consciousness Movement, these beliefs were internalised by indigenous South Africans, particularly those living in urban areas. As a direct result of the displacement of the Black Consciousness philosophy as both a diagnostic and healing tool and a failure to include it in our curriculums and conversations, South Africa is fraught with stereotyping.

Added to the white superiority and “black equals lazy and incompetent” stereotypes are the following growing stereotypes: black equals corrupt, black equals lack of management astuteness, black equals welfare beneficiaries and non-taxpayers, and white equals white monopoly capital. The composite of these stereotypes has hardened South Africans of European descent’s (particularly those young enough to not feel guilt about apartheid or those old enough to still be brainwashed by its propaganda) attitudes to those they view as blacks. This has created equally hardened reactions from indigenous South Africans feeling what sociologists call “stereotype threat”.

Psychologist Claude Steele describes stereotype threat as a phenomenon of low performance as a reaction to being judged or being held in suspicion of incompetence. This phenomenon is most crippling when performing functions at or near one’s maximum capacity. Hundreds of studies have shown how such stereotypes can be triggered by social cues that impede test performance, drastically lowering the performance of students as a result. The same mechanisms are at play in the workplace.

Indigenous labourers feel this every day when they are humiliated and patronised while performing tasks they know better than their bosses. Indigenous managers relegated as beneficiaries of black economic empowerment or tenderpreneurs feel stereotyping acutely. Black men and women who have saved and worked hard their entire lives are subjected to slander on radio talk shows and Twitter by inconsiderate, privileged opinion-makers accusing them of being welfare beneficiaries and tax leeches.

This stereotyping of the performance of black people has become a national pastime, resulting in an escalation of racism and hardened views against rational criticism at a critical time in our country. It is for this reason that many “good people” are keeping quiet instead of piling in on criticism of the government and state officials. They are tired of perpetual stereotyping that does not objectively recognise good performance alongside the criticism of government and private-sector action.

For those between 35 and 55, forgiveness for apartheid injustices is wearing thin. Several studies conducted by sociologists show that young adults have a lower proclivity for forgiveness than older adults. If one believes this, one can predict a hardening in overall attitudes over time, because those South Africans between the age of 35 and 55 now were in the youth age bracket in 1994. They are also the ones most affected by the acceleration of stereotyping over the past 20 years. This generation is dangerously close to giving up on the dream of a non-racial society. Not much in their lives since 1994 has shown signs of non-racialism. They are, on the contrary, the most affected by racism in the post-liberation era.

#ZumaMustGo is part of a long line of attacks on the leadership that this generation holds dear. It started with attacks on former president Thabo Mbeki as aloof, overly philosophical and an out-of touch denialist, and continued with the belittling of black business people in the early 2000s as the “usual suspects”. It went on with the challenging of the credentials of Trevor Manuel, then finance minister, and subsequently the suspicion expressed when he was first hired that then governor of the Reserve Bank Tito Mboweni was not up to the task.

When looked at with the benefit of hindsight, it turns out that around the time Mbeki was facing an increasing crescendo of criticism, he was leading the charge for the first ever investment grade re-rating of South Africa. This fact is not even recognised today by those criticising the post-liberation era of political leaders. Zuma is no angel, but rarely has a good word been said about him, despite the majority of South Africans twice voting him and the party he leads into government.

Today, well-known professors are sarcastically thanking Zuma for reminding us that we are African (presumably through accelerating socioeconomic decline). If recognising South Africa’s geography and its people’s heritage has been accelerated by recent events, maybe that is a cause for celebration. Many years of talk about going “out into Africa” when leaving South Africa has deluded Africans of European descent into believing that they may be the sole cause of South Africa’s fabled exceptionalism. This attitude, recently repeated by Democratic Alliance leader and Western Cape premier Helen Zille, is the result of self-fulfilling stereotyping leading to an untransformed economy.

Racist stereotyping is the primary cause of the “us against them” view that is slowly tearing the country into factions. On the one hand there are those who believe in a stereotype of exceptional behaviour, defined as mimicking European traits of success. On the other are those hiding behind African traditionalism to further their individual interests.

Though thousands of people joined the anti-Zuma protests, many condemned them. If forced to take a stand, the second group’s ability to effect radical economic transformation will sway a significant majority of those aged 35 to 55 into their corner. Those scared of taking land reclamation without compensation to referendum for example must surely know this to be true.

Years of hearing the same one-sided criticism and backhanded compliments of indigenous managers and government officials is dulling many South African’s hearing to the shrill outcries of today. Those aged 18 to 35 will have to decide the fate of the country by choosing either forgiveness or retribution for continued suffering. Who they blame and how they vote will be pivotal.

These two age groups will determine whether Zuma and the ANC are forgiven for any real or perceived transgressions. The many who claim that he survives because of patronage alone are not reading the political climate correctly.

Those genuinely interested in thought leadership need to accept the ghosts of stereotype threat and their power to undermine the power of citizens to hold their leaders accountable. Racist stereotype threat triggers feelings of bounded solidarity at all costs. Inasmuch as it is wrong to blame apartheid for all our ills, not recognising that apartheid affects the way we assign blame is equally dangerous.

Let’s consider solutions to our problems that do more than just confirm suspicions of bigotry and superiority complexes.

The failure to confront racist stereotyping will enhance feelings of vengefulness along racial lines. Heaven forbid that one day this results in violence.

Hlumelo Biko is an entrepreneur and the author of The Great African Society (Jonathan Ball).

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Hlumelo Biko
Hlumelo Biko
Hlumelo Biko is a South African businessman and investment banker. He is the son of Steve Biko and Mamphela Ramphele.

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