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FREE ARTICLES
Sunday Times Editorial, 20th August 2000
A chance to cure a disease

IF THERE is a recurring condition from which South Africans suffer, it is one of premature ululation.

A sporting victory has us ululating in the streets and proclaiming ourselves world conquerors. When one of our own lands a minor Hollywood role, we believe we have spawned a superstar. And when a South African is appointed to an international organisation, we pat ourselves on the backs and arrogantly proclaim that the world knows that we have so much to offer.

In the process, we ignore the simple things we need in place to ensure that those celebrations last a little longer. That is the great South African downfall.

When that famous fly-past took place on May 10 1994, we told ourselves we had conquered the evil that is racism. We effectively patented the term "rainbow nation" and projected ourselves to the world as a living example of how a people can overcome prejudice and divisions.

Yet the experience of the past six years has taught us that we have not even begun to deal with racism.

The violent abuse of farmworkers by white employers remains rampant, and workplace discrimination is commonplace. The grounds of integrated schools are battlefields of racial taunts, and university campuses are divided into racial enclaves.

Even the glue that held together black communities during the antiapartheid struggle has melted.

It is not uncommon to hear coloured residents in the Western Cape casually refer to Africans as kaffirs, a crime punishable by ostracism in the pre-1994 era. Africans in KwaZulu-Natal feel no shame in calling South Africans of Indian origin coolies. And the reference to foreign Africans as makwerekwere has become part of the everyday South African lexicon.

The ideology of racism that informed our past is deeply entrenched in the South African psyche. We live and breathe prejudice. Our decisions on where to live, where to socialise and who to trust are based on race.

Our attempts to deal with our racist past have been nothing less than pathetic. In its bid to promote the fuzzy rainbow feeling among South Africans, the Nelson Mandela government made little attempt to undo the centuries of damage that racial segregation had wrought on our lives. Somehow, the message that things had changed after April 27 1994 was lost - white people still believed they were superior, while black people were not made to feel empowered.

With the national conference on race and racism in Johannesburg later this month we have a chance to begin a rational discussion on an important subject we have been foolishly avoiding. Still, there is every chance that the conference will be overshadowed by the row between President Thabo Mbeki and Tony Leon, the leader of the Democratic Alliance. It is also likely that it will degenerate into name-calling and mudslinging. And it is probable that we will hear the same stuck records we have been listening to over the past few years on the subject.

It would be a tragedy if we missed this historic opportunity to recognise our disease and begin to explore ways of curing it.

Delegates to the conference will need to get an acceptance from all South Africans that we are both victims and perpetrators of racism.

It is only once white people acknowledge that many of them continue to view their black countrymen as lesser citizens that we will be able to move beyond the simplistic mudslinging that epitomises the Mbeki Leon brouhaha. Equally, black South Africans will have to start assuming responsibility in the fight against racism. For a start, they must drop the intellectually bankrupt mantra that says blacks are incapable of racism because they are economically disempowered.

Discussion around racism will have to move away from being an exercise for bored intellectuals. It needs to be taken beyond the conference room to where it matters and hurts the most - the ordinary people of South Africa.

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