Is it racist for white South Africans to criticise their black president?

ANTI ZUMA MARCH 16 DECEMBER 2015 (18)

Angry blacks and whites join in a protest outside Wits University, Johannesburg, calling for Pres Zuma to resign for corruption and mismanagement

In the 1970s, white students protesting with anti-apartheid placards in the road outside Wits University were called “Communists and kaffir-boeties” by angry white motorists for threatening white supremacy. It’s an ironical twist of history that last week, in post-apartheid South Africa, some of those former students – now 45 years older – demonstrated with placards at the same spot against a corrupt black president, Jacob Zuma, and were called “white racists” by angry black motorists, who saw them as unwilling to accept black rule and forgo their white privileges.

In the demonstration, some 3 000 people of all races marched across Nelson Mandela Bridge in Newtown, Johannesburg with posters saying “Zuma Must Fall”. They were addressed by irate speakers such as former Cosatu head Zwelinzima Vavi, who said he was “gatvol” (fed up!) of government corruption. Similar protests occurred in Pretoria and Cape Town.

But the presence of so many whites made some blacks question their motives. Was their protest actually against Zuma, or black government per se? A nostalgia for white rule? Sadly, although apartheid is gone, race is still a highly volatile issue which intrudes into every corner.

Often, if a white person criticises a black politician’s performance – or a black coworker in a company – he will be accused of racism, as if he is accusing all blacks of incompetence. Many whites stay resentfully silent. But the Zuma disaster has prompted some to declare their anger more publicly.

A recent article in The Economist described how Zuma has damaged South Africa since 2009, asking if he has created a “Kremlinesque subversion” of democracy. Corruption and black poverty has increased nationwide, and the gap between haves and have-nots is among the largest worldwide.

But the debate on government performance is made immensely complicated by apartheid’s legacy. For example, young middle-class blacks who have ‘made it’ in the new South Africa with professions and good salaries, still feel excluded from what they perceive as a massive network of “white privilege”. Ferial Haffajee, author of a new book, What if there were no Whites in South Africa? says their bitterness is increasing. But they risk falling into a disempowering “victimhood” mentality which will serve them badly.

In reality, whites are a declining minority constituting only 8.4% of the population. The black middle class is larger than the white middle class, showing how in some respects post-apartheid South Africa has succeeded. In upmarket shopping malls like Rosebank in Johannesburg, for example, there is a friendly, warm mixing of races. Superficially, it is sometimes hard to believe apartheid ever existed.

Under the surface, however, black-white reconciliation has made little progress since democracy in 1994. The 1998 Truth and Reconciliation Commission was expected to pave the way. But the latest survey of the SA Reconciliation Barometer found that two out of three South Africans do not trust each other across racial lines.

Lack of social contact due to the physical separation of races is one reason. The apartheid government was hugely successful in forcing blacks and whites by law to live in completely separate areas. This is still largely intact, though without the laws. There is scant inter-racial socialising. Most whites still do not have a black friend.

The deepening racial narrative threatens Mandela’s “rainbow nation” dream. Populist black politician Julius Malema, leader of the thuggish EFF party, now calls Mandela a sell-out who compromised black liberation with his willingness to reconcile with “white capitalists”.

A visionary leader is desperately needed to counter this trend, or once again racism will dominate everything in South Africa, despite its liberal Constitution. Not through laws, but dangerous, racially charged public discourse. After the TRC tried to heal apartheid’s wounds, many naively believed the country could move on. But it will take a lot longer, probably generations.

At the TRC, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris apologised for the SA Jewish community’s immoral lack of protest during apartheid, with similar apologies from other faith leaders. But the multitude of personal stories of suffering are yet to be heard.

Aside from black pain, for example, there are also the little-known stories of young white conscripts forced – regardless of their politics – into military service, deployed in black townships to defend apartheid, ending up routinely humiliating or even killing black people. Or being sent to Angola to fight a war they didn’t understand. Some had terrible experiences and still suffer the consequences of PTSD.

In 1996, a Jewish organisation called Gesher, aiming to help blacks and whites get to know each other, brought Jews and black members of a Soweto Methodist church together for a workshop. A feisty black woman in the group said sternly to the white participants: “I’ve been waiting for 40 years for you people to want to talk to me. What took you so long?”

Blacks rightly get incensed by whites’ tendency to say glibly: “Apartheid is over now, and we must all move on.” Like Germans saying to Jews: “Get over the Holocaust already!” Until peoples’ stories have been listened to sincerely, there will not be trust and white motives at protests like last week’s will be regarded with suspicion.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was Editor of the SA Jewish Report for 16 years, from 1999-2014)

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