THE social media uproar over ugly racist postings which erupted this week shows how far South Africans still are from genuine reconciliation. It started when a white estate agent in Durban compared the thousands of black New Year’s Day swimmers at the city’s beachfront to naughty “monkeys” who left tons of litter behind them, evoking instant nationwide condemnation. She said in an interview afterwards that she was puzzled at the reaction, and was not being racist, but “factual”.
Then, a high-ranking white economist at Standard Bank tweeted: “More than 25 years after apartheid ended, the victims are increasing along with a sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities…”. This too, was interpreted as a racial slur, leading the bank to suspend him in deference to their black clients. He apologised, saying he never intended causing offense.
Whites and blacks are still blithely insensitive to what presses each others’ buttons, despite the idealistic “rainbow nation” ethos which Mandela promoted and which is now regarded with some cynicism. In certain respects, things are moving in the opposite direction, towards further racial polarisation.
Whites complain about black hypersensitivity and the demand for excessive “political correctness”, which prevents them calling a spade a spade. For example when they make legitimate arguments about the problems of the country – like President Jacob Zuma’s dismal performance – and are then accused of racism instead of being heard for the point they are making. One black blogger on Monday retorted that there is “some stuff that white people just don’t get”.
For example, a cartoon in June last year about the president by much-loved white cartoonist Zapiro evoked unexpected reaction from blacks. Zuma had used his authority to allow Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – who is wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity – to visit South Africa illegally, but had previously denied entry to the peace-oriented Dalai Lama. Zapiro’s cartoon showed the president trying to read Tolstoy’s book “War and Peace” upsidedown as if he didn’t understand the difference.
Some people responded indignantly to the cartoon, believing this amounted to whites smirking over Zuma’s lack of a proper school education – one reprehensible aspect of apartheid was its denial of good education for blacks. Many still see Zuma – corrupt and inept as he is – as representing the heroic, dogged African triumph over white racism; despite the odds, he succeeded in beating the system and achieving the highest positions in the ANC and as SA president.
Anything positive said about apartheid leaders provokes outrage, even if it comes from fervent opponents of the system. Last year, veteran journalist and former editor of the anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail, Allister Sparks, caused a Twitter storm for calling apartheid Prime Minster Hendrik Verwoerd one of the many “smart” politicians he had met during his 64-year career. Sparks had fought fearlessly against Verwoerd’s monstrous policies, but concedes that he was an able politician and built the National Party very effectively. He responded to the furore by saying: “What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to say he was dumb or stupid? He wasn’t stupid.” He eventually publicly apologised, however, for causing offense.
Racial sensitivities lie in tiny details as much as big issues. People’s names, for example, are precious things to them, yet most South African whites are still unable to pronounce African indigenous names properly, particularly ones that contain unfamiliar tongue-clicks or combinations of consonants. Indeed, most whites still cannot speak any African tongue – the country has 11 official languages. A new, popular hashtag aimed at giving whites a taste of their own medicine is called #TheYearWeMispronounceBack, in which the tweeters purposely mispronounce English names. Flippant as it may seem, the campaign represents a genuine undercurrent of resentment with a long history.
During apartheid, white employers generally called their black workers by “European” names, like “John” or “Elizabeth”, not their real African ones. Even today, when going into a restaurant or other public place where black waiters wear a name tag, white patrons will happily call them by this if it is European. But when the name is an indigenous African one, they will often not use it out of embarrassment at not knowing the correct pronunciation.
The conundrum of racial tensions, in all its myriad details, will be with us for a long time to come. It’s like two strangers getting to know each other. Social media will not solve the problem. But tucked in amongst the mutual recriminations on facebook and Twitter are important truths. South Africans need to listen carefully.
(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)