THE racial furore in South African social media over recent weeks evoked hideous comments, starting with one Penny Sparrow calling black revellers on Durban beach on New Year’s Day “monkeys” – a posting which quickly went viral. One of the worst responses was from a black Gauteng Province employee calling for blacks to do to whites what “Hitler did to the Jews”.
The ethos of a liberal South African society where all are treated as individual human beings regardless of race is weakening, despite proposals to criminalise racist comments. Increasingly in public discourse, people are described according to the group they are perceived to belong to, whether they feel part of it or not – whites and blacks can’t escape that identity.
South African Jews are caught in a double bind. On one hand they belong to the white minority in a country where the black majority is increasingly outspoken about white privilege from apartheid.
On the other hand, SA Jews have their own strong group identity, marry and socialise mostly with other Jews, send some 85 per cent of their children to Jewish schools, and have their own welfare institutions. This essential aspect of Jewish culture, always present wherever they live, is one reason Jews have survived for centuries. They have no desire to relinquish it.
Thus far there have been few major anti-Jewish incidents in South Africa – except from marginal individuals – and authorities have denounced those that have occurred. The vitriol has concentrated on whites and blacks as groups. But history shows that once extreme identity politics starts boiling, it usually ends up targeting Jews as well.
There is a resurgence of identity politics worldwide based on race, religion and nationalism. In Europe, the rising nationalist backlash against Middle Eastern immigrants is ominous. In Germany, rightwing anti-immigrant movement Pegida has called for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ouster for her liberal policy towards Muslim immigrants. In the United States, Donald Trump, a hopeful GOP presidential candidate, unashamedly spouts racist jargon against Muslims and immigrants. He claims he is articulating what many Americans think but won’t say because of political correctness. In the Middle East, radical Islam is marching; ISIS aims to dismantle existing states, create an Islamic Caliphate, and subvert the Western world and turn it into an Islamic realm.
Last month in Israel, identity politics took a leap rightwards in the realm of literature with the disqualification from the high school curriculum of the novel Borderlife by Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan, despite respected literary educationists recommending it. It is about a love affair in New York between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. A senior Education Ministry official deemed it inappropriate for Israeli high schoolers, declaring: “Young people of adolescent age tend to romanticise and don’t, in many cases, have the systemic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation”. An uproar ensued, with some seeing this as promoting racial separation.
In literature, as in other arts, seminal works tell the stories of people who crossed the lines of their given identities and befriended and fell in love with people from the “other” group. They make us think about what it is to be human. During apartheid, books about whites and blacks crossing those boundaries were actually banned, as was sex and marriage across colour lines.
A book published in 2014, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, describes the transformation of a white, conservative Afrikaans woman, Zelda La Grange. She was was initially skeptical of the new post-apartheid South Africa which was once ruled by her people, the white Afrikaners. Then she became personal secretary for 17 years to the first black president, Nelson Mandela. The fact of the radically different identities of the protagonists is intriguing. It became a bestseller.
Journalist Mark Gevisser’s review of it for The Guardian says: “She understands Mandela, quite simply, as her saviour, and the book feels truest at the beginning, as we witness the awakening of a dull, unconscious racist into a passionate New South African. She wins Mandela over, it seems, with her tears when he addresses her in Afrikaans on their first meeting: they are the tears of shame, and more white South Africans should shed them.”
How to prevent extreme identity politics destroying liberal society, as it is already doing in some parts of the world today? People need a group identity, essential to their sense of who they are relative to others. But they also need the right to be treated as individuals, and cross lines when they want to. Sadly, the wise leadership necessary to balance those competing forces is in short supply today, in South Africa and elsewhere. The cacophony of bigots fuelling the social media circus will not provide that leadership.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. A shorter version of this article was published in the SAJR on January 13, 2016)