Charlottesville and Joburg: The impact of a blunt instrument

KKK and xenophoba

What does it take to talk? Is it possible for the Ku Klux Klan to re-emerge as a force to silence all in their way? Can South Africans get past their racial history?

IT has seemingly again become a trend to stifle arguments with blunt instruments. It might appear to be stretching a point to contrast recent horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia in the United States, with post-apartheid South African discourse. But as our world increasingly sinks into hatred and intolerance, driven by populist leaders who care only for themselves, trends stand out which are weakening the post-Second World War ideal that people of different cultures and creeds can respect one another, and talk together.

Last year’s election of the lying, tweeting Donald Trump as United States President, with his contempt for ‘the Other’ – Mexicans, refugees and so on – epitomises this. His reaction on Sunday to violent demonstrations by alt-right, anti-Semitic hooligans in Charlottesville, in which a woman demonstrating for peace was killed by a car driven headlong into the crowd by a militant racist – a blunt instrument – confirmed it; he refused to immediately condemn the alt-right, since they were part of the constituency which elected him.

Turning to South Africa: Despite its history and political travails, and the damage President Zuma inflicts, this country is doing relatively well in inter-group tolerance. Remnants of Mandela’s dream remain, even if somewhat sullied. But an illustrative incident occurred at a Jewish-organised Limmud conference session last week in Johannesburg when a young black woman on a panel declared to the audience of mainly white Jews that she was going to be “brave”, and then pronounced vociferously: “There is no rainbow nation!” All whites were inherently guilty, and blacks had to separately re-examine their attitudes towards whites. The session’s topic was “The Tarnished Rainbow: South Africa in 2017”.

Audience members were angered by her bluntly lumping all whites together. In the auditorium were white veteran political activists, participants in projects of cultural engagement, helping the marginalised and poor, and so on. One white person countered her by saying her generation of young blacks had scant personal experience or knowledge of the role some whites played in demolishing apartheid, and their sacrifices.

Then a youngish white man spoke up, saying he agreed the country had racial demons to overcome because of its history. He then said politely but pointedly: “I am white and doing my best. What else do you want me to do now? Will it help, or atone for white sins during colonialism and apartheid, if I give away all the money in my bank account, give up my job and car, and go and sweep the streets?”

The audience waited for some constructive response. Instead, she angrily retorted that his very question exposed his racism, because he seemed to believe black people just “sweep the streets.” A ripple of annoyance ran through the audience. One white woman muttered that the country’s black middle class numbered 6 million today, larger than the white one.

But the interaction showed something important. This young panellist’s ignorance and anger notwithstanding, many South Africans are trying to talk to each other. Indeed, she herself had come to the Limmud forum, to challenge a white audience and be challenged.

Turning back to the thugs in Charlottesville, Virginia, it seems incredible that after all the years since World War Two and the Holocaust, people still needed to protest against unmitigated Nazism from closed-minded people with no desire or willingness to talk. People who carried flags with large swastikas on them. At a Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville on July 8, a sign held by a white-hooded participant read: “Jews are Satan’s children… Talmud is a child molester’s bible.”

Despite how much anger there is in South African society, a sign like that would not be permitted.

It would be naive, of course, to think that all is perfect – far from it. There is as much to worry about in South Africa as anywhere else. But perhaps Donald Trump’s American South can learn something from this country about how people still manage to talk today, even across chasms.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )



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