THE past week’s events in the United States and Germany add fuel to a perennial question: What is a nation’s true nature, behind its outward veneer. What demons hide there, racial or otherwise? The relevance for South Africa is clear.
The US constitution posits a society with everyone equal before the law. Yet to President Donald Trump’s outrage, black American footballers refused to stand for the national anthem before a game, kneeling in front of thousands of spectators to protest police brutality towards blacks. For them, America is not what the anthem’s stirring words profess. Predictably, Trump roared publically in speeches and tweets that they must stand, or be “fired”. But they won’t.
Germany’s demons are emerging from the closet too, shown by dramatically increased support in last week’s federal elections for the far right, ultra-nationalistic party, Alternative for Germany, making it the Bundestag’s third largest party. It calls for Germans to stop feeling guilty for Nazi crimes, to honour Wehrmacht soldiers who served in World War Two, and to examine crimes of the Russian Revolution’s “Jewish murderers”. It has likened Muslim refugees and asylum seekers to “invaders” and expressed understanding for a right-wing nationalist’s mass murder in Norway.
Since the War and the Holocaust, Germany has resolutely presented itself as an enlightened democracy. Does this shift to the right signal reversion to previous identities – anti-Islam, anti-black, anti-Jewish?
Turning to South Africa: Despite its history, it is doing relatively well on such issues. Last Sunday marked Heritage Day, when people across the spectrum of hues, languages, religions and ethnicities celebrated their diversity, with different groups donning traditional clothing, hairdos and other items. While politically the country is under assault by corrupt shenanigans of President Zuma and the Guptas, assisted by enablers such as auditing firm KPMG and PR agency Bell Pottinger, who stoke racial tensions, as a society it shows a remarkable degree of tolerance, even friendliness, among different groups. It is by no means perfect; racism and xenophobia are often expressed by individuals and politicians, but in the public domain they are generally slapped down as anti-South African.
Beneath the surface, racial tensions will take generations to solve – if ever. And the dynamics of race relations are more complicated than just black and white.
An excellent film in Afrikaans (with English subtitles) currently on circuit called Vaselinetjie, unpacks some of the fine nuances of what skin colour means, beyond the black-white labels. It portrays a young white-skinned girl’s anguish growing up in a poor Coloured village, reared by her Coloured ‘grandparents’, who is maliciously derided by school peers for being “too white.” At the school principal’s prodding, she is sent to a Johannesburg orphanage containing white kids. They regard her as white, but she never feels safe enough to reveal that her grandparents are Coloured, or how this situation came about. The veneer collapses when her grandparents attend a social event at the orphanage, leading friends she had trusted and loved to label her, contemptuously, as a “half-breed” – not white enough, nor black enough to fit in. She is shattered, but clings to the memory of her grandmother’s words: “G-d doesn’t make mistakes.”
What is it to be South African? White minorities – Afrikaners, English, Jews and others – fear for their long-term future among the country’s huge black majority, still struggling with the racial legacy of its history. So do minorities like the Coloureds.
Racial demons lurk everywhere despite grand proclamations of liberal constitutions, including Trump’s America’s or Merkel’s Germany. Is South African society far enough down the road of multiracial tolerance to stay on track?
There are good and bad signs. But mischievous politicians scratching the wound for expedient ends could easily sabotage the idealistic “rainbow nation” project once again.
- Read a review of the film Vaselinetjie by arts critic Robyn Sassen