Skin deep: Is conflict still inevitable between colours and races?

SA rugby team

Who cares about race when the team is winning? Black and white players in South Africa’s Springboks celebrate their win over Argentina in Port Elizabeth last month in the Rugby Championship opener  (Photo: EPA)

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.

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

  • Read a review of the film Vaselinetjie by arts critic Robyn Sassen 

 

Advertisements

Paid-for racism: SA democracy shows its teeth

AtulGuptaBellPottinger

Sabotaging South Africa’s non-racial dream: Atul Gupta, a member of the family accused of looting state coffers and controlling President Zuma’s government for their own enrichment, has been helped by London PR firm Bell Pottinger to stoke racial tensions in the country

WHILE it seems incredible that in a racially charged society like ours someone would purposely stoke black-white tensions, for enough money some people will do anything. The London-based public relations firm Bell Pottinger (BP) has done that for a fee of about $170,000 a month: it fashioned racially divisive slogans, speeches and activities for the mafia network of President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family, to divert South Africans’ attention so they could continue looting state coffers behind the smokescreen.

This perilous ethnic baiting is familiar to Jewish ears. For centuries, when they were on good terms with their gentile neighbours, they suddenly heard someone say: “Jews are vermin and Christ-killers.” The Holocaust is the most blatant example of the violence that followed, but there are others. It also happened in Rwanda in 1994 when Tutsis were called “cockroaches” as part of a campaign of delegitimisation, and some 800 000 were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbours.

It boggles the mind that so soon after Mandela’s rainbow-nation dream seemed within reach – South Africa’s black-white relations have improved, despite huge problems – someone should purposely undermine it by dredging up racist hatred from colonialism and apartheid.

Hired by the Gupta family in 2016, BP has advised them and their associates about how to protect their image. Attacks on their pervasive corruption were blamed on “white monopoly capital” and other populist slogans which resonated with the angry masses. White journalists who criticised them were called racists and threatened by groups such as Black First Land First, reportedly funded by the Guptas and tutored by BP.

In the past, BP has helped shine the images of dictators such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile and oppressive regimes in Belarus, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Then it saw an opportunity in South Africa and grabbed it.

It may seem inappropriate in this gloomy atmosphere to drink a toast to ourselves. But we should. Because although the war to rescue the country from the Guptas and Zumas and their henchmen has not yet been fully won, there have been significant partial victories.

After being exposed, BP has crawled on its knees and publically apologised, admitting to unethical tactics and expressing “profound regret.” Its apology is clearly insufficient and reflects only the tip of the iceberg. The saga should be used to expose other saboteurs of South Africa’s vision and force them to make amends.

When foreigners come visiting, their local hosts tell them things look bleak. A corrupt president clings to power, a foreign family pulls government strings, the economy is plunging, violence is rising, whites feel like a threatened minority, and so on. The old question, “should I stay or go?” hangs in the air. Many have left the country; more would leave if they had the resources.

Yet if the foreign visitor was Canadian and had read last Friday’s Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto, he might have a more positive view. The paper described the “humbling” by the country of Bell Pottinger which had “met its match in the free-wheeling democracy of South Africa” with its “vibrant media and civil-society sector.”

The positive angle has lots of truth in it. Widespread public outrage and action in civil society and some parts of government are rising sharply as more evidence of the Zuma-Gupta contagion emerges. And although the scary spectre of the country sliding towards a Zimbabwe-style kleptocracy has seemed less outlandish recently than it once did, South Africans are not passive Zimbabweans and will not let it happen.

Hopefully, one day visitors from abroad will toast the success of this wonderful country with South Africans and celebrate the vanquishing of criminals such as the Zumas and Guptas and their enablers, BP.

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