Do racial slurs lance SA’s boil or poison the wound more?

Helen of Troyeville

Can a country with South Africa’s history ever get over its mixed emotions about how races relate to one another? Whites and blacks, Indians and Coloureds all have their own cauldrons of paranoia and anger to do with other races. Art and theatre can be a good way of articulating this (Photo: Suzy Bernstein)

THE wild mixture of feelings people of different races experience in today’s South Africa was eloquently portrayed in a play last week at Wits Theatre, called Helen of Troyeville, written by Mike van Graan and performed by skilled Jewish actress Gina Shmukler. It expressed some things we can’t talk about openly, but which are roiling under the surface. Such as the confusion of whites who want to support this new country, but feel silenced in the face of black anger for their privilege, and who cannot openly complain about corruption, violence and misrule for fear of being called racist.

Shmukler plays a middle-aged white woman who grew up during apartheid, immersed in the opportunities and empowerment her skin colour conferred. She accumulated the benefits of education and possessions, but finds herself at this moment locked in the guest toilet of her fancy house in which black robbers are plundering her possessions, including her dogs that she is distraught about. Totally disempowered, she is forced to reflect on her own life.

She regards herself as having been a do-gooder white who treated her maid well and made a point of buying trinkets from black beggars at the roadside. Now she is a terrified woman filled with guilt, despair and anger, disempowered in a country where the blacks who run things have little empathy for the feelings of people like her. Poverty still remains the lot of most blacks, as it was during apartheid.

She considers: what if they kill her? That might be the only thing which can enable her to retain some dignity, since she cannot undo the history in which her children were cared for by her black domestic while her own children lived elsewhere in a poor black area.

What is the role of racial rage? Is it a necessary component of lancing the boil created by years of white oppression during colonialism and apartheid? A catharsis? Paradoxically, according to surveys of the Institute of Race Relations, attitudes between different races are better today than ever; most blacks, for example, rank poverty and unemployment as bigger problems than racism. It is often politicians who aggravate racial issues for their own ends.

Did the odious Penny Sparrow incident in January 2016 – when an estate agent posted on facebook that blacks filling Durban beach on New Year’s Day were like “monkeys” – have a positive outcome, because the national outrage it provoked from both blacks and whites made such expressions no longer acceptable? Or add more dirt to an infected wound?

Political leader Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters party made controversial public comments about Indians in KwaZulu-Natal in Durban on Saturday, saying they treated Africans as sub-humans, and their business success derived from exploitation: “They are ill-treating our people. They are worse than Afrikaners were. This is not an anti-Indian statement‚ it’s the truth.”

Was Malema’s straight-talking doing South Africa a service by bringing murky race obsessions to the surface, to be argued about openly rather than festering below? Or was it playing with fire in a country where racial tension could still be ignited and ravage the country? He also said: “If we can tell whites the truth we must also tell them.”

Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson Satish Dhupelia criticised Malema: “[You labelled] all Indians as being people who are ill-treating others and that is so blatantly wrong on so many levels.”

Racial paranoia is as potent a force as racism. The ‘Helen of Troyeville’ Gina Shmukler portrays could as well have been ‘Helen of Glenhazel’ hiding behind the high walls of her smart house, while the country is being plundered.

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