Acclaimed Afrikaans author Annelie Botes’ comments that she dislikes and fears ‘black people’, which cost her a South African Literary Award (SALA), reveal a deeper malaise that continues to permeate certain sectors of post-apartheid society, writes TIM MURITHI.
To dismiss views like those articulated by Botes as the isolated sentiments of a marginal few risks the loss of an opportunity to critically engage with how to overcome the internalised and resilient prejudices carefully cultivated by the apartheid regime over decades.
Instead, it is time to re-educate South African society and move away from the distorted and still entrenched core of a carefully devised system of institutional racism that spanned 46 years (1948 to 1994), or three and a half centuries (1652 to 1994), depending on your historical point of departure.
In an interview in November of last year, Botes stated that she feels ‘threatened’ by black people in her daily life. The ‘face of crime’ in South Africa, Botes suggested, is black.
To start, to categorise all black people in this manner is clearly unjust and unfair, and overlooks the many millions who are getting on with their lives and working diligently to build a new South Africa.
Botes and her husband plan to retire in England. Paradoxically, there she will discover that black people are everywhere in England, including in the House of Lords, where a black man is a Conservative peer of the realm. How would she cope if the Queen invited her to tea and she came across this black Lord? But this is a digression.
However, Botes is apparently not alone. She claims to have received over one thousand emails supporting her comments, and this is the far more important issue to be addressed. Are her views much more widespread than society is prepared to accept, and should we really be surprised by this?
Apartheid was one of humanity’s most devious, mindaltering systems ever devised by one group to subjugate, subordinate, marginalise and exclude another. At the core of this brutal psychological experiment was race socialisation, which nourished artificial perceptions of superiority and selfworth among white people. So-called black people were systemically maligned and cast as sub-human, primitive, lazy, promiscuous, untrustworthy, violent, and with a propensity towards crime.
This apartheid construct sought to entrench black inferiority as an acceptable worldview, allowing acceptance and legitimation of segregation in dilapidated shanties and townships (with all the social ills this created, ironically, including criminality). This system suffocated self-worth and constrainedcblack peoples’ opportunities for self-expression and creativity.
Apartheid also fostered strong race identities based on perceptions of a shared exclusive heritage with a specific group, such as with so-called whites, and not with others. These sentiments remain very much alive in today’s South Africa, and the IJR’s annual Reconciliation Barometer survey confirms that despite some progress in racial integration, there is still a long way to go before citizens genuinely interact with each other. The racial prism of apartheid may indeed have a lasting effect on generations to come.
As such, Botes and her supporters merely articulate what apartheid intended them to feel, perceive and express about black people. Assuming the elections of 1994 and the subsequent call to reconciliation would reverse these distorted views is to fail to understand the deep psychological damage inflicted by this system.
Overcoming these apartheid views, and healing social relations in South Africa, requires a concerted effort. However, this is easier said than done and may be particularly difficult for those – like Botes – who are highly educated and literate, yet refrain from interrogating how their own core beliefs were shaped by apartheid.
At the same time, those who continue to sustain a depleted sense of self-worth must engage in processes of re-education and self-healing.
This is why the re-education of South Africa, 17 years after liberation, is vital. The physical attributes of freedom might be evident and embodied in the country’s Constitution, but the psychological chains of apartheid’s racial prism still imprison and detain many citizens. Critical to this process will be an orientation of forgiving oneself, one’s community and one’s country for what was perpetuated on the victims of history. Re-education however cannot be forced or coerced, it has to be entered into voluntarily.
Some of these debates continue to emerge in the lecture halls of academia and seminar rooms of think tanks, but it is now time to have an inclusive national dialogue on ‘re-programming’ ourselves to the essential humanity of all people, despite the bad things some people do.
Practically, the first line of engagement must be at the levels of primary, secondary and tertiary education. It is vital to prevent future generations of South Africans from internalising and endorsing the views of their parents, particularly when they are exposed to race-based socialisation at home.
Secondly, this must continue at the local and community level. Progressive individuals can engage with their neighbours on these issues, if necessary, with the guidance of a professional counsellor.
The third line of engagement has to be in the workplace, whether in government, trade unions, the private sector, civil society organisations and ecumenical groups. Such organisations may already have begun a re-education process, under the guise of terms such as ‘transformation’, ‘diversity training’ or racial dialogue.
Collectively, our ultimate goal as members of the ‘human race’ should be the elimination of terms such as ‘black’ and ‘white’. Failure to re-shape the way South African citizens view each other, and the continuation of discourses of fear and entitlement, will simply perpetuate segregation, civil unrest and sociopolitical imbalances. Achieving the aspiration of non-racialism is not a pipe dream, but can only take place when citizens commit to transcending apartheid’s racial prism.
Dr Tim Murithi is manager of the Transitional Justice in Africa programme at the IJR.