29 May 2009

An Open Letter to South Africa.

Let me, once again, start with a disclaimer: I love South Africa. I wish to see this country and all of its people prospering in peace. A bit utopian and extremely idealistic, I know, but that is what I want.

In the field of medical science the illness must be diagnosed before it gets treated. Without the diagnosis one cannot know what even needs to be addressed and with what kinds of medicines. You cannot cure a cancer with a painkiller. I doubt no one even wanted to try it. For some reason, however, the same logic doesn’t get applied with the societal problems. I guess it is largely due to the broad spectrum of various diagnosis that everyone offer; that’s the democracy, but when there is a distinct lack of willingness to openly debate something that is so incredibly obvious, it makes you wonder. I am talking about the R-word. The most unkind, uncomfortable topic that in its awkwardness scare most people away. Even for me, it took two paragraphs before I could say it: Racism.

We all know that South African past is characterised by institutional and consistent racial discrimination. It started hundreds of years ago, but somehow, the expectation is that it ended in the early nineties when Mandela was released. Or latest, few years later when he became the first democratically elected President. The problem, of course, is that how could that end racism, which really is a mindset, a world view and a set of values that impact the society on its various levels through imbalanced economical power struggles, when imprisoning him wasn’t what started it. It didn’t even start the apartheid. All apartheid was racism but not all the racism is apartheid. Therefore doing away with a system, or even just a word itself, doesn’t address the mindsets of the people and their cultural practices. Racism is something that is a deep-rooted illness of South Africa (amongst many countries) and cannot be treated before we really know what it is about.

Of course, the ones who have been subjected to racism know what it is. They’ve had to deal with it ever since they were born, but do we white people in South Africa and beyond have any idea what we are talking about here? I suspect that by and large the answer is no, and that is the problem. There is no diagnosis so we don’t know what to treat. Other problem, of course is that there is not an immediate need to address something that doesn’t hinder your life, and a general attitude which appears to suggest that racism is purely a problem of the receiving end. But racism isn’t just name calling and most of all, the main problem is not your eugeneterrablances, who openly hate, but the closet racist. The ones who basically have no idea how racist they are, because that is how they have been for generations. It’s normalised and a standard practice; a kind of comfort zone.

I am not here to tell how things should be (another convenient sub-disclaimer there), but there must be more open debate and public discourse on what actually is happening on the streets, workplaces and homes of South Africa in this regard. Unfortunately the reality needs to be rubbed on people’s faces for it not to be ignored. Right now the doctor is recommending us some rest when in actual fact we have a life threatening illness. And much like with cancer, the treatment can first make you feel much more sick than you were, but you know that you are going forward, not backward. Racism is everyone’s problem and everyone needs to step up and start addressing it. It needs to be tackled where it happens. It’s not just theory but a practice.

I applaud people like Charles Cilliers, who have realised this and started, what I can only imagine to be rather unpopular action in some circles. The debate must take place both internally within every community and also on a national level. We must rethink the cultures and traditions because the history is a cruel story of intolerance, and therefore useful mainly as a warning example in this regard. The true transformation is for everyone taking action and responsibility, and not waiting for the Government, or anyone else for that matter, to transform us. It is crucially important to acknowledge the history, but while saying sorry might be an appropriate start, this is not a question of apologising the past, but changing the future attitudes in real terms and not just in theory. A headache tablet is not going to cure this cancer.

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