The Fault Lines of Reconciliation - Why South Africans URGENTLY Need to Develop Racial Literacy
Updated: Jun 9, 2022
There are many things for which I wish I could take up a national podium and make a public service announcement (PSA) to white South Africans. But since I do not have that as yet, let me just put it in writing.
PSA 1: As a Person of Colour, and particularly as a black woman, I really do not enjoy talking about race. I do not like talking about, thinking about, petitioning about, writing about, crying about, protesting about or debating about the effects of racism on my and others lives. It is not a pleasant conversation for me. I do not want to weaponise my race – because I cannot do so without severe cost and consequences to others within my race group. I do not want your race to be weaponised against me, I do not want race to be a factor in my ability to access basic human dignity and societal amenities. If I could, I would ignore race completely, and just live my life. I would much rather prefer to take my [unborn] children to school without drama, look after my family without drama, get a job without drama, and I would definitely prefer to engage on much more frivolous subjects such as my favourite teas, weekend farmer’s markets and the flower arrangements for the next office party.
I really do wish though that race did not matter. I really wish that we could all just be the human race, no White, no Black, no Coloured, no Indian, just people. Genuinely, if I could choose between a racialised and a non-racialised society, I would absolutely choose to live in a non-racialised society.
The reality, however, is that I cannot ignore race and its consequences on my life, in the same way that I cannot ignore my gender and the way in which being a woman in an anti-woman world has shaped me. I cannot walk around pretending that people do not make assumptions about my intellect, my ability, my exposure, my background and ultimately my inherent right to dignity, all on the basis of how I physically appear and the history that comes with this physical appearance of being black and woman. I cannot ignore the fact that because I won neither the racial, nor the gender lottery, I would always have to prove myself as worthy and capable while my white and/or male counterparts already had an assumption of competence that follows them wherever they go. It is this complication that starts to mirror the fault lines in our society.
What is a fault line? In Geography, a fault line is ‘’a break or fracture in the ground that occurs when the Earth's tectonic plates move or shift and is an area where earthquakes are likely to occur.”
I remember learning about fault lines in high school geography, I was quite good at the theoretical part of geography and I had two favourite sections: the part where we learned about the clouds and the part about volcanoes, mountains and earthquakes. One of my favourite lessons in Geography, was when we learned about what happens to the environment after a volcanic eruption. One particular lesson always stuck with me. It was the class where we were taught that the volcanic ash often nourishes the soil and releases all kinds of elements and nutrients into it. I found this both fascinating and scary - that something that could literally kill us in seconds, could over a slightly longer period of time, nourish us as well.
In social terms, a fault line is “a divisive issue or difference of opinion that is likely to have serious consequences.” In South Africa, our fault line is race, and specifically racial illiteracy. I am of the opinion, that without a well-developed racial literacy, that is actually defined by the people who suffer the consequences of racial illiteracy, South Africa’s reconciliation project will remain a bad joke at best, and the greatest scam of the struggle at worst.
Over the last few years, South Africa has seen repeated allegations against various schools, and most of the time, these ‘incidents of racism’ have taken place at formerly white or ex-Model C schools, and private schools – which often tend to have a majority white teaching staff body. As these incidents repeat themselves, quite scarily, almost like scheduled calendar events, our society and social media erupts in outrage for a week or so and then we all move on to the next flavour of the month.
“What was that teacher thinking, they should be fired?!”
“Surely we don’t still have racism and racists in 2019?!”
“But what if the teacher split up the classroom along language lines?”
“That teacher may be racist, but the school is not racist!”
“It’s not racism, nobody was called the K-word!”
“Black people are too quick to ‘pull the race card’, why are you always so sensitive?”
“If black people don’t want to deal with such racism, they must go and build their own schools!”
This is just a partial summary of some of the comments I have heard and read over the last while following allegations of racism against various schools. These comments come from people across the board, not just one specific group. These comments also belie our deep illiteracy and inability to think about racism in more nuanced, more systemic terms. As much as I think accountability is important for adults (like teachers) who are in a position of authority and custodianship over the children entrusted to them, I think it is a shame on us as a society every time we choose to scapegoat a teacher who we believe has displayed racism without sufficiently interrogating the entire machinery of the system that makes it possible for that teacher to be or do or say whatever is alleged. It is so telling on us as a society, when we say, yes, that one person is racist, when actually a systems of beliefs, norms, institutions and practices has already normalised the indignity of bodies of colour and affirmed the inherent dignity of white bodies.
What do I mean by this? I am talking about the fact that it does not take much for us to see why blatant racism actively persists in formerly white-only schools. Possibly one of the best lies we have been told in the last 25 years, which at some stage most of us have believed and accepted, is that diversity equals transformation. To borrow from the words of Panashe Chigumadzi, we have collectively bought into the “add blacks and stir” recipe which helps us sleep decently for a most of the 365 days of the year. We have somehow convinced ourselves that if we have more people of colour in an environment, if we can cosmetically showcase change in the physical make-up of the school (i.e. diversity), then somehow we are let off the hook and do not have to do any real institutional work to change the culture and the norms of the environment – which is where the real hard work of transformation actually takes place.
What recent events have shown us is that a school in South Africa will still tell African girls in Africa that they cannot wear their hair the way it grows out of their heads; our schools will still tell Muslim children that they cannot wear their hijabs, it will still vilify children for speaking their own languages whether it be Afrikaaps, Xhosa or kasi-taal – all this in favour of a universalism that is deeply invested in forcing these learners into the assimilation of what is considered civilised, western and ultimately white.
It is precisely because we have confused transformation with diversity, equity with rainbowism and freedom with democracy that we sit in this current quagmire. Surely the liberation struggle was not purely so that people of colour can share toilets, taps and shopping mall entrances with white people? Surely, it wasn’t about giving people of colour ‘permission’ to enter ‘white’ spaces?
To be clear: Diversity IS NOT transformation. The rainbow nation ideal cannot be the proxy for equity in society. Democracy, I hate to say it, IS NOT freedom.
PSA 2: White people tend to forget that people of colour (PoC), and black people specifically, actually know white people better than white people think they know PoC. I dare say, that people of colour actually know white people better than white people know themselves. For centuries, we have served in their houses, we have raised their children, we have cleaned and farmed for them, we have travelled with them, we have worshipped with them, we have nursed them back to health, we have read their books, watched them, listened to them and fed them. We have fought white people, sometimes we have won, other times we have lost, every time we have learned about how, where and with what white people will choose to fight. We have quickly learned over the years that white people, often do not know how to ‘play nice’ when we’re all on the playground.
People of colour really do know white people. People of colour have observed white people and can differentiate between who they are, what they do and how they actually want to be perceived. And we know exactly what to do to fit in with you, to sound like you, to act like you, to be accepted by you. And we know exactly what will outrage you, what will scare you, what will draw you in vulnerably and what will alienate you. We can assimilate and integrate to be like you.
On the contrary, white people do not know us, at least not as well as people of colour know them. White people have not had nearly as many opportunities to get to know people of colour as intimately, with a gaze that is not condescending or imbued with social and economic power. White people, as a collective, have never had to experience and observe people of colour from a position of oppression.
It is this racial ignorance and illiteracy that has continuously jeopardised and deepened the fault lines of reconciliation in this country.
PSA 3: Dear white people, please do not trust the dictionary definition of racism. Dictionaries may be good for helping us get a very basic understanding of a word, but they are not substantive enough to define something as complex and as violent as racism. Also, let us please acknowledge that the majority of dictionaries have been written by white men, who are DEEPLY invested in simplifying what racism is and minimising its severity, precisely because they are the primary beneficiaries of racism. If we are convinced that racism is simply about not liking someone because of their race, then centuries of colonialism, genocide and epistemicide against non-European populations by Europeans suddenly become equated with even the most polite forms of black resistance to white domination. Nee man, stop it!
I cannot stress enough how important racial literacy is. It is a literacy that is critical for us to function healthily in South African society. I would even go as far as saying that racial literacy is critical for the success of the reconciliation AND restitution project in this country.
In a 2015 article, Sonya Horsford defines racial literacy as, “the ability to understand what race is, why it is, and how it is used to reproduce inequality and oppression.”
This understanding of racial literacy helps us to know what we are talking about when we are talking about racism:
What race is: We have to accept that race was INVENTED. Race is a social construct, it is not something that has always existed, but it has very real consequences for one’s access to education, healthcare, dignity, safety, housing and basic human rights. So yes, race may not be a scientifically useful or meaningful concept, but it is a social reality that has had, and continues to have, life and death implications for people who did not win the racial lottery in a racialised white supremacist world – i.e. people of colour.
It is important for us to accept that racism is not just about disliking somebody because of their skin colour. That is prejudice. Anyone can be prejudiced. Anyone can choose to have a positive or negative bias towards a specific group of people. Anybody can choose to back up their prejudices with actions and discriminate. Discrimination is prejudice plus action. It is when prejudice is backed by discriminatory actions that are sanctioned by legal, institutional, social, religious, economic norms and practices, that we have racism. So you see its not so simple.
Why race is: It is also really important to note and remember that race and racism were invented for and by white people. Race and racism were critical to the facilitation and success of colonial conquest.
When we understand racism, we understand that it is systemic and denotes a set of power dynamics that are in place to ACTIVELY oppress and continue the oppression of certain groups, in favour of upholding and protecting a racial hierarchy that maintains the supremacy of the white race. Without this critical element of institutional power - the superstructure that upholds, maintains and nourishes white supremacy - whiteness loses its currency. This is why actively challenging the normalisation and universalism of whiteness is so important.
PSA 4: Here’s a useful term for racial literacy, this notion of ‘white normalism’. This is the belief, whether conscious or not, that whiteness is “normal” and people of colour are “other”. This sees white values and practices as normal and everything else is considered exotic or weird. This is often why white people see the solution to racism as understanding “other people’s cultures”. White people tend to believe that once they can understand different cultures, that will lead to tolerance and eradicate racism. Often the culture in question to be understood is any other culture that is not considered to be “white culture”.
This is why we need children’s books with main characters from Mitchells Plain, Khayelitsha, Chatsworth and Hillbrow. This is why we need teachers from Mitchells Plain and Gugulethu, getting access to teaching positions in schools in Rondebosch and Sandton, so that children are not primed from such an early age into thinking that people in important positions of leadership and authority can only be white. This is why the meaningful representation of people of colour in all spheres of society is so important. It goes without saying however that representation is not enough. Representation must be followed with transformation.
[Please note, there is a difference between whiteness and white people. You can consult the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre (ACLRC) for more information on this. The ACLRC defines whiteness as “a dominant cultural space with enormous political significance, with the purpose to keep others on the margin. White people are not required to explain to others how ‘white' culture works, because ‘white' culture is the dominant culture that sets the norms. Everybody else is then compared to that norm.”
White people can benefit from the power and set of normative privileges offered by whiteness without actively choosing to do so. Whiteness is only ever damaging to black people, but individual black people can however choose to be invested in whiteness where they are able to reap some residual benefits for themselves].
How race is used: This is the point at which South Africans get stuck. Mandela got out of prison, Black, Coloured, Asian and Indian South Africans got the vote, children of all races can now go to school together and play together. Legally, we are now all equal, racism is dead, and the church said, AMEN! Well no, not quite. This is where the argument around genuine transformation becomes relevant.
Assuming that 50% of our new hires at work are people with a physical disability who need the assistance of a wheelchair to move around, and our office building only had staircases, how many of us would assume that our workplace is friendly for these people simply because we hired them? We would find this absurd! How do you expect people with physical disabilities to be comfortably mobile in the workplace if there are not even minor changes to the design of their working space?
The post-1994 settlement should have never been about letting people of colour into the door, precisely because it was never for white people to tell us where we can and cannot be. In Europe maybe, but definitely not in Africa. Freedom was never theirs to give. The post-1994 project should have been about actively revamping the cultural and institutional architecture of our society, so that the new office environment would be exactly that, new; and we could all start building a new culture together. Defining a new language for ourselves, defining a new economic order, defining new residential areas, new schools and schooling identities and maybe possibly eradicating racial categories altogether. The ‘rainbowism’ that we settled for since 1994 made the sacrifices that brought us to 1994 way too cheap. Rainbowism continues to focus on the parts of multi-culturalism that are comfortable for a white minority. Simultaneously, rainbowism is not trying to address structural inequality, rather it dismisses the lived experiences of people of colour.
This is the hard part about transformation. No one gets to keep everything they started with when we embark on a transformational journey.
Suddenly, after 1994, all the people who voted for the National Party for decades disappeared? We know they live among us, they are our friends’ parents and grandparents, they are our CEOs today, our senior teachers, our countryside mechanics, our ex-soldiers and military strategists etc. Why was there no social rehabilitation process for them? People traded camouflage uniform in the bush and in exile for oversized suits for parliament, when instead at least 100% of Members of Parliament (MPs) should have been treated on an ongoing basis for Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) given what was suffered by them and their families during apartheid and its associated violence.
PSA 5: Here is one lesson that is so critical for racial literacy: racism is not a moment or an event, it is a system. Racism is not an incident, and every time we talk about a ‘racist incident’ we isolate an individual who actually is doing what their entire life journey, in a context like South Africa and the racialised society around them, has been priming them to do all along. Do we realise how so very possible it is for a white person in South Africa, to go through their whole life without having any intimate and genuine relationship of equality with, or direct leadership from a black person? By this I mean, it is very possible for white people in South Africa, to curate their lives in such a way that they do not have to have genuine and meaningful relationships with Black friends, they do not have to have Coloured mentors, they do not have to have Indian religious leaders or community leaders, they can go through their entire lives knowing only black people who are in subservience to them (domestic workers, gardeners, casual labourers etc.) and having only distant black role models like Nelson Mandela [and unfortunately even his legacy has been whitewashed and watered down to suit the liberal rainbowist narrative].
Robin DiAngelo, sociologist and critical race theorist, captures this beautifully in her latest book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism:
“The most profound message of racial segregation may be that the absence of people of colour from our lives is no real loss. Not one person who loved me, guided me, or taught me ever conveyed that segregation deprived me of anything of value. I could live my entire life without a friend or loved one of colour and not see that as a diminishment of my life. In fact, my life trajectory would almost certainly ensure that I had few, if any, people of colour in my life. I might meet a few people of colour if I played certain sports in school, or if there happened to be one or two persons of colour in my class, but when I was outside of that context, I had no proximity to people of colour, much less any authentic relationships. Most whites who recall having a friend of colour in childhood rarely keep these friendships into adulthood. Yet if my parents had thought it was valuable to have cross-racial relationships, they would have ensured that I had them, even if it took effort—the same effort so many white parents expend to send their children across town so they can attend a better (whiter) school. Pause for a moment and consider the profundity of this message: we are taught that we lose nothing of value through racial segregation. Consider the message we send to our children—as well as to children of colour—when we describe white segregation as good.”
Ed Greeff in a Facebook post last Thursday suggested:
“Teachers, particularly white ones, should undergo intensive training on how to deal with the race dynamic in SA. It is so glaringly obvious that this is necessary. Teachers are trained to teach science and maths, but they are not trained to deal with racism, let alone confronting their own racism or the manner in which racism has impacted them. Understanding racism as a system, the concepts of race itself, whiteness and the effects of colonialism should be prerequisites for attaining a teaching qualification. Teachers should have to pass an exam on Critical Race Theory and undergo subliminal bias tests.”
I would take Ed’s suggestion a step further and say that civil servants in this country especially require this level of training. Teachers, nurses, doctors, immigration and police officers all need to have critical race theory at the very least as part of their basic training to fulfil their work duties. You cannot work in this country and say you are part of building its future if you cannot navigate racial waters and how this intersects with so many other arenas of social power.
As a police officer, it is important to be aware that you have implicit biases, specifically directed against Coloured and Black men and that that has implications for the policing, and ultimate militarisation, of our townships. It is important for police officers to know that they are programmed by society not to believe black womxn about the experiences they have on their own bodies, and so that means they have a higher propensity to doubt and dismiss victims of rape and sexual assault.
It is important that nurses and doctors understand their own racial prejudices when dealing with Black and Coloured women for example and how hard these women must fuss and fight in the public healthcare system in order to access ordinary pain medicine, precisely because black women are 'Mammified' and stereotyped to be able to withstand more pain than other racial groups.
It is important for teachers to know that you cannot motivate a black child to work harder in class by suggesting they may end up as a Shoprite cashier, a gardener or a domestic worker if they don’t work hard at Maths. Firstly, one in five black women in this country is a domestic worker, so there is a good chance that a black child in this country has a mom, aunt, relative, neighbour or guardian who is in fact a domestic worker. Those same Shoprite cashiers and gardeners that teachers make fun of are people’s parents, grandparents, sisters and loved ones. Secondly, all black people, as in ALL black people in this current South African context, have some sort of proximity to poverty, and it is seldom by choice or because they are lazy; it is often more due to historical-structural barriers like Bantu education that have kept multiple generations of Black people in a cycle of poverty.
If we really want to work towards a society where race no longer matters, where the human race can flourish, then we need to invest actual time, energy and effort into doing the work of designing a racial literacy for South Africans. We have to do the hard work of creating a new vocabulary for ourselves to talk about race in constructive, truthful and historically accurate ways.
In the same way that everybody knows the South Africanisms of ‘Heita-Daar’, ‘Ja-Nee’, ‘Yho!’ and so many other words, our choice of words when we talk about race must reflect both our reality and the ideal future state that we are trying to build.
We should not underestimate the power of language and racial literacy in this nation building project. We do so at our own peril.