Shared rejection of repulsive video is good news

A series of race-related incidents has had a double effect on South Africans. It reminded us of our worst traits as a people. It also enabled South Africans to confront the scourge of racism together, reminding us how much common ground has been created since 1994. Racism generalises inferiority – and racists love incidents in which others are humiliated. Such incidents reinforce the superiority-inferiority split on which their world view is premised. Yet the repulsive video that emanated from the Reitz men's residence at the University of the Free State elicited overwhelming condemnation by the very groups associated with the 'culture' these students claimed to protect against integration. This should be welcomed. Indeed few were the voices who sought to 'understand' or 'contextualise' their actions. So the Free State incident made terrible news, but our shared rejection of it, good news, writes Fanie du Toit in the Cape Times.

With this incident in mind the Chair of the Human Rights Commission, Jody Kollapen, was reported to have made a fresh call for an apology for apartheid. It is also reported that he claimed that “undue focus was on reconciliation rather than transformation at the dawn of democracy”. Kollapen is one of South Africa's exemplary civic leaders and if this is an accurate quotation, it provides grounds for reflection. Is it true that reconciliation thwarted or diminished transformation – or did it provide a necessary platform for the limited and imperfect transformation we have seen so far?

My view is that the generosity and inclusivity implied by reconciliation politics, together with the hope and optimism that it smuggled into real politics, was not a mistake but a shrewd political strategy to which we can credit the transformational gains we have seen so far. Many individuals remain racist, and we should condemn and criticise every manifestation of this, but the wisdom of reconciliation is for a leadership to accept that people can and will change.

We are not settled enough as a nation to abandon reconciliation as a national priority. It would be a major strategic error, even now.

This is the reason why I agree with Kollapen's other statement, namely that it is not too late to apologise for apartheid. This of course implies – somewhat in tension with Kollapen's doubts about reconciliation politics – that the symbolism of reconciliation has ongoing relevance. But we must pay careful attention to the types of apologies that satisfy victims and those that don not. Australian Prime Minister Paul Rudd's obvious sincerity and compassion, despite having been nowhere near office when atrocities against aborigines were committed, apparently played some role. The victims saw a human being reaching out to them – and it helped. Yet those who were involved in, for example, the 2000 Home for All Campaign in which whites were invited to acknowledge apartheid privilege, remember just how vexed such an exercise can be. It requires exceptional leadership.

If good leadership is part of the solution, could inadequate leadership – political, cultural, institutional and even parental – be part of the problem? Could it be that there are links between resurgent racial tensions and recently recorded diminished public trust in leadership generally, and specifically the leadership of public institutions such as universities and schools? Could it thus be that old prejudices are revived, and group divisions reopened, when people lose trust in leadership and in the institutions which should organise and secure their lives together with others?

I do not intend to blame racism on defective leadership alone, but is there a link? Could the sense of insecurity that results from this leadership gap on issues of reconciliation further fuel racism? Could the brazen lawlessness with which we all drive our cars, for example, or the disdain with which we treat neighbours in the absence of visible and effective law enforcement, attribute to the creation of an atmosphere which allows racist dinosaurs to breed fresh offspring?

Could it be that parents seize upon chaos, real or perceived, to teach racism to their children as a survival strategy? And ironically, does this make them blind to the fact that racist ideas would virtually ensure the demise of their children, not their survival?

A particularly sad image emanating from the UFS incident was the television pictures of the flimsy, makeshift barricade of plastic chairs and broken branches around the Reitz hostel after the incident. It spoke volumes about the laager mentality in this pocket of Afrikaner youth. It was obvious, even to the casual observer, that this hastily assembled 'wall' would never keep out intruders, that it reflected desperation, deep-seated fear and inability to engage complex realities.

In another deeply upsetting event involving students last week, a group of South African Students Congress (Sasco) students were alleged to have boarded a taxi of hymn-singing fellow students in Limpopo province, forcing them to sing political songs instead. When some refused, a scuffle ensued, resulting in one of the students from the religious group being beaten to death and the body dropped from a window of the moving vehicle onto the road. Clearly violent intolerance and the inability to engage across divisions today is no longer the preserve of any one group. It has become a worrying feature in a range of social enclaves across South Africa.

It is to the credit of the post-apartheid government that they have managed, within our deeply divided society, to build some measure of political and institutional middle ground which South Africans trusted to look after their interests while they 'unlearn' their racist past. This task now needs new dedication and leadership.

The UFS incident should strengthen the resolve of leaders of universities and schools to build common ground rather than tolerate social and cultural ghettos on their campuses. Institutions of learning need to be absolutely resolute in creating opportunities for honest and open engagement without any option to hide behind delusional barricades. The event also challenges parents who claim that the youth should not be confronted with lessons from the past. It seems that, unless we learn deliberately and systematically from our past, we will inevitably repeat its mistakes.

We need to remind ourselves that transformation, imperfect as it is, has gained irreversible momentum. Nothing a few UFS students do or say can change this momentum, except of course if they can convince the majority of South Africans to loose faith in the wisdom of reconciliation and the leaders who foster it.

* Dr Fanie du Toit is Executive Director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.