Face race head-on

Our problem is not that we talk too much about race – it is that we do not talk about it enough. Recent racial incidents have again prompted some to ask why race is still an issue here. But the only thing surprising about the fact that race is still our major problem is that anyone is surprised. Those who insist that we should have stopped talking about race in 1994 seem to be under the odd impression that to get rid of a system in which one group dominates another is also automatically to end the attitudes it produced. But where has this ever happened? Not in the US, which is debating whether it is ready for a black president almost 150 years after slavery was scrapped and about 40 years after black people in the south gained their civil rights. Not in Australia, where parliament has finally apologised to the country's original inhabitants for the wrongs done to them ages after formal discrimination ended. Nor, indeed, anywhere else. So why are we surprised that the attitudes that sustained apartheid are still with us? asks Steven Friedman in Business Day.

Despite a tendency to lump together all incidents that confirm that race is still our central divide, we can, at the risk of generalising, group racial attitudes here into two types – those that justified domination and those that reacted to it.

If people are used to seeing their group monopolise top jobs in government, business and the professions, many are likely to ignore the fact that this is a result of discrimination and to believe it is because only they know how to perform skilled tasks. This explains why people assume that electricity outages must be caused by promoting black people, or why so many businesses are still unhappy about allowing black people to take real responsibility.

It is also why the deep-rooted white fear that things go wrong when black people are in charge is still very much with us. And it is this that explains the wave of gloom sweeping the country. Because many white people believe that a black-ruled country must come unstuck, setbacks are invariably seen not as problems but as harbingers of inevitable disaster.

Black reaction to being dominated takes many forms – inevitably, not all are productive. But, where black people get together to fight discriminatory attitudes, this is, in principle, not a problem but a potential solution. Yes, a history of race domination can be used for personal advancement, to deflect criticism and deny accountability. But, where black people are still on the receiving end of prejudices, to form organisations in which those who experience this problem try to do something about it does not perpetuate prejudice – it combats it, because we are never going to deal with our inherited attitudes unless we acknowledge them and try to deal with them.

This points to the most important lesson the racial incidents should have taught us – that we need urgently to revive some of the strategies and activities that were in evidence before 1994.

The last years of apartheid saw a host of activities designed to change racial attitudes. The purpose, of course, was to try to prepare white people in particular for an end to minority rule: even the state media joined in to an extent because the National Party was trying to wean voters off the white right wing. In 1994, most of these programmes stopped: those who ran them and the donors who supported them seemed to conclude they had served their purpose.

It is clear now that this was an error. Because the attitudes that underpinned apartheid did not disappear just because the system died, so activities to challenge and seek to change them were needed when we became a democracy and are desperately needed now. Like other societies with a history of racial domination, we will be dealing with racial attitudes and behaviours for decades. But, if we want to minimise their damage, we need to revive and extend the active attempts to combat prejudice that were shelved 14 years ago.

* Dr Steven Friedman is a research associate at Institute for Democracy in South Africa, visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University and a columnist for the national newspaper Business Day.

Original column on the Business Day site