Thursday, March 5, 2009



By Jonathan Jansen
Mar 05, 2009

‘You are playing with fire if you persist in using race to divide’

We raise children to think of themselves as human, but officialdom wants them in categories. IT IS (or should be) every parent’s nightmare. Your child brings home one of those pestilent school forms and asks: “Dad, what should I fill in here? What am I?”

Like many South African parents, we have raised our children to think of themselves as human beings and to defy those ridiculous categories into which apartheid divided the citizens of this country. Until this point, my child had no idea she had to count friends in terms of silly distinctions like “African”, “white” or “ coloured”. From this moment on, she will carry this permanent consciousness that she belongs, according to officialdom, in a block.

I was uneasy, therefore, participating in a recent panel at the US Consulate in Durban for Black History Month. Uneasy because I knew what was going to happen. Wrenching stories were told about the racism of white America, from the lynching of blacks decades ago to DWB (driving while black) arrests in the present day. It is as if nothing changed in that great country, as if whites were inherently evil, as if there was no black president carried into power by a white majority.

While acknowledging the long shadow of racism, I suggested that rigid, racialised thinking carries potentially devastating consequences for children; that they also needed to hear of white-black solidarity in race struggles everywhere, and of black complicity (like homeland and tricameral leaders) in supporting racial rule.

The response was unbelievable: no, this is exactly what whites want — to be consoled, nurtured. This is how Barack Obama became president, by comforting white people who do not want to hear about their racism.

A few days later I appear on another panel, this time a debate organised by the South African Institute of Race Relations on the subject of affirmative action.

As my children would say, “same-oh; same-oh”. Whites are evil; blacks are good. If only whites stopped being evil, blacks would advance. T his in a context where black people run the country and where black millionaires represent the fastest growing demographic shift since the early 1990s.

“I warn you,” I told the Race Relations crowd, “you are playing with fire if you persist in using race and racial categories to divide humans; to impute goodness to one group and evil to another.”

My evidence was Rwanda, where stories of evil Tutsis were broadcast repeatedly until “cockroaches” were exterminated at the end of a Hutu blade, almost a million in three months. My evidence is Germany under National Socialism .

I fear that as the gap continues to increase between rich and poor , and frustration explodes among the poor, we will again look for scapegoats. We will turn on each other in hatred — black foreigners the one day, whites the next. You already see the start of a descent into tribalism. “Mvume Dandala is Pondo” is no longer a whispering campaign. The emotional defence that “ Zuma is being blocked because he’s Zulu ” has been planted for a while.

South Africa needs leaders who are not imprisoned by racial hurt or racial inferiority; men and women who can define their interests, and that of the country, not in terms of race and ethnicity but in terms of ambitions such as hope and change.

One way to do this is to insist the government distributes public goods on the basis of socio-economic status rather than race.

Since most of the poor are black, there would be no need to use racial tags to achieve equity. Since some of the poor are white, the growing bitterness towards our government will begin to erode. Since the focus is on the poor, the black and white fat cats will no longer be able to use “race” to advance themselves.

There is another thing we can do. Start a civil disobedience campaign in which we all refuse to fill out forms that demean citizens.