DOCUMENTS

Race relations: a reality check - and a warning

John Kane-Berman says that if those trying to rekindle race-antagonism succeed, South Africa will pay a terrible price

Despite apartheid, and despite the racially discriminatory legislation introduced by the African National Congress (ANC), race relations in South Africa are actually better than might appear from the recent storm in the media following Penny Sparrow's notorious remarks about blacks on beaches.   

A nationwide opinion survey recently commissioned by the South African Institute of Race Relations found that most people thought race relations had improved since 1994. It also found that unemployment was seen as ten times more serious a problem than racism: only 4.4% of the sample of 2 245 South Africans cited racism as an unresolved problem, against 46.5% who thought unemployment was the most serious problem. The results of the survey, which will shortly be published in full, are consistent with one conducted for the Institute 15 years ago by Professor Lawrence Schlemmer.

But Schlemmer, who died in 2011, warned that if political leaders and analysts worked hard enough to "re-politicise race", they might succeed. South Africa was "a brittle society and if race antagonism is rekindled its people will pay a terrible price in loss of investor confidence and economic growth".

Schlemmer would have been delighted to see the universal repudiation of Sparrow's remarks. As City Press commented in an editorial, "the backlash against the racist comments was immense".  Even Gillian Schutte, a newspaper columnist who seems to think all whites are racist, admitted that they had been "outraged" by what Sparrow said.

But Schlemmer would have been horrified at the anti-white sentiment that has become so prevalent in all types of media. After conducting an analysis of Facebook and Twitter messages, the FW de Klerk Foundation thus reported that "by far the most virulent and dangerous racism – expressed in the most extreme and violent language - has come from disaffected black South Africans. The messages are replete with threats to kill all whites". The New Age dismissed this as "twaddle", but William Saunderson-Meyer in The Citizen reached the same conclusions as the foundation.

And unlike the backlash against Sparrow, there has been a loud silence on the anti-white remarks. Action was taken against a black Gauteng provincial employee who incited genocide against whites. His remarks were also repudiated by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. But these were exceptions to the fact that very few of those who wrote lengthy articles attacking anti-black racism had anything to say about anti-white racism. Many commentators - white as well as black - said whites have racism in their DNA or "inner being", while some argued that it was impossible for blacks to be racist.  

The sophistry went even further. Acknowledging that actual racist remarks or behaviour on the part of whites were rare, some commentators said their racism was so subtle or embedded that they weren't even aware of it. It was also "veiled" and "camouflaged", not to mention "synonymous with moderate liberalism". FW de Klerk is accused of being the architect of something called "racism without racists", nogal. To make matters worse, whites exhibit "a kind of colour-blind racism", while also adhering since the industrial revolution to an ideology called "whiteness" which has had "too much influence" over the ANC. There's even now a species of "enlightened racists" around the place, although white racism is also an "original sin" - which means that Adam and Eve must have been the first racists.

To use the words of The New Age, this is all "twaddle". But it also dangerous because it provides supposedly respectable intellectual cover for the unleashing of racist vitriol against whites. The Institute's recent survey in fact found that while 60% of Africans think race relations have improved since 1994, only a third of whites, Asians/Indians, and coloured people agree. Between 41% and 45% of the minority groups think race relations have actually worsened (most of the balance believing there has been no change). The fact that the minorities are on the wrong end of affirmative action legislation may be the reason for their perceptions that race relations have deteriorated.

The Institute's recent survey nevertheless found that 79% of all South Africans said they experienced no racism. This is a blunt repudiation by ordinary people of all those middle-class "opinion-leaders" in the media and politics who are trying to whip up a frenzy about anti-black racism.  

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations.