I took my kids to a waterslide several times during the recent holidays. It was a sunny, splashy place with families soaking up Vitamin D while burning off energy, and not an Xbox in sight. On one such excursion I saw two boys of around 10, of different colours, careening through a welter of white water, their legs locked together. They squealed with joy, not just because of the tumult of water and sound, but because one was making fart-noises with his armpit as they cascaded into the pool at the end of the slide.
It was a vignette of pure, innocent delight and a refreshing counterpoint to the spewing of racist bile and reactionary outrage on social media at the time, but it got me thinking. The problem isn’t just the residual racism of our society, but what it leads to.
It’s distasteful enough that Penny Sparrow and Nicole de Klerk call black people collectively and individually monkeys and kaffirs, that @Juphter Tweets that “Chris Hart and all his family need to be killed for disrespecting the majority and insulting the sons and daughters of the soil” and that Gauteng Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation Department staffer Velaphi Khumalo calls for Hitler-style ethnic cleansing. Just so we’re clear, Khumalo said white people should be skinned alive and their kids used as fertiliser.
So far, so bigoted, but what’s more worrying is the trajectory on which these puerile sentiments launch us. If someone denigrates blacks or says whites deserve a holocaust, that’s pretty unambiguous. But the ensuing noise drowns out nuance and reason, and also tempts us to not speak our minds and thus to simply jump to conclusions about each other.
Examples: a man scowling while walking toward you may do so because he doesn’t like the colour of your skin, or because he has a sick child at home, or a toothache, or too few Rand-hedged stocks.
A supermarket teller may be glum while serving me because she assumes that because I’m white, I think like Penny Sparrow. More likely it’s because she’s overworked, underpaid and like many of the working poor, is being harassed by mashonisas, or loan-sharks. Neither of us knows the other’s mind and neither of us should assume we do. That uncertainty is a vacuum and so, despite being a nation that came up with biltong, chakalaka, dolosse, the Kreepy Krauly, heart transplants, Nelson Mandela, Nadine Gordimer, Elon Musk, Jonathan Jansen, Thebe Medupe and Hashim Amla, we may just fill that vacuum with assumptions of the worst.
Fear and resentment drive racism, but it’s not just a fear that poor people will take what we middle-class folk have. Nor is it just about historical oppression, nor the cruel indignity of the poor not being able to provide for their families and feeling they have nothing to lose. If we had a completely egalitarian society, we’d probably still have racists on every side of that society, but our tragic history and our current inequities are powerful drivers of resentment.
Just as Hitler would not have risen to power were it not for the hyper-inflation and recession of the Weimar Republic, and the punitive, humiliating reparations after World War One, so a steady growth in prosperity and equality would make SA a fertile place for racial harmony.
A South Africa with the middle-class, colour-blind bonhomie of a Castle Lager ad wouldn’t immediately be free of intergenerational poverty, climate-change-induced drought and ratings-agency downgrades, but it would be on a far better footing to become economically competitive. For a start, it could be in a better position to deal with a Rand that seems intent on challenging the Zimbabwean Dollar for value.
Racism is a vile, insidious little canker: each incidence of it is a butterfly wing-flap that feeds a cloud of suspicion. Each frisson of bigotry risks stifling anything more measured, more complex. Even an anodyne column such as this, written from an acknowledged position of white privilege, risks being labelled as toady colonialist apologism or worse, that Mbeki-esque epithet, white liberalism. Such is the tenor of the debate.
But bigotry, censorship and self-censorship are malignant goblins that feed – and feed on – our overarching threats of poverty, inequality and unemployment. Free speech is a cornerstone of democracy. So say what you think and be prepared to defend it. What passes for social-media debate on racism may have the unintended consequence of us closing our mouths and minds, rather than constructively challenging ourselves and others.
The world needs more multi-hued kids making fart-noises while playing in water and sunlight. It also needs more grown-ups to be comfortable with being uncertain about how others feel about them. It needs more of us taking risks and confounding others’ expectations of us. And it needs more of us to think about why we think what we think.
William Smook is with Meropa Communications in Cape Town. He doesn’t surf enough.