Thursday, March 22, 2007

Freedom From Racism: A Fundamental Human Right

Freedom from racism - a fundamental human right

By President Thabo Mbeki
President of the Republic of South Africa
Reprinted From the ANC Today
Friday, March 16, 2007

Two days before the publication of the next edition of this journal, our country will celebrate Human Rights Day, March 21st, bestowed to the nation by the patriots who were massacred at Sharpeville on this day in 1960. I am therefore pleased to dedicate this Letter to the forthcoming Human Rights Day, which, from all points of view, is one of our most important public holidays. I genuinely hope that all South Africans, black and white, will make a special effort to attend the public events that have been organised to celebrate this pre-eminent day on our national calendar.

Truly to honour our Human Rights Day, and to address a pressing challenge, this Letter discusses an issue that was central to our liberation struggle, that informs the content of the continuing national reconstruction and development process, and remains central to the entrenchment of human rights in our country - the elimination of racism and racial discrimination.

While it is true that our movement has set itself the task to ensure that our country achieves this goal, we must also remember that this, together with the non-sexism we discussed on our last Letter, is one of the national objectives prescribed by our Constitution. The Founding Provisions in the Constitution identify non-racialism and non-sexism among the values on which the democratic Republic is and must be founded.


In the last edition of ANC TODAY we recalled remarks we had made during our response to the National Assembly debate on the State of the Nation Address on 15 February 2007, discussing the transformation of the South African mind. In that response at the National Assembly, I also drew attention to comments made by the leaders of the opposition parties, the Freedom Front +, and the Democratic Alliance, Pieter Mulder and Tony Leon respectively, which comments are directly relevant to the discussion in our country about "change or the absence of change in our minds".

Dr Mulder said: "We do not know each other and do not debate with each other. Two minute speeches from this (parliamentary) podium are not debates." Mr Leon said: "as a nation we should spend more time listening to each other, and not be too quick to judge as illegitimate the concerns and expressions of any group."

Perhaps the one issue on which we do not spend enough time listening to one another, the challenge we should debate honestly and fearlessly, is the scourge of racism that permeates so much of the fabric of our society. The favourite words used to close down and prohibit any discussion on racism in our country are - 'don't play the race card'! It is also argued that such discussion is inimical to the task to achieve national reconciliation.

However, the fact of the matter is that racism remains a daily feature of our lives, a demon that must be exorcised, precisely to achieve national reconciliation, which must be confronted openly and on a sustained basis, if we are to achieve the Constitutional imperative of a non-racial society, as we must.


Recently I was privileged to receive a report prepared by a group of independent investigators who had been asked to assess the cause of a labour dispute, as well as conflicts within management, in one South African company. In truth it is some of the content of this report that convinced me of the need to address the issue of racism in this Letter.

The report says that one of the white managers affected by the investigation, Mr X, "admitted that he and other white managers used the term 'kaffir' generally in the everyday conversation, and he saw nothing wrong with this. However he always made certain that he did not use this word when Africans were present, and also avoided calling anybody 'kaffir' to their face. Another manager sometimes flattened his nose with his finger as a derogatory reference to Africans."

Others said that Mr X "had referred to the national flag as a 'kaffir' flag. He had described March 1st last year, the day for our last local elections, as the 'kaffir stem dag', a day for 'kaffirs' to vote, and vote for a 'kaffir' government. Those who went to vote, and therefore did not come to work, would be marked as having been absent from work."

Mr X said he browsed "Internet sites that argued that God is for whites. He also refers to Africans as 'kusiete', Cushites, or 'edomiete', Edomites, which are Biblical references interpreted as referring to Africans and non-Jewish people of the Middle East.

Mr X had freely discussed his beliefs with other white managers, including "his interest in social history. The discussions covered many topics including the potential for a massive Black on Black civil war in South Africa in which poor Blacks would rise up against the black elite."

The report says that the African workers "fear Mr X, who always threatens to fire them, and does not listen or care for them. Failure to take action against Mr X for his racist remarks could well raise the levels of conflict and dissatisfaction amongst workers and lead to further disruptions at the workplace."

This account tells the story that racism is alive and well at the workplace. It tells the story that this racism does not just amount to bad language, to which we must be opposed. It has a direct, negative material impact on the lives of our people, especially the working people, communicating the message that apartheid is not dead. It is not something we should put out of sight, and therefore out of mind, by responding to all attempts to confront it as "playing the race card".


I will now turn to another account about contemporary South Africa, which was conveyed to me verbally. Not long ago, one of my African colleagues in government, Mr A, bought and moved into a house in the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg. After some time, the only other African who lived on this street, Mr B, paid a courtesy call, to welcome Mr A to the neighbourhood.

During this visit he informed Mr A that one of the white neighbours, Mr C, and his family, were very concerned and uneasy that Mr A and his family has moved into the neighbourhood. Mr C had inquired from Mr B, who had lived on the street for some time, whether he knew Mr A, explaining that he and his family had been asking themselves the question - since they are Black, how do we know they are kosher - how do we know they are not criminals!

However, I must also say that subsequently, Mr C, a native white South African, visited the newly-arrived Mr A. In the end, he felt that during this first 90-minute encounter with Mr A, he had learnt so much of which he had not been aware about our country and government, that he had to invite Mr A and his wife to join his family over dinner at his house to continue their conversation. Now he felt that the rest of his family, and indeed other South Africans, also needed to be exposed to what the "A" family had to say.


In the period immediately preceding the transition in 1994, our movement grappled constantly with the phenomenon in our country then characterised as "white fears". President Nelson Mandela again addressed this issue in his Political Report to the 50th National Conference of the ANC in 1997, saying: "The prophets of doom have re-emerged in our country. In 1994, these predicted that the transition to democracy would be attended by a lot of bloodshed...

"(Now) their task is to spread messages about an impending economic collapse, escalating corruption in the public service, rampant and uncontrollable crime, a massive loss of skills through white emigration and mass demoralisation among the people either because they are white and therefore threatened by the ANC and its policies which favour black people, or because they are black and consequently forgotten because the ANC is too busy protecting white privilege.

"A massive propaganda campaign has been conducted on the issue of crime, in many instances without any regard and respect for the truth. We will ourselves discuss this matter because of our own serious concern radically to bring down the levels of crime. However, what is necessary is that anybody genuinely committed to this goal should make an objective study of this problem and avoid the serious distortions which result from this exploitation of this issue for partisan political purposes.

"Such a study for example will show that for Johannesburg, murder, attempted murder and culpable homicide taken together, have been declining steadily since 1994. Facts and figures actually disprove the notion that there has been a rapid escalation of these crimes and confirm that we inherited the high levels of these crimes from the apartheid system."

We returned to the issue of "white fears" seven years later in a 'Letter from the President' in ANC TODAY, Volume 4, No 9, 5-11 March 2004, entitled: "Voters will not be swayed by fear or fiction". Among other things we said:

"The fear-factor has long been a feature of white politics in our country. For long periods, this section of our population has been subjected to the unimaginable terrors of 'die swart gevaar' and 'die rooi gevaar', the 'black' and 'red' dangers... The danger of an imaginary one-party state that is now being used to frighten our electorate is nothing but a variation on the same theme. The 'gevaar' is cloaked in different words. It remains the same 'gevaar' nevertheless.

"Interestingly, the use of fear is totally alien to the liberation movement and to liberation politics. Freedom from fear is a necessary part of the range of objectives of those who fight for freedom...

"Historically, it may be that those accustomed to living in a world of fear have always found it difficult to believe that those they defined as a threat could ever see them as part of a new world of hope, enjoying freedom from fear...Thus, even in changed circumstances, such as ours, when time and practice have proved that the phobias of the past were mere phobias, those used to frightening themselves or being frightened by others, would not find it too difficult to revert to the accustomed world of fear of the future."


As Nelson Mandela observed in 1997, we have continued to express our own serious concern radically to bring down the levels of crime, and have consistently acted to achieve this result. The fact of unacceptably high levels of crime in our country is not in dispute. Nevertheless, in the light of what follows, none among us should be surprised when, as is customary, those who are determined to avoid confronting the difficult issues we raise in this Letter, seek to divert attention away from discussing the relationship between racism and the perception of crime, by falsely and dishonestly claiming that I am trying to deny or minimise the seriousness of the incidence of crime in our country.

The matter we seek to discuss, in the context of the struggle to create a non-racial society, is what Nelson Mandela identified as the phenomenon of the re-emergence of the prophets of doom, who "spread messages about...rampant and uncontrollable crime", conducting "a massive propaganda campaign...on the issue of crime, in many instances without any regard and respect for the truth." The question to ask is - why did this happen then, and why does it continue to happen now?

The answer is suggested by the question posed by the Mr C we mentioned above, who asked, anxiously - since they are Black, how do we know they are kosher! That answer lies in the deeply entrenched racism that has convinced Mr X that Africans are Cushites and Edomites, who have since time immemorial, been repudiated by a God who is only a God of the Whites.


The United States (US) has a long head-start relative to us, regarding the issue of racism and crime. All of us would do well to study US experience in this regard, especially the public discourse that has simultaneously sought to address both the incidence of crime and the manner in which racism feeds off this issue.

For instance in this regard, in 2000, Manning Marable, Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, published an article entitled, "Racism, Prisons, and the Future of Black America". Among other things he said:

"For a variety of reasons, rates of violent crime, including murder, rape, and robbery, increased dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of this increase occurred in urban areas. By the late 1970s, nearly one half of all Americans were afraid to walk within a mile of their homes at night...

"Politicians like Richard M. Nixon, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan began to campaign successfully on the theme of 'Law and Order'. The death penalty, which was briefly outlawed by the Supreme Court, was reinstated. Local, state, and federal expenditures for law enforcement rose sharply.

"Behind much of anti-crime rhetoric was a not-too-subtle racial dimension, the projection of crude stereotypes about the link between criminality and black people. Rarely did these politicians observe that minority and poor people, not the white middle class, were statistically much more likely to experience violent crimes of all kinds...

"The driving ideological and cultural force that rationalised and justifies mass incarceration is the white American public's stereotypical perceptions about race and crime. As Andrew Hacker perceptively noted in 1995, 'Quite clearly, 'black crime' does not make people think about tax evasion or embezzling from brokerage firms. Rather, the offences generally associated with blacks are those ...involving violence.' A number of researchers have found that racial stereotypes of African Americans -as 'violent', 'aggressive',
'hostile' and 'short-tempered' - greatly influence whites' judgments about crime."

More recently, on 22 May 2005, the Boston Globe newspaper carried an article by Christopher Shea, in which he said that UCLA Law Professor, Jerry Kang, "argued in the Harvard Law Review this spring, that obsessive coverage of urban crime by local television stations is one of the engines driving lingering racism in the United States. So counterproductive is local broadcast news, he says, that it is time the FCC (the governmental Federal Communications Commission), stopped using the number of hours a station devotes to local news as evidence of the station's contribution to the 'public interest'...Far from contributing to the public interest, Kang argues, local news, with its parade of images of urban criminality, serves as a 'Trojan Horse' or 'virus' keeping racism alive in the American mind."


With regard to the foregoing, the fact of the matter is that we still have a significant proportion of people among the white minority, but by no means everybody who is white, that continues to live in fear of the black, and especially African majority. For this section of our population, that does not "find it too difficult to revert to the accustomed world of fear of the future", every reported incident of crime communicates the frightening and expected message that - the kaffirs are coming!

The colleague in government to whom I referred, Mr A, posed the rhetorical question - why are the Whites so determined to frighten themselves! The answer of course is that they have taken no such decision. Rather, the problem is that entrenched racism dictates that justification must be found for the persisting white fears of "die swart gevaar".

All incidents of crime, preferably broadcast as loudly as possible, provide such justification, as have other issues, such as those mentioned by Nelson Mandela in 1997, and as the impending victory of the ANC in 2004 was used to incite white fears that our movement was about to establish a one-party state!

As we observed earlier in this Letter, Dr Mulder said: "We do not know each other and do not debate with each other. Two minute speeches from this podium are not debates." Mr Leon said: "as a nation we should spend more time listening to each other, and not be too quick to judge as illegitimate the concerns and expressions of any group."

As we celebrate Human Rights Day, it remains to be seen whether we have the will to know one another and to debate with one another; whether we are willing to spend more time listening to one another, educating ourselves not be too quick to judge as illegitimate the concerns and expressions of any group; and whether we have the courage to engage in a truth and reconciliation process even with regard to the challenge of openly confronting the cancer of deeply dehumanising racist stereotypes that developed over many centuries.

The resolve to educate ourselves to not be too quick to judge as illegitimate the concerns and expressions of any group must include not being too quick to judge as illegitimate the concerns and expressions of the African people, the historic victims of racism, who remain deeply disturbed that some in positions of power still think it is normal to speak of them as "kaffirs", and others among our white compatriots think that it is natural to ask the question - since they are Black, how do we know they are not criminals!


The website carries a moving letter written by a young, 22-year-old, African professional, Bonga Bangani, who worked as an intern at the Investec offices in Cape Town. He wrote this letter out of frustration at the racism he experienced in this branch of one of our major financial institutions. Knowing that this might get him into trouble at the workplace, he said:

"Losing my job over issues that I feel strongly about is the least of my concerns, as unemployment, crime and poverty have been a part of my life since the day I was born. I was born and bred in a black South African township. I'm not ashamed to say that because it's part of my history and my history is part of who I am. However, despite all those obstacles, I've managed to get myself to where I am today - working for the Investec Treasury and Specialised division - an achievement I'm very proud of."

Bonga goes on to say: "The truth is that our democracy is still young. We don't fully understand one another (black and white) because we've been segregated for so long; we probably don't trust one another enough because we're not sure of each other's intentions. The only way that could solve this is by interacting with one another and by cleansing ourselves from the stereotypes we have about each other. The one thing we all have to accept is that for as long as we live in this country, we're stuck with each other and the sooner we learn to accept each others' differences and start treating each other with mutual respect and fairness, the sooner we will get to understanding each other and working towards a common goal and living in a South Africa in which our families and children can prosper and live in peace & harmony with one another. A South Africa in which the benefits of diversity (that are currently being missed by most SA corporates) would be realised. That's if we're willing to do so. I sure hope Investec Cape Town is willing to go in that same direction someday."

There can be no better message to all of us as we celebrate Human Rights Day than these very wise words from a young African professional in his early twenties. The historic task to build a non-racial democracy, to achieve social and national cohesion, to advance the goal of national reconciliation, to secure the human rights of all our people, black and white, demands that all of us must answer the question honestly - did all of us, including the corporations, really listen when young Bonga Bangani dared to speak out to communicate to all of us the dreams of our youth for a new South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it, united in their diversity!

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