A lot has been said about Penny Sparrow’s facebook post that referred to black beachgoers as monkeys but I am wondering if her offensive ranting should not be leading us to ask uncomfortable questions regarding the state of race relations in South Africa. Perhaps what we think is a resurgence of racism is actually a resurfacing of issues we have not fully dealt with.
I see a blessing in disguise in these recent inflammatory and racist comments on social media. Offending as they are, I think they also present us with an opportunity to dig below our pleasantries and pretences and deal with some underlying issues. They are an indicator that we have some deep-seated issues that will simply not self-correct but must be urgently addressed for this country to move forward.
Some people have made calls for the criminalisation of racism but this will have short term benefits. It will only help to drive racism underground but will not rid our society of it. It will muzzle a racist person but will not change his warped mind. Our aim should be the root rather than the fruit and my view is that things go wrong in how some people are raised. The culprit here is found in ideas that have been passed down the generational line and one such is the idea of racial superiority.
This idea provokes two questions in mind. Firstly, what exactly constitutes superiority? What are the measures and standards used to delineate a race as belonging to a higher status in comparison to others? Secondly, are those measures and standards valid? For instance when UCT students voted whites as the most beautiful race what standards or notions of beauty did they use?
JH Oldham in the 1925 book ‘Christianity and the Race Problem’ says: “Viewed from the purely religious standpoint, and in light of eternity, race and nationality are of negligible importance; but from the temporal standpoint and in relation to the course of this world they are of immense significance” (1925:23). The problem then is that many people view things from a temporal standpoint rather than in light of eternity and some of these people are unfortunately also found in the church.
In the Church the problem of racism is swept under the carpet and even when it flares up in the country we continue with business as usual. This should stop because racism is a manifestation of hatred while our calling is that of love. Polish-born American theologian, teacher and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that racism “is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”
This ‘minimum of reason’ is the difference in skin pigmentation and mannerisms. Skin colour is an insignificant thing that has unfortunately been made significant by people who have imbibed wrong thinking. Jesus said from the abundance of the heart a man speaks and therefore racist utterances emanate from a polluted heart. A construction manager in Port Elizabeth lost his job this year because of using the ‘k-word’ against his black co-workers. He rationalised his actions by saying that he had used this racial slur against black people for over 60 years which means he has lost the ability to appreciate its wrongfulness.
Judging by recent social media commentary it is clear to me that black people are also at risk of rationalising this kind of abhorrent behaviour. For instance many of us were shocked by a facebook post of Velaphi Khumalo an employee of the Gauteng Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation Department that expressed strong racial antipathy against SA’s whites.
Velaphi called for black South Africans to do to white people what “Hitler did to the Jews.” He said he believed all white people were racist and that the country should be rid of them. This to me looks like a different side of the same coin. The church has the answer to this issue but the question now is: how long will we remain silent?