Racism: Invisible shackles with a tangible key

A monthly column by Marcel van der Watt, lecturer in the Department of Police Practice at UNISA, former police detective, and current member of the Gauteng Rapid Response Task Team for Human Trafficking.

Being part of God’s family is a privilege which regularly provides us with small glimpses into our eternal destiny. One of these glimpses that Christians need to share with the world at large is that our final resting place will in fact be a many-hued ensemble of followers coming from all nations. Our Lord does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9) and calls us to go out and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). Our final resting place with God will then see “all nations” bringing their glory and honour into the city of New Jerusalem (Revelations 21:26).

My wife and I have the privilege of singing God’s praises in Zulu, Tswana, Afrikaans, English, Xhosa and even French as we join our fellow brothers and sisters in worship. Every service aims to capture God’s heart for all nations, whilst striving to know Him, and to make Him known. It’s a safe space, by no means perfect, where followers of Christ acknowledge their emptiness without Him. There are no favourites or attitudes of racial superiority. Like a multi-coloured interwoven piece of fabric that provides warmth and shelter, we strive towards unity as we aspire to submit to the Word of God in every aspect of our spiritual journey. We acknowledge that every knee – white and black – will bow before our Lord and Saviour. We agree and we disagree and believe that our individual otherness is part of God’s plan. We choose to harness any complexities that may emerge from our diversity – all to His glory.

Sunday people in a Friday world
However, leaving the confines of a Sunday or midweek church service, or saying goodbye after an awe inspiring family group meeting soon stirs the realisation that we are in fact Sunday people in a Friday world. The world plays by a very different set of rules, standards and convictions and followers of Christ often stand out like a sore thumb as they challenge injustices or deep-rooted notions. Racism, as a form of prejudice and discrimination against someone of a different race, is one such example. An aversion for ‘I’m not racist BUT…….’ conversations, have positioned me at the centre of multiple hostile conversations over the past 15 years. Sadly, I have experienced an increase in such conversations since relocating from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria in 2011. I am certainly not ignorant of the fact that racism, or racial tendencies and slurs cut across all groups in South Africa and realise that no single race group can be isolated as the culprit or the victim. However, as a white male I am inclined to pick up on nuances and subtle racism amongst the ‘entitled’, the embittered and those that are philosophically shackled by the absolute belief that they are wronged. Much of what I observe amongst many of my fellow white South Africans gives credence to John Maxwell’s sentiment that “human nature seems to endow us with the ability to size up everybody in the world except ourselves”. We often have the solutions to crime, corruption and the range of injustices in our midst, yet many of these bright ideas emerge from a boiling pot of prejudice and intolerance. Furthermore, references to ‘they’ as the problem abdicate any responsibility we have as co-authors of the South African narrative. Unfortunately, one does not have to look very far to grasp the extent of this problem. Social media and public commentary on online news websites are saturated with racial slurs and intolerance. This is where the faceless ‘brave’ can be found buffered by ridiculous pseudonyms and cyber confinement. Obsessively musing over the ‘good old days’, their divisive tongues sow discord whilst they falsely claim to represent the views of the ‘oppressed’.

Click banner for more info

A study conducted by Van der Westhuizen (2007) aimed to explore and describe subtle racism amongst undergraduate psychology learners at a tertiary institution in Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality. Van der Westhuizen, a psychologist and sister in Christ, found a persistent pattern of anti-Black sentiment which supports suppositions that transformation of racial attitudes in South Africa may be restricted by deeply entrenched social and psychological divisions and a deep-seated mistrust between races. Van der Westhuizen highlights that it could be speculated that racism in South Africa has persevered, albeit in the form of contemporary, more subtle racism. I was recently surprised when I heard about the ancient Afrikaans allegory ‘Vir Volk en Vaderland’ still being in existence amongst some Afrikaans speaking community members in a small South African mining town who used it in reference to the preservation of cultural and racial bias. Saturated with ideological undertones, this allegory fuelled the political agenda at the time. Reflecting on his career, a senior police colleague, who was a fingerprint expert in the 1980s, shared his experiences with me which included numerous attempts made by detectives to pressure him into falsifying evidence against suspects with a manipulative use of the ‘Vir Volk en Vaderland’ sentiment. As a man of faith, he refused.

Fresh, innovative approach needed
Racism and race relations is a crucial issue that requires a fresh and innovative approach if we are to deal with it constructively. Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) noted that “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. Are there any ideas for fresh or innovative approaches we can come up with? Is this not perhaps a timely and worthy campaign that can be launched by the South African Christian community? Social media, poems, testimony and photography are wonderful catalysts for spreading profound and thought provoking messages. The notion of otherness and inter-subjectivity can also add value. In a previous article I referred to Seltzer-Kelly, Cinnamon, Cunningham, Gurland, Jones and Toth (2011:17) who capture the essence of ‘otherness’ in their discussion of inter-subjectivity. The authors highlight that “…each person can come to a mutual understanding not only of the subjectivity of others, but that one’s own self is an “Other” in other people’s experience. Each person, that is, recognises that he or she is both a subject of one’s own perspective and an Other in every other person’s perspective. We are all subjective and therefore subject to bias and insensitivity towards others, but since we all are subjective, we can establish a basis upon which meanings may be communicated and shared even though each other person’s perspective is fundamentally irreconcilable with our own.” Embracing diversity and ‘otherness’ is by no means a natural human response. An even more stringent test is to fully comprehend that it is in fact possible to benefit from one another’s differences.

Like a nameless and obese elephant in a small room, the issue of racism should be named and invited to the dinner table. Any notion of diluting the discourse on racism or invalidating its harm to society at large should be contested. Blame shifting adds no value and dichotomous language such as “us” and “them”, “here” and “there”, “black” and “white” perpetuates polarisation rather than reconciliation. As Christians, we are reminded that we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28) and are uniquely and wonderfully positioned to breathe new life into the spirit of reconciliation in our beautiful country.


Seltzer-Kelly, D.L., Cinnamon, S., Cunningham, C.A., Gurland, S.T., Jones, K. & Toth, S.L. 2011. (Re) Imagining Teacher Preparation for Conjoint Democratic Inquiry in Complex Classroom Ecologies. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 8 (1): 5-27.

Van der Westhuizen, A. 2007. Subtle racism amongst undergraduate learners after a decade of democracy. Unpublished MA Thesis. Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.


  1. Racism is a sin and angers the Lord. In the Old Testament (Num 12:1) Miriam and Aaron rebelled against Moses on account of the Cushite (Ethiopian) woman that he had married. Num 12:9 The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them. v10 When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous –it became as white as snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had a defiling skin disease.

    I quote: Van der Westhuizen, a psychologist and sister in Christ, found a persistent pattern of anti-Black sentiment which supports suppositions that transformation of racial attitudes in South Africa may be restricted by deeply entrenched social and psychological divisions and a deep-seated mistrust between races.

    There is a lot of racism, sometimes openly, especially by older white people. People (Christians) don’t talk about it and nothing is done about it. And many Christians are involved in this. It is much worse in the northern part of SA. It would be good if the Christians or Christian leaders could start addressing this on a national level. How could this be done ?
    Any ideas ? We need to address this as a matter of urgency.

  2. Thanks Marcel for tackling this hottest of all potatoes in SA right now. In my new book ‘Freed by God but Imprisoned by Culture’ I narrate an incident wherein Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church and founder of Global Leadership Summit (GLS) challenged SA leaders to deal with the issue of race and racial inclusivity in their congregations. He made this comment in a leaders’ conference that took place in Johannesburg over 2 years ago. Some of the white leaders made excuses for the lack of racial integration and not doing enough to relate across the colour line which range from cultural difference between whites and blacks, distance between black and white neighborhoods, etc. When Pastor Mosa Sono made the point that many blacks are constantly assimilating European culture in their worship through the singing of English songs, travel to formerly white suburbs to worship, you could hear a pin drop in the room. So the fact that you mention that you and wife sometimes worship in indigenous African languages is encouraging. I agree with Kobus that this is an issue that the church needs to address urgently.