Racism in South Africa is something that is masterfully downplayed, partly because the conceptualization of it is understood in the context of hurtful words and unfortunate meanness.
American Professor George M Fredrickson understood the tendency amongst some of downplaying or confining racism to hostile words or, at worst, incidents of right-wing violence. As he states: "The word racism is often used in a loose and unreflective way to describe the hostile or negative feelings of one ethnic group or people towards another."
Fredickson understood that racism cannot be confined to words and free speech. He writes:
"My theory or conception of racism, therefore, has two components; difference and power. It originates from a mindset that regards "them" as different from "us" in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable. This sense of difference provides a motive or rationale for using our power advantage to treat the ethnoracial Other in ways that we would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of our own group."
The true danger of racism, in terms of its manifestations in oppressive economic power dynamics, is in the sustaining of inequality for material benefit, upon the justification that the oppressed didn't deserve better or that their oppression would benefit them.
To this black middle class who enjoys some semblance of favourable white class assimilation, racism and freedom of speech can easily share a sentence.
Racism and our rightfully strong opposition to it goes beyond words, insults and the debate of free speech. Racism in the convenient shallow context, is to us the dilution of a distinctive economic evil designed to sustain power dynamics.
"Black" middle-class opinion makers
Amongst those that contribute to this diluted conceptualisation of racism are "black" middle-class opinion makers who sometimes understand racism from the context of their own myopic rainbow comforts.
To this black middle class who enjoys some semblance of favourable white class assimilation, racism and freedom of speech can easily share a sentence. Especially since racism is perceived by them in the context of mean words vs our constitutional responsibility of tolerance. This group seldom thinks about the daily experiences of those who are on the oppressed side of the economic power dynamic: the domestic worker, the farm worker and casual worker whose livelihood, if not life, is greatly dependent on the mindset of his white employer.
They seldom think about the impact of the racist mindset of the power-advantaged on sports talent, corporate SA matters and even media profiling.
Racism, in this privileged conceptualisation, expects the oppressed to appreciate our constitution more and not to be oversensitive.
Whether Ferial believes it or not, Helen Zille's comments are both stupid and racist.
This is what can be expected from white-approved black twelebs or "non-racial" writers who mumble around matters of race and the socio-economic impact of racism. A clear example of this is the article written by my friend Ferial Haffajee on why Helen Zille shouldn't be fired.
In this article she refers to Helen Zille's statements as merely "stupid" and refers to Penny Sparrow's application of her racism through her power dynamic of property as a "Facebook rant".
Helen Zilles comments are both stupid and racist
Well, to her I say, it is stupid but it doesn't and cannot end there. Whether Ferial believes it or not, Helen Zille's comments are both stupid and racist. Furthermore the impact of the racism or stupidity, as she puts it, has severe consequences on less fortunate black South Africans whose wages, hours and dignity are determined by white people who may view them as subhuman.
For too long the labeling of racist incidents has been confined to people who have rainbow lunches with their whites friends, where they take a liberal conceptualization of racism. They liberally condemn the use of the word "kaffir" which they refer to as the "k-word" with proud absolution. In between croissants and cappuccinos they gloss over the depth of racism and rather froth about racism being used as an excuse for corruption.
They are not alone in this shallow analysis of racism that sets a narrow parameter. They are no different to those who watched the Spur incident and dismissed it as a mere altercation between parents because the word "kaffir" was not used.
Here is the great failing of South Africa: we have defined racism along the border of mean, hateful words and not in the context of an oppressive socio-economic system which used racism as a propaganda tool. Racism, if it is understood in the deeper context of white economic supremacy, was a tool to validate oppression.
The inequality and oppression produced by colonialism and apartheid was always justified on the back of civilization being brought to the savage natives who would otherwise be stomping about in loincloth. Helen Zille proudly stated that settlers brought written languages to Africa. This has been a common historical revisionism of Africa and its lack of "civilization".
The narrative...that that colonialism and apartheid were not all bad is deeply offensive
African historian Walter Rodney shared many aspects of pre-colonial history that challenged the simplistic racist beliefs that Africa would have been a wasteland without white messiahs. In Walter Rodney's book "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa" he speaks of the advanced ancient cultures of Egypt, the architectural achievements of the Zagwe Kings of Ethiopia, the long-distance trade of the Sahara and the constructions of 15th century Zimbabwe. Rodney writes:
"When Cecil Rhodes sent in his agents to rob and steal in Zimbabwe, they and other Europeans marvelled at the surviving ruins of the Zimbabwe culture, and automatically assumed that it had been built by white people."
One can't with authority state that all of these great ancient African cultures would have led to "piped water" but what is clear is that Africa was violently robbed of self-determination.
The narrative that we should debate this and that colonialism and apartheid were not all bad is deeply offensive.
This is the cornerstone of any evil and abusive relationship: it accredits some "not all bad" exchange between the oppressor and oppressed. In patriarchy, it's the abusive man who accredits a "not all bad" exchange because he "provides" for the woman. In slavery, the "not so bad" exchange was used by Southern slave owners who argued that it was better for Africans to be slaves in America than be uncivilized in Africa. Although Africans were slaves, at least they got the holy word and some level of civilization... not all bad, they argued.
Hundreds of years later and continents away, the remnants of this "not so bad" response to oppression argument is being used by Helen Zille. It argues that, although we raped you, oppressed you and dispossessed you, you have "piped water" and good "infrastructure" as a palliative amelioration of your deep misery of structural oppression.
Hendrik Verwoerd also believed that apartheid was best for the native, and that although there was a systematic oppression of the native, the native also got something out of the deal.
Verwoerd was quoted as saying:
"There is thus no policy of oppression here, but one of creating a situation which has never existed for the Bantu; namely, that, taking into consideration their languages, traditions, history and different national communities, they may pass through a development of their own."
This language is not widely different from Helen Zille's. Within it is the white supremacy belief that a few whites know what's best for all blacks. It is a backward and yes, racist view, that says all the murders, oppression, land theft and brutality suffered by the natives can find a silver lining in "piped water".
Ferial's logic is mostly defined by her class assimilation: She has white liberal friends, works comfortably and racism to her is merely the flipside of freedom of speech. She is not as exposed to the power dynamics of racism that define many Africans' living conditions.
Again, as a son of natives, this is deeply offensive and racist. Ferial will tell me that we should rather debate it, and that we should not be too headstrong in discussing the impact of the oppressive indignation that we suffered, and still suffer.
Ferial's logic is mostly defined by her class assimilation
She will preach to us about freedom of speech. Naturally this argument will never be used in the context of the holocaust and other gross human violations. It is only Africans who should debate the good side of their murderous oppression. Ferial's logic is mostly defined by her class assimilation: She has white liberal friends, works comfortably and racism to her is merely the flipside of freedom of speech. She is not as exposed to the power dynamics of racism that define many Africans' living conditions.
Frankly, I chose choose to be an ungrateful and headstrong native on the question of the bright side of our colonial suffering. This is simply because the suffering of natives is being defined and debated by everyone but the natives.
In the context of South Africa's historical baggage which is not so historical, the socio-economic realities and the existing power dynamics bare a more severe consequence to those who lives are far away from those well-heard rainbow lunch tables.
Racism at its most severe plays itself out within economic dynamics. Beyond the harsh words, racism plays itself in the white employer and black employee context to greater harm. It exists in the economic transformation resistance narratives that view equality as an offensive initiative.
Helen Zille's comments are an insensitive validation of the lingering apartheid socio-economic power dynamics that still exist. They signal to the worst and more powerful of her ilk that oppression and abuse can garner a positive exchange, and that even human rights violations have a silver lining.
Views on the criminality of apartheid
This is a scary notion to those who live in farm areas and are regularly subjected to labour abuse, a scary notion to those who work in companies where they are paid less than their white counterparts and a frightening idea to most black South Africans who are not on the better side of the power dynamic.
It wasn't too long ago that a poll was undertaken by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) on our views on the criminality of apartheid. One of the polls taken in 2014 reflected that 47% of South Africans didn't view Apartheid as a crime against humanity. This is the mindset that Helen Zille's comment validate.
That mindset is dangerously carried by those who sit at the controlling end of the racism power dynamic.
The ANC... has for the longest time pampered this racial power dynamic.
Truthfully, nothing more should be expected of Helen Zille -- and Ferial Haffajee at that. Why should they argue differently given their race and class assimilation? The responsibility is up to a younger generation to, without qualification, state the evil of our past and commit to a more inclusive future.
The ANC has not assisted tremendously in this regard. It has for the longest time pampered this racial power dynamic. Whether this inaction is due to the ANCs own capture or lack of political will, the outcome has been a bolstering of racists sentiments.
The younger generation, black and white, must set course for inclusive growth and not waste energies on divisive racist debates such as those being punted the DA.
Mayihlome Tshwete is the head of communication services at the Department of Home Affairs. He has written the above in his personal capacity.