Friday, 7 October 2016

Race Denial Prevents Healing


In a country like South Africa, where race has been so thoroughly systematised, and for so long, it is difficult to believe that any serious commentator or public personality could dismiss systemic racism as a diagnosis of the central condition facing the majority of black people in it; the fact that race relations still governs the majority to their detriment. For it is not just the Apartheid project that systematically encoded racism into South African society and its institutions; three hundred years of colonialism preceded Apartheid and laid very firm foundations for it to be constructed upon.

Racism is deeply embedded in South African society. Every aspect of our society is infected with it. The state, law, police and all sectors, institutions and organisations residing within it, and the spatial geographies of South Africa, were deeply racialized, so much so that race came to govern all aspects of South African life. To imagine that we’ve somehow miraculously shed ourselves of this history just twenty two years into the new democratic dispensation is laughable at best, and deeply ignorant or denialist at worst.

Spatial inequality still governs the majority of the everyday lived experiences of South Africans. We are the most unequal society in the world. According to the World Bank, and other institutions, South Africa’s income Gini coefficient is between 0.66 - 0.7 it stands head and shoulders above its transitional economy counterparts, as well as all the other countries in the world. This inequality has indisputable racial dimensions.

One small example, is the failure of transformation in organisations in South Africa; with 68.9 per cent of top management positions being held by white people in 2015 (78.6 per cent of these were male). When recruitment into top management positions is compared, white males were being recruited at a rate of 42.1 per cent and white women at 10 per cent. Black, coloured and Indian males were being recruited at 17.9, 3.3, and 6 per cent, respectively. Black South African CEO’s were 15 per cent in 2012, but fell to 10 per cent in 2015.

This means that the leaders of South African organisations are, on the whole, unlikely to understand systemic racism and its various manifestations, and are hence ill-equipped to be able to lead transformative processes that increase diversity and ensure equity (not just financially, but in terms of how organisations receive and integrate people from different racial groups, cultural backgrounds, as well as social and identity orientations).

At both levels, leadership and top management, the lack of diversity is an obstacle to actualising transformation goals. Hence, transformation has become a numbers game; it has become more about artificially inflating the diversity profiles of organisations (i.e. by employing black people at lower levels and partnering with smaller black businesses) rather than effecting substantive transformation that removes the unacknowledged, but significant barriers to transformation i.e. the systemic and behavioural features that reproduces racial exclusion and gender inequality in organisations. When the people who are least affected by the negative impacts of racism are charged with leading transformation efforts it should come as no surprise that such abject failures are the consequence.

Institutional racism is alive and well in South Africa. For example, the policing that white people experience is very different from that which black people endure in South Africa. Even black policemen are more likely to treat black people more harshly, with less respect and with more suspicion and violence. The recent crackdown on protesting students provides ample evidence for this; even class is no safe barrier to the inherited policing behaviours of the Apartheid state.

So it isn’t – and shouldn’t – be too difficult to understand why such manifest anger resides towards the racist values, norms, beliefs and behaviours that manifest in everyday South African societal interactions with impunity. The majority are still, by and large, wholesale – and long suffering – victims of racism. It may not be blatant and extreme, it may not constitute extreme hate-based racism, but it is the more subtle, nuanced racisms that are so infuriating, precisely because they go unacknowledged and unaddressed.

The recent student uprisings have put race, race-relations and racism back in the spotlight. It is part and parcel of a global resurgence of anti-racist campaigning, but it is also a product of the very freedom that democracy has increased in South Africa. They are the first generation who are free enough to openly express their feelings about race relations in South Africa. The older generations were suppressed by the Apartheid state, and the transitional generation (to which I belong) suppressed their objections for the sake of ensuring that the transition to democracy would not collapse i.e. we put ‘nation-building’ first and our own objections and feelings had to take a back seat. This socially unsustainable pact is quite clearly coming to an end.

And it should be welcomed. For these expressions of anger, as well as a host of other feelings and perceptions, is precisely what is needed to lift the lid on the uncomfortable silence that South African society has maintained with respect to race, and to move it along into the next phase of democratic transition. It is difficult to understand how we can actualise a more diverse, inclusive society without uncovering and dealing with the unspoken racial dynamics that govern societal relations in South Africa.

And yes, while anger may also contain expressions of rage, it should not be discounted on that basis. Rage is not a good emotion, as any therapist will attest, but underneath it lies anger, and anger can be managed when it is acknowledged and accepted. It can be overcome, but it cannot be prescriptively eradicated, we have to allow for its full expression, so that true processes of healing and reconciliation can take root. There is no way around that; twenty two years have provided ample empirical proof to this effect. This anger is with us for a reason, so we’d better start opening up to it, lest we forcibly suppress it into a pressure chamber that delays its inevitable explosive expression further down the line.

There is also a profound disconnect between aspirations to non-racialism, and the current day reality of South Africa. Race denialists – such as the opposition politician Helen Zille – who recently stated “I don’t see race, I see people” on twitter, typically exhibit a confusion between their aspiration to a non-racial society and the heavily racialized society that South Africa is, historically and currently. They are confused between where they want us to be, and where we are, even though the voices of the majority are clear, and there is ample empirical evidence to support the conviction that race relations still dominate everyday life in South Africa.

Even intelligent and aware commentators such as Gareth van Onselen have referred to issues such as systemic and institutional racism as “nebulous” objects of anger amongst the youth. This disconnect with the deep structural and systemic roots of racist practises – which in turn breeds anger – is difficult to stomach, even though it is easy to understand; the inability to put oneself in another’s shoes is a feature of the atomised middle classes, and renders them bumbling fools when they are expected to confront, understand and act upon racism in society.

Aspiration, is a different thing entirely. It is disingenuous to pretend that “I don’t see race, I see people” is the everyday reality of South Africans. Aspirations to non-racialism are to be welcomed, but they should not be confused with the reality that the majority of South Africans endure in everyday life. Indeed, we cannot arrive at a non-racial future by pretending that it is already here; you cannot lead society to a new future merely by masquerading as though it has arrived. You have to do the hard work of disentangling systemic and institutional racism; that’s what transformative leadership that seeks to bring about diversity and inclusion is!

It is also important to understand what that anger represents if it is to be healed. Anger is merely an entanglement of a host of emotions. Pain, insecurity, fear and depression are bundled together and expressed as anger, because anger is a more manageable emotion. Only by ventilating that anger can we lift the lid on that seething entanglement and get to the emotions and feelings that lie just beneath it. It is only through expression that we acknowledge that entanglement, come to terms with it, and begin the process of healing.

What is clear, is that South Africa has arrived at a turning point, and a globalised youth – who are able to connect with global movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement, and are able to draw on historical and current advances in the discourse on racism in society – has reawakened the discussion on race in South Africa. It should be welcomed, as it is only through having these discussions, as difficult as they may be, that we can face and overcome the reproduction of historical racisms in current day South Africa. Negotiating and navigating our future depends on it.


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