Joburg Expat: Racism in South Africa

October 10, 2011

Racism in South Africa

I realize that this title alone will generate controversy, without me having written a single word. Not just in South Africa but everywhere around the world, this little word is enough to stir strong emotions, one way or another. I won't even pretend to cover this topic comprehensively - a certain United States senator's speech on race in 2008 would be a far better start - but ever since we've moved here my thoughts keep drifting back to the question of racism.

One of the reasons I think racism is such a controversial term is that it's so hard to define. Or rather, that it covers such a wide spectrum. We all like to think that we are not racists. Looking back at history, it is easy to tell yourself that you would never have done or condoned what happened in the Civil Rights era in America or during apartheid here in South Africa. And most certainly, going back even farther, not what happened in Germany and beyond during the Holocaust. But it is so much more subtle than that. You really didn't need to do anything. Your attitude towards blacks or Jews, most often bred by fear of the unknown, the "different," was enough to steer entire societies on their terribly misguided path. Such attitudes lead to prejudices and then it's a very fine line between prejudice and racism.

What, then, is racism?

Is it racism when I want to speak to the store manager and steer towards the first white person I see, assuming they must be the one in charge?

Is it racism when I'm pleasantly surprised when a black contractor does an excellent job and finishes the promised work on time?

Is it racism when I get annoyed at the lone white beggar at the intersection, thinking he has no right to beg, whereas black beggars seem to be perfectly "acceptable"?

I am guilty of all of the above. We all tend to classify people we meet into groups. In fact, we like to sort ourselves into groups as well. In and of itself this is not bad at all. Imagine how boring an event, say, the recent Indian comedy show Noisette and I watched at the Lyric Theatre would have been, if it hadn't been about, well, Indians. But it's very easy to fall into this trap of judging the world around us based on classifications. Our children are so much more immune to that, less "tainted" somehow.

But one of my observations here in South Africa has been that in some ways race relations seem less strained than in the United States. How can she say that, you will ask? In a country so recently desegregated? Where so many blacks still live in utter poverty while the white minority owns most of the country’s wealth? Well, like I said, I won’t claim to be comprehensive. This is just one of many observations, based on the facts around me. The fact that our kids have more black friends than they’ve ever had before. The fact that the term “black” is used quite freely, without all the trepidation I usually felt saying it in America.

I recently had a revealing conversation with a black friend over coffee. We were talking about cultural differences (like white women pushing their sunglasses up on their heads, whereas apparently blacks don’t, which was news to me), and I asked why it was that often black kids didn’t get picked up from playdates as promptly as white children. (I’ve had one child stay an entire weekend without so much as a contact number). Was it something to do with culture? In a “the village raises the child” sort of way? But my friend chastised me for thinking along those lines. “Not picking up a child is bad manners,” she told me, “regardless of color. And you mustn’t try and find excuses for people just because they are black.” Touche! She, in turn, admitted that she automatically addresses other blacks in her tribal language and not English, assuming they are more comfortable with that. Interestingly, she felt that was being condescending, whereas I sometimes feel speaking only English in a country with eleven official languages is outright lazy.

On the other hand, one thing that bothers me here is a certain condescension some whites exhibit towards black. It's almost as if they are talking to children. Partly this can be attributed to the language barrier, i.e. you might have to speak slowly and in simple terms to make yourself understood, but in some instances I literally cringe when I overhear the way a white employer, for instance, might give instructions to a black worker. 

I will close with one startling observation I’ve made: You always think of racism as something one race thinks of or does to another, but it is not exclusively so. Racism is judging others based on their race, even if they are the same race as you. Or maybe this is not so much racism as a form of snobbery. In any case, blacks are often treated very rudely by other blacks here in South Africa. I hear this time and again from black friends, South African and otherwise. They’ll go to the supermarket and wait in the checkout lane while the white shopper in front of them is politely greeted and having her groceries bagged by the black clerk, and when it is their turn, the clerk will pretty much ignore them, expecting them to bag their own groceries.

Even though I’ve worked on this post for quite some time, trying to carefully word my observations, I’m sure some of you might find something I’ve said  (or not said) offensive or at least insensitive. I tend to see the world through rose-colored glasses and am aware that I’ve left out the many ugly aspects of racism still prevalent here. In any case, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

6 comments : said...

I admire you for taking in this topic. And I do agree that people in South Africa are more open when it comes to talking about race than people in America. It's almost as if in America we're supposed to pretend that racial problems don't exist anymore, even though they quite obviously still do. In SA, there is no such pretending. Race issues are a problem here and will remain so for a very long time.

It hasn't even been 20 years since Nelson Mandela was elected. Change happens slowly. I think that things will be quite different here in a couple of generations.

namrata singh said...

Hi Sine,
I've been reading your blog since I moved here about a month ago and it's been most helpful...(I'm American but we were in Berlin for a few years). This topic of race is interesting because there is so much to dissect but it's difficult to do in a responsible way and I think you've done a great job being honest and thoughtful. I also found all those other blogs you've linked to and it's all been extremely informative and entertaining.

Stephanie said...

Well said Sine. It is such a complex issue and not one to be spoken of lightly nor easily. I've often tried and thought of writing about this same topic and struggle because I don't want to offend anyone.

The younger generation of all colors here, for the most part, is very ready and willing to encourage equality. I know a few older white South Africans who aren't so ready to embrace the equality that is deserved and the sooner they immigrate the better in my opinion. South Africa has changed SO MUCH in the ten years that I've been coming here; it's amazing and hopefully in another ten years, we'll continue to see vast improvements. To me it all boils down to the golden rule we learned in school: "Treat others as you would like to be treated." Life would be so simple and easy if we could all just follow that little statement.

Sine said...

Thanks, I appreciate the feedback. As you said, it wasn't an easy topic to write about but yet probably most of us think about it every day.

Namrata, welcome to South Africa and I'm glad you're enjoying my blog! I'm thinking I might meet you soon, Bing mentioned something about a lunch...

Stephanie, I'm with you on the golden rule. It could replace pretty much all of religion if everyone adhered to it. But fear of the "other" and the unknown is a powerful hindrance. I'm glad to hear you say that South Africa has changed a lot already in ten years. I've not even been here too and seem to think there is less negativity, but maybe I'm just more and more hanging out with the right people!

W. A. Jeffrey said...

On your is it racism questions I would answer no, no, and it depends. I find it best to limit the definition of racism to hatred of a person because of their race or believing a person to be inferior because of their race. I wish people would chill and not get so worked up about things. As long as there isn't state sanctioned racism and discrimination taking place, I think we would all be better off if we turned the other cheek and just got on with living life. If enough people would just teach there kids to treat others as equals the vestiges of racism would fade away in a few generations.

As to your comparison of SA and the USA, the US has been dealing with this for 150 years and it has only been in the last few years that things have gone crazy. Give SA a few more decades and the US will look calm by comparison. I can't tell you how tired I have become of all the "check your privilege" and "micro-aggression" nonsense. As to the current "Black Lives Matter" crusade going on in America, I can't imagine any time in my almost 40 years of life when there has been any group whose lives officially mattered more than blacks.

Sine said...

" If enough people would just teach there kids to treat others as equals the vestiges of racism would fade away in a few generations."

Amen on that. It is my hope that we've done a good job about that with ours.