Archive for the ‘Racism and Oppression’ Category

As you’ve all read and/or watched, people in Gaza have suffered 2 days of bombings by Israeli forces.  The death toll stands at nearly 300 while several hundred more are injured, many severely.

It is difficult to make sense of the destruction of life and property and even more difficult, the callous disregard of world leadership.  It is disheartening to read news sites such as the BBC and the witness how people flippantly justify the carnage.

While I’m not certain that letter-writing will have an influence in easing their present suffering, I would urge you to write to your local member of parliament or equivalent.  And to donate funds to any non-profit organization you trust to provide medical and supply aid to those injured and displaced.

(Images Courtesy of The New York Times)


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My friend Z. was excitedly telling me not two days ago how she was happy that her best friend who was in a study abroad programme the past year would be returning this Friday. And since I have it on good authority that the most favourite study abroad programmes for Americans are usually in Europe, imagine my surprise when she told me very smugly that this was in South Africa.

I recovered from my initial shock very quickly, and politely asked how the friend had liked the experience. Instead of responding to my question, Z. proceeded to tell me how she was impressed that “Considering how long the oppression of minorities had gone for, she was pleased that South Africa has surpassed that summit of racism and oppression.” I was too caught with “minorities” to only look at her with a wide-gaped expression, before she continued in the same smug tone, “Now, if you compare it to how America has dealt with its slavery past, it is something for South Africa to be proud of.”

I can forgive Z. – she doesn’t mean much harm as I have been assured by the same authority – but I was so flabbergasted by the comments since they triggered the below memory (which I also related to her) that I had to write this post.

I don’t know how many of you read the reports, in February, about an incident that took place at the University of the Free State (UFS) in South Africa. In summary, a bunch of racist white students decided to torture black employees and then posted a video of their exploits on the internet as a warning against the integration of residence halls on campus!

Seriously speaking: Which world do these the-present-is-so-peachy people live in? These are the same people who wonder why Jacob Zuma fans still sing old songs about machine guns. How confounding is it to get that after hundred of years abuse and oppression that blacks were forced to endure under white racists in South Africa, they still found it in their hearts to forgive and move on, and then to be still confronted with this savagery from a bunch of white thugs who seem to have been so confident of their impunity as to post the evidence themselves? It’s very sickening and disheartening.

What can be done? I don’t know. But I am glad that I can share at least a more rational view from Sean Jacobs.

South Africa’s Ugly Present
By Sean Jacobs

It will be interesting to see over the next few days how western (and South African) media (including South Africa’s racially skewed blogosphere) will report on the racist incident on a university campus in South Africa’s Free State (sic) province.

If you have not seen or heard about it yet, a group of white students forced black staff to eat food that had been urinated on.

If the BBC’s tone is anything to go by, get ready for some apologetic reporting.

The BBC used scare quotes to describe the incident. As a friend reminded me, “why, in reporting an appalling recent incidence of abuse of blacks by whites in South Africa, did the BBC opt to use quotes? The headline reads “Outcry in SA over ‘racist’ video”. So which is it – is it racist? Or is it merely ‘racist’?”

I hope I am proven wrong, but I doubt we will see a serious discussion and reportage about how racial apartheid lives on in South Africa’s rural provinces, its small city campuses (like the University of the Free State) and schools, as well as its small towns and farming districts where things have not changed much.

Last June, I visited the district in Small Karoo (Klein Karoo in Afrikaans) where my mother was born. She’s the daughter of farm workers who moved to Cape Town as a young woman in the 1960s to do domestic work for whites. We witnessed the still-feudal labour and living conditions that still exist there, and are very similar, she reminded me, to when she was a child.

I am also reminded of a trip I took with three other friends (two black and one white American) to the Oppikoppi music festival in the North West Province a few years back (this was after 2000). We were settling in at the camp ground when a car with the flag of the 19th century white Afrikaner republic drove past our camping spot and the occupants, looking in our direction, gestured: “Wat maak die kaffers hier?” (Literally translated: “What are the niggers doing here?”)

We also now learn that the racist students at the Free State University were not just a few bad apples. The case highlights a greater, institutional culture at the university that tolerated this kind of behaviour. That black people had been complaining for a while about racist incidents. These included “… an advert on the university intranet system requesting a roommate who ‘should not be black and should be Christian’, dehumanising initiation practices and lecturers making fun of a student with an albinism condition.”

Watch over the next few days as the victims get blamed. For being the “collateral damage” of “racial tensions” on the campus, or the result of too much integration of the university’s residences by “pushy” black students. And the protests already under way will be scrutinised; the behaviour of protesters and protest leaders will be judged in terms of how “responsible” they are in keeping black “anger” in check. There will be calls for the situation to calm down so we can get things back to normal.

Some will also hope, like the “liberal” South African Institute for Race Relations has already done, that this mess will go away, as it bedevils “race relations” and South Africa’s “reputation”.

What they mean is that the current set-up, by which South Africa is the most unequal country in the world along racial lines, will be threatened. As if the current set-up is the best thing South Africa can afford. My wife has a phrase to describe white liberal sensibilities in South Africa: “Freedom is [the] freedom to get in line behind us.”

Already in some quarters (the “racial tensions” framers like the leader of the “opposition” Democratic Alliance) there are attempts to give equal weight to the University of the Free State incident and the recent murder of four black people by a young white man in the country’s northwest on the one hand, and on the other the frivolous charge by white journalists that they were denied entrance to a meeting by the private Forum of Black Journalists. (On the latter issue, there is nothing wrong in principle with a black journalists’ forum, given the history of that profession in South Africa. That is not the same as having an opinion about the people currently running it.)

The larger context is, of course, that it has become an article of faith inside and outside South Africa (and in some quarters within the country, especially among white liberals), as well as among those with an interest in developments there (including foreign journalists), that:

• Overt racism is a thing of the past.

• That the changes from white minority control to a more equitable society are moving too fast.

• That blacks expect too much.

• That the changes since 1994 are all “reverse racism”.

• That the current state of affairs should be laid at the door of the “black” government.

Yes, it is true that every day in South Africa, black people are not forced to eat food laced with urine by whites, dragged behind trucks, fed to lions or murdered for no other reason than they are not white.

It is also true that not all whites act like this.

And it is certainly the case that since 1994 South Africa has been governed by a democratic government. The faces of the national government, and the majority of provincial and city governments today, are black faces, be they Thabo Mbeki at national level, Beatrice Marshoff at provincial level in the Free State or Gertrude Mothupi, mayor of Bloemfontein, the city where the University of the Free State is situated.

Since 1994 the size and relative wealth of Africans, and blacks in general, as a class have grown considerably, whether personified by the success of communications magnate Cyril Ramaphosa or mining entrepreneur Patrice Motsepe. As the Guardian reported in 2004:

“A decade later, according to the department of trade and industry, black people have moved from zero to 10% of company ownership and occupy 15% of skilled positions. The richest black people’s incomes have risen 30% and you see them spending it in air-conditioned shopping malls and pricey restaurants.”

This is encouraging, but note, however, that blacks comprise about 80-85% of the population.

So while it is true that blacks and whites at the top are integrated (and the Forum for Black Journalists “dispute” reflects the kind of politics of this “new” non-racial elite), outside of this small stratum, the worlds of whites and black South Africans are, to a great extent, still separate ones.

The rate of intermarriage is negligible; integrated neighbourhoods like those in soap operas are, with a few urban exceptions, quite literally a fiction. Working together in an office does not qualify as integration.

Today, 61% of blacks are considered poor, as compared to 1% of whites. According to government statistics, about one in ten African adults suffers from malnourishment and at least one in four African children suffer from stunted growth. Only 17% of “coloured” households and 10% of African households earn incomes to put them in into the top income quintile. By contrast, 65% of white households are in the top quintile.

And while crime is rampant, and does not discriminate on the basis of race, the majority of victims of crime are black.

The University of the Free State and this state of affairs are the real racism(s) in South Africa.

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