A picture from the #feesmustfall protest outside Parliament last year. Many whites, however, can't begin to comprehend the anger and pain that racism and apartheid inflicted and continue to inflict on black people — PICTURE: SIZWE NDINGANE
Apartheid was racism on an industrial scale. Its key architects took the opinions of your dumb, garden-variety racist, like Penny Sparrow, and turned them into a ruthless, systematic machine of disenfranchisement, impoverishment, torture and murder over decades.
It is no wonder apartheid was classed as a crime against humanity by the UN.
The extent of what it did to this country reverberates today. While white workers travelled just a few kilometres from home to work, blacks had to commute from far-flung labour reserves such as Soshanguve to get into Pretoria, from Soweto to get to Joburg’s northern suburbs. Schooling was enervated by Bantu Education, ensuring that we didn’t produce the likes of Pixley ka Isaka Seme but children who were destined to provide labour for the white man.
Look around you. Look at the structure of South African society, its economy and its architecture, its power relations: everything we have here today has been drawn up racially to perpetuate racist ends.
The pain of what happened during apartheid is deep. It is wide. It is like a river. It returns when a moron such as Sparrow calls black people monkeys; when you hear that a black child in Limpopo was told to get out of a swimming pool out of respect for whites.
This in 2016.
These are the incidents that make the headlines and Twitter. Everyday life is worse: people who don’t even stop to think when they tell you apartheid “wasn’t that bad”, who move swiftly from how terrible President Zuma’s administration is to their true message, which is that really “blacks can’t govern” or that apartheid was a huge favour to blacks.
All this is the reality of our lives, yesterday and today.
It doesn’t have to be our tomorrow. I grew up with people who lived their whole lives in pursuit of the Freedom Charter’s dream of a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society. I know they will die pursuing this dream. The millions of South Africans who stood up against apartheid believe this too. They want this just society too. They inspire me to do the same in my work and in my words.
Yet I know that this is true: the year 1994 did not change the racist attitudes of all white South Africans. Not many can change the very basis of their lives. Not many have the courage to step out of the lies that sustained their lives for decades and embrace non-racism.
In light of the racial tweets last week, what should South African whites do?
Here’s a start: Don’t denigrate black pain. Don’t even try to pretend you understand the level of anger and pain that white racism and apartheid have done to blacks. If you have to listen, empathise and move on. Those who complain are not whining.
They are not just in pain, they merely want you to acknowledge the sheer horror of what happened here by speaking and acting with thoughtfulness and care.
Many whites ask: What do they want us to do? Actually, nothing. Not an apology, not a project of reparation. Just don’t denigrate the pain, or try to make the “good old days” seem better than they were. They were worse than you can imagine.
For my children, for black people who have suffered in the past and continue to feel the brunt of apartheid’s effects today, here’s something to think about: the Penny Sparrows of the world are numerous. They are distracting. They are tiring. They are, crucially, irrelevant. We will never go back to what they hanker for: the days of apartheid. We have won.
This country faces real problems that a Penny Sparrow cannot even come close to comprehending. This is our real and urgent challenge.
We have 500 000 children passing matric this year into an economy with 35% unemployment. I want to talk, to fight and to do something about that. There is massive inequality. I want to help find a solution to that. There is poverty on a grand scale. There is corruption. There is no water in large swathes of the country.
Just a year ago a child fell into a pit latrine at school in Limpopo. Children are taught under trees. These are the real, urgent, problems that we face.
Racism? There is nothing I can do about Penny Sparrow. She was a racist throughout her life. Being blessed with a Nelson Mandela didn’t change her. She will not change now. By all means she must be outed. Yet don’t lose focus, particularly if you are a political leader. You are here to make poor people’s lives materially better today than they were yesterday. Deal with the Sparrows but don’t lose your focus.
There is an expression used by ANC activists — siyaqhuba. It means we go on, despite the noise. When I hear and meet the Sparrows of this world, all I say is this — “siyaqhuba”, despite what they say. We are keeping on, building a better country every day, word by word and deed by deed, despite the failings of many of our leaders.
Thus, when we propose and enact legislation to deal with racism, when we toughen action against the hate-filled, hateful words of the Sparrows of this world, we must remember that we are about the poor, the historically oppressed, and the betterment of their lives. Focus.
This article first appeared in The Times