Why we should be rooting out racism

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Racism squanders human potential.

That is how struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada summed up the devastating effects of racism which continues to rear its head in our country and around the world.

In his recent book, Critique of Black Reason, Professor Achille Mbembe says that “taken to its limits, race becomes a perverse complex of fears and torments, of disturbed thoughts and terror, but especially of infinite sufferings and, ultimately, catastrophe.”

In 1961, ANC President Oliver Tambo, expressed similar sentiments about racism. “The demon of racism has to be uprooted in its totality,” he said. “It brutalises people, destroys persons, warps the process of thought and injects into human society, a foul air of tension, mutual antagonism and hatred. It demeans and dehumanises both victim and practitioner.”

This year, we have chosen the theme #RootOutRacism for Anti-Racism Week, which is being marked from March 14-21.

The initiative is hosted by the Anti-Racism Network South Africa (ARNSA), which constitutes some 80 organisations and is spearheaded by the Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela Foundations.

It aims to create public awareness about racism, and its impact on society. It culminates on Human Rights Day and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The week also coincides with the Stand Up to Racism Campaign in the UK, which last year drew about 30 000 people onto Britain’s streets, protesting against racism.

This year’s theme, #RootOutRacism, is captured in a visual representation of a tree, that merges into the human mind, feeding racist thoughts, behaviour and actions. The roots of racism spread far and wide and include discrimination, apartheid, colonialism, slavery, racist policies, structural racism, prejudiced mindsets, fear, religion, language, culture, science, a skewed economy and inequality. These are the underlying factors that contribute towards the manifestations of racism.

These manifestations can come in the form of a racist Facebook post, or in the manner in which an African man is forced into a coffin by two white males for no reason. It can be seen in the way in which black pupils are sometimes discriminated against in former ‘whites only’ schools. It is apparent in the way in which people who do not conform to a particular culture may be treated in the workplace. It is these roots of racism that would have fuelled a group of drunk white young men to beat up three athletes in Potchefstroom, without any cause or provocation.

The persistent roots of racism can be seen when a Sodwana Bay guesthouse owner refuses to allow black people to make a booking, and when a Limpopo doctor separates patients into different queues based on race. It is the reason why someone can insult a police officer using terms we all know to be racist and think that there’s nothing wrong with it.

These roots also fuel other issues, such as tribal and ethnic divisions and xenophobia.
The manifestations of racism steal the headlines. They leave us shocked and perturbed that well into two decades of democracy, such blatant racism still exists. But should we be surprised at all?

Post 1994, not enough was done to tackle racism’s roots in society. We assumed that with democracy, mindsets would change, inequality would be a thing of the past, and people would take it upon themselves to review the policies that maintained apartheid in schools, universities, religious institutes and community organisations.

These assumptions were wrong. This does not mean that no anti-racism work was done, but it was not done on the scale and with the intensity required to address the problem.

This is today coupled with the global rise of a right-wing mentality that seeks to dehumanise black people, Muslims, Jews and immigrants. Across Europe, we have seen parties and movements with neo-fascist ideologies increasingly gaining ground, with Nazi-like ideology slowly attempting to become mainstream.

What does all this mean for South Africa today? It suggests that racism needs to be fought with greater dexterity and with increased commitment from all sectors of society. It needs to be fought in the boardrooms as well as in the classrooms; by government and ordinary citizens; in churches, mosques and temples, and on the sports field; in popular art and in textbooks, and through social and traditional media.

It also means that we need to start looking at anti-racism work as “generational”, and not a once off project.
Anti-Racism Week is but a few days in the year that aims to draw focussed attention on the issue, to ensure that it remains on the national agenda. But a few days will not be enough to combat a problem that has its roots in colonial history.

This year, we have developed a programme that will create the basis for year-long anti-racism work in various sectors.

The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation will be launching the pilot phase of a racism reporting app, where victims can register incidents of racism. The app will aggregate data and provide a trend analysis of hotspot areas where racism may be prevalent. Engaging with various organisations who can respond to the complaints as they come through, will also strengthen a national network of organisations who can deal with such issues in the geographic areas in which they are based.

We’ll be visiting schools during the week where assemblies against racism will be held. Our first few school visits have already commenced in Soweto and Lenasia, where pupils have been encouraged to identify racism and to report it. The school visits will extend to other parts of Gauteng, as well as several schools Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

We’re well aware of the fact that the problem of racism in schools is, in many instances, a structural one. During the week, we will be releasing an anti-racism school policy that was successfully implemented at a Free State school.

Other schools can look at developing and implementing similar policies. We’re currently engaging stakeholders around a conference that will highlight the impact of such polices, and motivate for its adoption at schools across the country.

During the week, we will host a roundtable discussion between labour and business representatives about workplace racism to gather information about the extent of the problem, and discuss what measures should be put in place to stem it.

In Potchefstroom, where the three athletes were beaten up by a group of white youth, we will be engaging students at North-West University about their experiences of racism and what they think should be done to tackle it. Students will come from the university’s Potchefstroom, Vaal and Mafikeng campuses.

Anti-Racism Week will also be marked by two public lectures. The first is by globally recognised academic Professor Achille Mbembe on ‘The Roots of Racism’ on March 14, while the Mistra Annual Lecture on March 20 will be delivered by author, filmmaker and activist, Tsitsi Dangarembga on ‘Nervous Conditions: The Burden of Race, Class and Gender in the Construction of the Post-Colonial Order’.

In addition to these programmes, there will be religious services dedicated to anti-racism, movie screenings, the launch of the anti-racism signboard campaign at a housing complex in Johannesburg that had previously dealt with a racial incident, as well as discussions and dialogues.

Despite the range of activities taking place during the week and beyond, racism is not going to disappear. Next week, we will still come across a racist tweet, there will still be workplace racism, there will still be tensions around language usage and race at schools.

But, we’ve decided that we can either do something within our capacity about it; or, we can sit back and let those with reactionary views and right-wing rhetoric emerge from the vestiges of apartheid and colonialism, unchallenged.

We can choose to allow ‘human potential to be squandered’, or we can choose to take action so that, eventually, race will no longer be a defining factor in the way we live our lives and how much we’re able to achieve.

We hope that you will join us during this week at the various events taking place, or by hosting your own programmes against racism. We hope you will recommit to not only being more aware about racism, its root causes and its impact, but by also challenging racism whenever you, or those around you, are confronted with it.

Let’s pledge to #RootOutRacism!

* Derek Hanekom is the Minister of Tourism. He writes in his capacity as the Chairperson of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Board.