South Africa doesn’t have a race problem


I was watching The Daily Show a few weeks ago, during the coverage of the World Cup. John Oliver was talking about race relations in South Africa – to people on the street, to a hard-line racist activist, and to a government minister in charge of racial relations. The most poignant part of the interview for me was when the minister looked John in the eye and told him flat out that South Africa doesn’t have a race problem. I’m glad I wasn’t drinking milk at the time, because it most assuredly would have flown out of my nose as I laughed derisively.

I feel compelled at this point to re-state a maxim that I’ve danced around many times at this blog. It is a central tenet of my approach to race and improving the climate of racial discourse in Canada (and other countries, of course). It is not… It is notIT IS NOT POSSIBLE to simply wish racism away. It is not possible to declare that there is no race problem simply by asserting it and hoping to high heaven that it comes true. Racial issues are deeply entrenched in our society, in our history, and there is some evidence to suggest that elements of it are present in our very human nature. The first step toward progress is recognizing the subtle effect that non-obvious racism has on our day-to-day lives.

Hence my scoffing and incredulity when presented with the statement that “South Africa doesn’t have a race problem”. As though hundreds of years of colonialization, coupled with an absolutist and brutal apartheid regime that existed within my own living memory could somehow be erased by good will and warm, fuzzy feelings. It was times like that I wished I had a roommate, and that the roommate was a bit slow – I would have made a bet. “Within a month of this statement,” I would have said “we’re going to hear about some major race issue out of South Africa.”

I would have won some money.

Four white South Africans have been convicted of humiliating five black university domestic staff after a video of the incident was posted online. The video showed the five staff being made to kneel and forced to eat food which had apparently been urinated on by one of the students.

I don’t speak Africaans (and neither do you, likely) so I can’t translate the video for you, but the actions are pretty clear. The ‘urinating’ in the food is simulated by a water bottle, but wow does that ever not matter. The former students (those rapscallions) claim that they didn’t intend for the video to be humiliating, and that they never would have done it if they had known what the outcome would be. That’s cold comfort for the millions of black South Africans who see the barely-retreated spectre of apartheid – where being black meant that you were legally at the bottom rung of society and had no legal protections – rearing its head in the form of these students forcing hostel workers to eat contaminated food for their entertainment.

But hey, at least justice was done:

The four – RC Malherbe, Johnny Roberts, Schalk van der Merwe and Danie Grobler – were also given six-month prison terms, suspended for five years on condition they are not found guilty of discrimination during that period. The fines of 20,000 rand (~$2,700) were higher than that requested by the prosecution.

“It sends a strong message to potential offenders of similar crimes,” said magistrate Mziwonke Hinxa in the mainly white town of Bloemfontein.

It does send a strong message – if you’re white and have enough money, you can get away with pissing on the rights and dignity (and food) of black people in South Africa.

In a statement read out by their lawyer, the men said the video had been made to demonstrate the traditions of their hall of residence and to protest at plans to make the university more racially mixed.

Well you’ve essentially taken care of that, boys. Why any black person would want to attend the University of the Free State (someone’s been reading George Orwell) is incomprehensible to me.

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