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Racism needs to be addressed urgently

- By Wits University


The Wits Centre for Diversity Studies (WiCDS) notes with deep concern the high number of racially charged incidents that have recently been reported across South Africa, including:

  • “Blackface” – University of Pretoria students dressing up like domestic workers (August 2014)
  • Alleged racist assault at The Wheels of the Vaal event at University of the North West's Vaal Campus in Vanderbijlpark (September 2014) 
  • Domestic worker Cynthia Joni attacked by a swimming school owner (October 2014)
  • The altercation between EFF members and a restaurant patron (October 2014)
  • Domestic worker called k-word, rejects apology (November 2014)
  • Comments by Dan Roodt and Pro-Afrikaans action group (Praag) relating to Roodt’s interview on the US television show: The Daily show with Jon Stewart (November 2014)
  • Racist slur and physical incident in a Cape Town mall (November 2014)
  • Comments leading to a Twitter “war” between Steve Hofmeyr and the puppet, Chester Missing, and the court order (November 2014)
  • Cape Town gardener sjambokked by a motorist (November 2014)
  • Road rage axe-incident (November 2014)

These incidents make it clear that transformation is not a linear process, and that we should not assume that the passage of time since the 1994 transition (1994), necessarily translates into a steady, concomitant erosion of racism and racially abusive behaviour. South Africa has not entered a post-racial, colourblind era.

While South Africans are shocked by such acts of thoughtlessness, hostility and violence, we cannot afford to dismiss their significance simply as that there is a handful of “bad apples” out there. Highly visible incidents such as these are above the “water line” – outbreaks enabled by the “work” a society does in a myriad of everyday, unremarkable ways to create, reproduce and circulate polarising attitudes.

Overt acts of racial aggression like these alert us to underlying racially inflected processes in the country that are informal and often private – in work environments, social circles and communities. We have to address ourselves to these emotional, discursive, and narrative processes, and we need to rekindle some of the sense of urgency we felt at the time of the birth of our democracy in relation to confronting questions of the racialisation of society in conscious and dedicated ways.

South Africa is certainly not alone in needing to build a culture that respects difference, but democratic South Africa did not have a base to start from where civic attitudes and behaviors were understood and widely accepted.

All of this should be put back on the national agenda, as the responsibility of each member of our society.

It requires that we reflect on ourselves and our communities, which is not always comfortable. We all come to transformation from different places and are positioned differently through our history and through processes of racialisation. We need to develop the vocabulary to unpack these differences, and become more cognisant of what may be required of us to build a society in which all people feel valued, respected, and safe.

It is clear that it is time to seriously take stock – and not only because we are celebrating 20 years of democracy.

About Wits Centre for Diversity Studies (WiCDS)

The Wits Centre for Diversity Studies is based in the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University. Through interdisciplinary research, postgraduate education and courses for the public, WiCDS aims to build capacity to meet the challenges of diverse societies, especially post-apartheid South Africa. Director of WiCDS, Professor Melissa Steyn holds the NRF-DST South African National Research Chair in Critical Diversity Studies. Find us on Twitter: @DiversityCentre, or visit our webpage: