Racism: Time to go back to the basics

Shopprice Australia

The time for soundbites is gone, this is the time for a reality check. Your commitment to transformation begins at your workplace – begins even with your neighbours.

Many of us here earn fairly well. For how many of those disadvantaged, previously and currently disadvantaged children whose parents simply do not have the means, do you take out of your own pocket to take to high school and university? How many? And don’t tell me that you can’t afford it, otherwise you wouldn’t have bought a Rolex. Just how committed are we? If people could lay down their lives so that you can be what you are now, how committed are we to ensuring that we never let down those who suffered.

 Not just so that we can vote, not just so that I can become chief justice, not just so that you can become a managing director, but so that even the lives of those who cannot speak for themselves, those in the villages who have never known what it means to be educated, can also be positively impacted upon.

Good people, I think this is the time to go back to the basics. We have disconnected, most of us, from that spirit that pushed people to say: “No matter what, I am going to do the right thing.” Some of us, it’s mere complacency; others, it is a sense of “I have arrived, so it doesn’t matter what happens to other people.” I hope for none of us, it has anything to do with the fact that something has been put in your mouth that forbids you to open it and say the right thing.

May all of us espouse a real transformation agenda . May we always remember that these young South Africans, who are manifesting the kind of militancy we thought had died out – #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall, all those kind of movements – may we make sure that we don’t betray the constitutional aspirations of our people .

May we begin to look for and actually create platforms for engagements, so that issues relating to racism can be debated and strategies developed so that they are meaningfully addressed. I had a white Afrikaner friend, we were so close. Johan and I were very close in Mafikeng, we would drink moer coffee together, we would eat together. One day he kept saying “James, James, James” and his wife said “Skattie, wie is James? [Darling, who is James]”, and he said “James is ‘n kaffir wat vir Mogoeng werk [James is a kaffir who works for Mogoeng]”.

Not all white people are racist, it is not true, it’s a lie, but well-thought-through strategies are required so that we can be united in our diversity

That was quite sobering, because by then we were eight years into democracy. I realised that this is not something to throw tantrums about, this is not something to take Johan to court about. This is an eye-opener. I, as a South African who, in the preamble to the constitution of my country, makes a commitment to heal the divisions of the past and ensure that there is unity, have failed to play my part. Somehow, like many, I assumed that a very progressive constitution would automatically impact everybody and wipe out all the negativity that was there before we became a constitutional democracy.

So my appeal is this: there are many angry African people, there are many angry coloured people, there are many angry people of Indian descent, some of whom probably hate white people for what happened in the past, but there are equally many, many white South Africans who have no regard for black people.

 Many who are so convinced that blacks are lesser beings, that knowing that it is impermissible to call them “kaffir” openly, they have delved into nuances and the sophistication of the apartheid of yesteryear. I often do this when I address my white compatriots. I say: “You know, the reason black people did not get work from corporate South Africa and white attorneys did not give work to black advocates and women was because they were consciously biased.”

But now we have two problems: conscious and deliberate bias against black people and women and the unconscious one – this is very dangerous, because you don’t know that you have a problem. When you give all the work that is available to white people, it’s a natural thing, you don’t mean to be a racist, so there is no problem to address, because you don’t think there is a problem.

It is for the think-tank that the Black Management Forum is, and many others out there, to provide thought leadership in relation to what is it that we need to do as a people to address the racial issue. It is not about screaming at each other, it is not about generalising and saying “These white people are racist.” That is not true, [or] we wouldn’t be having a Minister Rob Davies in cabinet.

Not all white people are racist, it is not true, it’s a lie, but well-thought-through strategies are required so that we can be united in our diversity, so that managerial positions can – without being forced to do so by a law but because people understand and they want to change – be made available to women and black people.

We’ve got to do everything within our power to work out strategies that will take us there. Just as people sacrificed their weekends and evenings thinking about how to win the war against apartheid, use this time and the resources that we are now privileged to have to come up with strategies that will unite us.

Stop being overly diplomatic in circumstances where frankness is called for. I’m not saying diplomacy is bad, but I’ve realised that diplomacy can also be abused. When people expect me to be “all protocol observed” and come like a bishop and I know they want to abuse my commitment to diplomacy, I come like a lion at them.

I think part of my advantage is being a village boy who grew up poor; I don’t care about being honoured. With the baptism of fire I received when I came to the Constitutional Court and then as chief justice, what insult can you ever throw at me?

 The determination to embark on transformation, as the president of Black Management Forum, Mncane Mthunzi, said in the letter he wrote me, requires sacrifice. Be prepared to be deliberately misunderstood. Be prepared to be condemned and to be mocked – be prepared to be subjected to all sorts of cartoons and genuinely misunderstood – as long as you are clear about what needs to be done.

Good people, it all comes with a solid character. Many of us have faked it for too long, we know how to be nice, we know how to behave as if we have some character to write home about, when in fact, there is nothing like it. It is never too late to work afresh at your character, to reflect seriously on your commitment to the good things that you would want to have people hear come out of your mouth.

Let’s work on our character, let’s work on our integrity, let’s embrace ethical self-leadership. When you do, then whatever position you find yourself in, you will be excited – not because of the position, but because of the possibility that the position affords you to be of greater benefit to the people that you are privileged to serve.