Ons is nie almal so nie

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This is the third contribution in LitNet’s mini seminar on structural racism.

I am not sure what the current profile of a “criminal” is, but I would not have thought that two middle-aged people, one of them wearing heels, would fit that profile.

Anyone who says that racism in South Africa does not exist probably needs a reality check. If you are black, you are probably nodding your head right now. In fact, during the few days that I was writing this piece, I was subjected to it.[1] I attended a book launch which was held at a guest house in Pretoria. Given the number of attendees, there was not sufficient parking inside the property, and some of us parked outside. As I was leaving the event, the white neighbours from across the road arrived home. I was standing beside my car, chatting to a friend. I noticed the neighbour taking pictures of us and of the other cars parked in the road. I later asked the owners of the guest house about this, as I suspected that it was a Karen in action. They confirmed that yes, indeed, the neighbour had not only complained about the cars in the street “posing a security risk”, but had also alluded to the fact that my friend and I were potential car thieves. Now, I am not sure what the current profile of a “criminal” is, but I would not have thought that two middle-aged people, one of them wearing heels, would fit that profile. So, yes, like Bettina Wyngaard’s experience at a book festival in Cradock, we can all recount our countless experiences of racism and micro aggressions and attest to the hurt, anger and humiliation that accompany them.

Structural racism is pervasive and deeply ingrained in societies throughout the world, and South Africa is no exception. This nation, once infamous for its institutionalised system of apartheid, offers a striking case study of structural racism’s enduring legacy and its ongoing effects on our lives. Structural racism in the United States has been defined as the “normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional, and interpersonal – that routinely advantage Whites while producing cumulative and chronic outcomes for people of color”[2]. Personally, I prefer the way in which Braneon and Ray[3] explain it: “Structural Racism lies underneath, all around and across society. It encompasses (1) history, (2) culture, (3) interconnected institutions and policies, the key relationships and rules across society providing the legitimacy and reinforcements to maintain and perpetuate racism.” In essence, it’s a combination of our past, the way in which our society is structured to maintain social inequality, and the relationships of power that are inherent within our society which allow one group to see themselves as superior to others.

The end of apartheid in 1994, which marked a pivotal moment in South African history, dismantling the system which legitimised discrimination and unfair treatment based on race, was only the first step in addressing structural racism. The legacy of apartheid continues to cast a long shadow over our country, contributing to structural racism. Two of the most prominent manifestations of structural racism in post-apartheid South Africa are economic inequality and education disparities. Historically disadvantaged black communities have been left with underfunded and poorly equipped schools, resulting in unequal educational opportunities. In my space, higher education, we have seen significant increases in access to education. In 1994, only 50,4% of all students, for example, were black, while by 2020, black students represented 79,4% of the total number of students. Yet, 49,1% of the 18,3 million people currently not in education or employment are between the ages of 15 and 34; in other words, many young people do not have opportunities for education and are caught up in a cycle of poverty with no hope for social mobility.

In addition, the lived experiences of many individuals continue to be shaped by societal relationships that are entrenched in racial identities and racism. Structural racism in South Africa is fuelled by a toxic mix of social and economic inequality and divisive race relationships. Much of this lies at the feet of the government and political parties and movements. The deep-seated and pervasive inequalities in the country, perpetuated by weak ANC governance, provides an opportunistic springboard for divisive views such as those perpetuated by the EFF and Afriforum in their race politics.

Yet, unlike Ingrid Jones, I do believe “ons is nie almal so nie”. Over the last few weeks, I have seen a nation come together in their support of the Springboks – a moment of nationhood as we put our collective faith in the hands of one of the most diverse Springbok teams in the history of the country. But perhaps the most profound moment of social cohesion was expressed during “Kantgate” in the collective outrage at the (now unproven) allegation by English rugby player Tom Curry that Bongi Mbonambi used a racial slur against him. Given how racism continues to haunt us as a country, one may have expected that this would be yet another divisive moment in an already divisive country, where black South Africans would rally behind Bongi, while white South Africans would gloat that for once it’s a black South African who stands accused of racism. Yet, white Afrikaners were the first to defend Bongi, noting that Afrikaans is the language of choice on the rugby field and explaining how the word kant may have been misconstrued. Hanging around on social media (as one does when one needs to keep up as the mother of a teenager), I have been struck by the unity that the Springboks inspire. Perhaps it is because the unity is not simply captured in slogans such as “stronger together”, but personified in the way that the game is played, the interactions among the players, and most profoundly the consistent messaging about resilience, unity and proud nationhood that emanates from the captain, Siya Kolisi. He does what our political leaders fail to do, intentionally building cohesion, communicating the message of unity and demonstrating what it looks like in action.

Addressing structural racism in South Africa requires a comprehensive and sustained effort from government, but also from us as citizens, who fundamentally believe that “ons is nie almal so nie”.

Addressing structural racism in South Africa requires a comprehensive and sustained effort from government, but also from us as citizens, who fundamentally believe that “ons is nie almal so nie”. It necessitates policies that promote economic empowerment, educational equality and social parity. It requires initiatives and the leveraging of opportunities such as winning the Rugby World Cup, which foster a collective sense of national identity and transcend racial lines. We all need to be invested in building a more inclusive and equitable society.

It is possible.


[1] Loretta Feris is vice-principal: academic and professor of Environmental Law at the University of Pretoria. Previously, she was deputy vice chancellor, responsible for transformation and student affairs at the University of Cape Town. The views expressed here are her own.

[2] Lawrence, K, and Keleher, T (2004). “Structural racism”. 2004 Race and Public Policy Conference. http://www.intergroupresources.com/rc/Definitions%20of%20Racism.pdf

[3] Braneon, C, and Ray, S. “Introduction to structural racism: From awareness to action”.

Read the other contributions here.

LitNet se miniseminaar oor strukturele rassisme

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