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[MY TAKE] The language used around racism

Tebogo Tshwane says a talking point at the SA Book Fair was the difficulty that comes with talking about what racism means among black people.

SA Book Fair banner in Newtown. Picture: Tebogo Tshwane/EWN

Banners brandished with the words #OURSTORIES, the theme of this year’s annual South African Book Fair, could not be missed outside Newtown’s Museum Africa as the fair ended on Sunday. It would not be a book fair in South Africa without a discussion about the story of the country’s racial past and how it manifests itself 23 years into democracy.

In a literary session titled Racism: The Immovable Stain, Radio 702 talk show host Gugulethu Mhlungu, Mail & Guardian editor in chief Khadija Patel and Wits University Professor Zimitri Erasmus reflected on the challenges of the language we use to discuss and understand racism in our democracy.

702 presenter Gugulethu Mhlungu facilitates a discussion on racism with Mail & Guardian editor in chief Khadija Patel and Wits University Professor Zimitri Erasmus. Picture: Tebogo Tshwane/EWN

702 presenter Gugulethu Mhlungu facilitates a discussion on racism with Mail & Guardian editor in chief Khadija Patel and Wits University Professor Zimitri Erasmus. Picture: Tebogo Tshwane/EWN

One of the talking points that struck a chord among the panelists and the audience was the difficulty that comes with talking about what racism means among black people.

In this context black with a capital “B” refers to what Steve Biko describes as “those who are by law or tradition politically economically and socially discriminated against as a group in South African society”. This would refer to black, coloured and Indian South Africans.

“Obviously we have the conversation about racism as a system of power that is in many ways based on the idea that whiteness or Europeanness was 'full human' but it complicates things, and I often say don’t have this conversation intra-blackness” said Mhlungu.

Last month EFF leader Julius Malema faced criticism after he made controversial remarks about Indian people at the party’s birthday celebrations in Durban. Addressing the crowd Malema said, “We also want to call upon our fellow Indians here in Natal to respect Africans. They are ill-treating them worse than Afrikaners will do. We don’t want that to continue here in Natal. This is not anti-Indian statement, it is the truth”.

Patel said although she did not think the comments were unfair or controversial, the private discussions on WhatsApp made it clear to her that a space needed to be created to speak about how “the stratification within blackness has damaged us in many ways and continues to play itself out and that’s something we don’t only need to discuss but also to confront”.

“A beginning, at least, has to be honest engagement around this, without people feeling like my space here is being encroached upon if we start to have this discussion,” said Patel.

Erasmus said race categories were essentially about differentiating citizenship rights. She said the present discussion should be rooted in the question of “how is citizenship differentiated in democratic South Africa”?

She argued that it would be better for people to differentiate themselves using the benefits they had under apartheid rule and not through apartheid categories of race. Erasmus said this would help to highlight the connections that exist among black people.

“Why don’t we ask people whether their parents had the right to vote before 1994? Did you have the right to vote? … If you ask all of those questions you will immediately find that the answers to those questions are racialised and that is how you decide who to include and who to put the brakes on”.

Mhlungu asked if the problem was that because of the country’s deeply segregated past we try to fix that by creating a single identity – human race and non-racialism – while ignoring our differences.

“I wonder if it undoes our ability to have a very difficult conversation about: It’s not that we are different that’s the problem, it’s that there are certain systems in the world that cost us in difference. It costs you to be a woman, trans, gay, dark skinned as opposed to light…” said Mhlungu.

“I think in South Africa we have a genuine fear of talking about difference because we think it means we are entrenching oppression,” she added.

The panelists said South Africans needed to accept that there were no good or bad guys when it came to racism – everyone was complicit and therefore everyone had a responsibility to find solutions.

Erasmus stressed the distinction between not being racist and being anti-racism. “The question for me is not are you racist or are you not, the question for me is how do you work with race and what are the implications for the way you work with race”.

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