YONELA DIKO: Shock therapy needed to change racist systems


The Federal Government of the United States has never been accountable to black people. Black people have always known this and have tried to tip toe around America and its weaponised anti-black institutions, not making sudden moves, yes Sir Mr Police Officer, no Madam Judge. But despite all that politeness and reverence, dogs have always been set on black people, black people have been kicked, punched, pressed down, by the government of the people. When that police officer laid his knee on George Floyd's neck, it was just another day, another brutal stop for a black man with the police force, another encounter with a white man’s government.

But see, the white man’s government, Uncle Sam, had been too blind and too unbothered to see forces of change circling, it had not seen young people breaking new ground and reaching to the other side, it never saw that with George Floyd's death, the country would tip, that in the most powerful government on earth, no one was listening, no one was watching, no one was paying attention to the aching heart of its citizen.

At the core of George Floyd's brutal and senseless murder, and the wave of national and global protests, is a national government that has long been an executive branch of the white privileged class, with its various arms, the police, the courts, the houses of policy formation, weaponised against black communities and anyone who is not white.

The ugly contrast between the brutal killings of black men at the hands of police on one hand, and the various 'Karens' who have called on police as their arms of mercenaries against black men, has brought to bare the ugliness of America, a government of white people (not _of _the people), for white people and their fragile sensibilities and prejudices (not for the people) and by white people (and not by the people). The Federal and State governments of the United States exist to serve, protect and fight for white people against any threats, real or imagined.

Since the days of George Washington, the first President of the United States, this offensive middle road of many leaders, of knowing what is right and what needs to be done for black people, but at the same time not wanting to offend white sensibilities about their false sense of superiority, has been the hallmark of the so-called years of racial progress in the United States. But you see, these were not just competing interests of a government or difficult choices for leaders. For black people, this meant more lynching, more rape, exclusion, lack of education, lost potential for a race. The price black people have had to pay for America's cow-towing to white frivolous sensibilities has been a price too high.

Today, black people are less educated, less employed, less housed, have broken families, with less-developed children ravaged by poverty, drugs and pain. A pain of building a country that you could never be truly welcomed in, fighting for a country that will never fight for you, claiming allegiance to a country and its flag, which will never truly claim you as their own.

Whatever attitudes have been transferred from one white generation to another, whatever perceptions have shaped institutions over centuries, whatever the police and the courts and the attorney general have believed about black people over time, these were always bound to collapse because they are not based on any truth or evidence or science, just the shifting attitude of scared people who know that their culture dominance is engineered and not everlasting.

Young people have always held hope for a better world, unburdened by the self-serving false attitude of their forebears. Despite being products of their own environments, it is young people who have always questioned the senselessness of things, upended them and found new ways of living. In 2020, once more, young people have found themselves having to destroy and bring down a senseless system handed over to them by their parents at dinner tables and school meetings and sports playgrounds. Once again, young people have punched a big hole into the world of their forefathers and although much will remain the same, a spark has been lit and the institutions of government have been forced to relook at themselves and see the evil in their eyes.

The death of George Floyd has rekindled the fire of young people and reminded them of their responsibility to shape their own world in their own image, not that of their forebears, not that of their racist, religious intolerant and ignorant parents.

A hundred years after WEB Du Bois published his seminal book The Soul of Black Folk, the question of both the 20th and 21st century is still that of the colour line. Young people are correct to say enough is enough.

But what can we do practically, to build a new system, even as we destroy the pillars that hold and sustain the old one?

South Africa knows all too well how much of our lives are still defined by the colour line. The attitudes may no longer be as hardened as they use to be, but they are still there and it takes a few triggers for them to erupt.

During President Thabo Mbeki’s era we tried to have annual conferences on reconciliation, in order to give ourselves time to reflect, even annually, how far we have come in trying to change old attitudes and actions, and build one true nation that speaks the same language on unity, equality and shared destiny. Unfortunately, talking about racism and the colour line that continues to divide has always been a taboo topic that the more progressive whites find offensive. They are trying, aren’t they? The focus must be on those barbarians who continue to apply naked racism in their Godforsaken corners of the country.

And yet, the racist attitudes have endured, in our top schools, in corporate South Africa, in our politics, and our lacklustre attitude in talking about racism and evaluating its impact daily, yearly, has proven to be a great mistake. We must and should have continued to talk about racism, evaluate our attitudes, our prejudices, deep seated as they may be, so that in the end, although we may not build a perfect country, we may know where we are with regards to shifting racial attitude and hopefully, that we may know what to do.

Talking, by its very nature, gives other people an opportunity to listen. We exist in our own world and sometimes we need shock therapy by being uprooted from our daily reality to be in the presence of other people’s daily realities. A white person who has been told, since he was young, that the most likely person to break into his house is black, that crime, failure, unprofessionalism, poverty, all have a black face will exist in this space and relate with black people with that sense of distance. When they are able to talk about such deep-seated perceptions, how it affects their relations with black people, and when they are willing to unlearn, relearn and start anew, then a new world Is possible.

As the George Floyd incident has shown, white people, albeit young, are able to fight on the side of black causes and bring their privileged world to a standstill. This is a sign of what’s possible. If we can begin to realise that a struggle of one group and race is a struggle for all races, then we will begin to see a system changing.

As one wise man said, "People say a system cannot change, but we are the system".

Yonela Diko is an ANC branch executive committee member for Gaby Shapiro branch in Rondebosch, Cape Town. You can follow him on Twitter.