South Africa: Apartheid May be Dead, But Not Racism


I think most South Africans would agree that institutionalised apartheid, as designed and implemented by the Nationalist Government, has been buried. Regrettably, many of the products of apartheid remain, like inequality, poor education, disparate economic freedom and disparate opportunities, still exist. Of great concern is that racism still seems to be freely in play.

Apartheid was a fertile breeding ground for racism as it was based on the belief that the sense of justice and desire for recognition of black people and white people are somehow different. The superiority of whites embedded in the apartheid system promoted the belief that the sense of justice of blacks was not as strong as that of whites and they did not have the same desire for recognition or the same need for self-assertion. This belief damaged the entire social basis of humanity among both whites and blacks and is still now implicit in the attitude of a black person who denies that it is possible for a white person to ever understand what it means to be black. The legacy of the hierarchical separation by culture, experience, recognition and worth within which each group was nurtured, and across which there was only the most limited of communication, is still imprinted on our society.

The roots of racism are sociological not biological. There are no such things as ‘human races’ in the way that biologists might previously have thought of them. Any description of a particular ‘race’ is only a casual social designation.

Humans have an innate sense of justice that is the psychological stimulus for all noble virtues like morality, courage, self-sacrifice and honour. It provides them with emotional support for setting values and for determining what they believe to be right or just. They use this sense to evaluate and assign worth to themselves in the first instance but are also capable of assigning worth to other people. They are capable of feeling indignation for themselves and on behalf of others where they evaluate something to be not right or unjust. This can occur when an individual feels that the group to which it belongs is being treated unjustly, for example, a member of a minority group who feels its rights are not being upheld. The indignation that victims and non-victims feel against racism is a manifestation of this sense of justice. The indignation arises because the victim of racism is not being treated with the worth that the person feeling indignation believes they are due, that is, because the victim of racism is not being recognised and valued.

The inner sense of justice of people, and the desire for recognition that arises from it, is a form of self-assertion. It outwardly projects a person’s values. Feelings of anger will arise when such values are not recognised by other people. There is no guarantee, however, that one’s own values will correspond to those of others. What may seem right and just for a victim of racism may seem quite different to a racist, and vice versa.

Racism is thus an offence against human morality and only by emphasising this will we ever eradicate racism in our society. In his much-quoted speech, Martin Luther King visualised a society in which people would “not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”. King did not say that they should be judged according to their status or talent but by their moral character and human dignity. He viewed all people equally as ‘moral agents’ irrespective of their intelligence, skill, talent or position in society.

Our fledgling democracy that is based on free market principles and a global economy will not prosper while natural barriers to equality exist. These begin with the unequal distribution of abilities or attributes within our population and the necessary division of labour within the economy. A modern economy cannot be productive without creating winners and losers as capital shifts from one industry to another or from one region to another. Our democracy is unlikely to grow if perceived differences in the equality of constituent groups cause a distorted view of nationalism or ethnicity. If this happens, and there are many signs that it is still happening, we will not be able to share a sense of nation or be able to accept one another’s rights.

To nurture our inner sense of justice and our need for recognition does not mean that we need to recognise everyone as equal. In fact, true freedom and creativity can only come about if we have a desire to be recognised as being better than others. We would never push ourselves to our limits if we simply wanted to be like everyone else. What is necessary, however, is that we need to recognise fairly and with a sense of justice the talents of others, irrespective of their status and perceived equality, and, most importantly, acknowledge their moral character.

South Africa has the potential to be a flourishing developing country with a strong emerging economy. As an emerging society, however, we are not doing ourselves justice. While there may be many other factors, residual racism is undeniably a negative one. We owe it to ourselves to eradicate this scourge and to put it behind us as soon as we can. As a start, the government needs to act with strong moral character. It is not enough just to ensure that the demographic features of our population are catered for in public sector appointments but that all appointments must be based on the strongest levels of moral character.

The eradication of racism may seem to be best undertaken by a ‘bottom-up’ process, i.e. by diverse individuals and individual communities mixing more freely with one another, which, it must be said is indeed happening. But, until the government shows high moral character, and embarks on a ‘top-down’ process to ensure high morals, just and ethical behaviour, racism, I’m afraid, will still be with us for a long time.

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