Ten-to-one odds

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It sounds a bit un-balanced, doesn’t it?  But there are three particular sets of odds that affect race relations between blacks and whites. First, in America, whites out-number blacks ten-to-one. Second, in South Africa, blacks outnumber whites ten-to-one.  And third, world-wide, blacks are outnumbered about ten-to-one by non-blacks. (Not just whites but all the other skin colours as well.) 

These proportions present some interesting permutations and combinations. I see four pictures in my mind, composed of circles large and small. The first picture is a small circle outside a large circle. The large one is ten times bigger than the small one. Some call this “segregation”. In South Africa, it was the model for Apartheid – keep the little Bantustans apart from the big Republic. Divide and conquer. In fact, if you look at a map of South Africa you will find that Lesotho and Swaziland are ring-fenced. This was a combination of political, tribal and racial. But the former Bantustans were racial.  That’s why we used to be called the “Racist Republic”.

In America, black people had to sit at the back of the bus. In South Africa, there were not only Men’s and Women’s toilets, but also separate toilets for black women and white women. Some beaches were for whites, others were for blacks, and so on. If you turn this around the other way, you get the model of Orania. Whites living in an enclave – surrounded by blacks. They don’t live and move in one another’s circles. The dawn of Democracy was supposed to change all that. But did it?

In America, a white supremacist assassinated Abraham Lincoln just after the Civil War ended.  It was a huge blow to progress.  Slavery ended, but soon there was something called “Convict Leasing”. Blacks could be arrested for minor misdemeanors like drunkenness or fighting, and given long prison sentences. Then they could be hired out to factories and farms by the prisons as cheap labour. Instead of the plantation economy being re-jigged, it just became mechanized. Blacks migrated away from the South to the North and West – but they urbanized. Very few stayed on the farm. They were exploited in other ways, living in ghettos, still apart from whites.

This brings to mind a second picture – a smaller circle superimposed on top of a larger circle – the larger one being ten times bigger than the smaller one. There are different names for this.  In America, blacks kept to themselves and built their own social structures.  A classic figure was Malcolm X.  Some called it “black supremacy” because it rejected any whites in its internal decision making. This was a kind of “Two-State Solution” as it is called in Israel, with the Palestinian Authority ruling itself, but inside the same borders.

This can be so severe that when Malcolm X started flirting with whites or even blacks of other religions, in terms of collaboration, he was assassinated – not by whites but by blacks. This same attitude of “eKasi” is emerging in South Africa.  Somehow resigned to the fact that there are simply not enough white homes for blacks to occupy, even if they were all invaded, blacks are evolving a whole township culture of their own.  Whites are not welcome, and those who flirt with whites could be “impimpi” or “oreos” or “coconuts”.

This is moving away from the Democratic ideal of non-racialism – sometimes called the Rainbow Nation. That society was expected to be inclusive or “mixed race”.  Attitudes of forbearance and forgiveness were modeled by Nelson Mandela.  He wanted to address both black bitterness and white fear.  You can understand where both come from. Whites are hugely out-numbered and thus afraid of being over-powered. Blacks are on the poor side of those photos taken from drones by Johnny Miller. They can visit malls and shops freely now, without dompass books, but the Consumerism is driving them crazy. 

Worse yet, the economy is not performing well, limiting their options because of the high unemployment rate.  So they buy on Credit and end up in a hole.  Especially young blacks are getting frustrated and starting to assert themselves with hostile demands like Free Tertiary Education.  There is a lot of pent up resentment, and it is becoming manifest in phrases like “radical economic transformation” (RET) and “white monopoly capital” (WMC). These are the talk of the township in election year.

A third picture comes to mind – for the Rainbow Nation. Now there is only one large circle, with dots inside it.  The dots are both black and white. There are ten black dots for every white dot, but they are like a deck of cards that has been shuffled. They are “homogenized”.  Some call it a “melting pot”. Others call it “diversity” or even “multiculturalism”. The South Africa flag has these two streams coming together into one stream going forward.

But there is a fourth picture that is at the base of white fear.  In it, the white dots are all around the perimeter of the circle, which only has black dots on the inside.  Call it “exclusion”. It was the model for the Slave Trade because the Africans came from many different tribes and cultures. They were not “organized”. (In that case, the black dots were around the circle’s perimeter, the white dots inside.) 

It’s what happened in that classroom where the white learners sat at the main table with the black learners to the side. The Rohingya were forced out of Myanmar into a half-life along the border of Bangladesh. Buddhists pushing out Muslims. This is religious intolerance. When the Hutus committed genocide against the Tutsis, it was racism – because the Hutus are Bantus, and the Tutsis are Nilotics. Two different races. It was more than mere tribalism, it was “ethnic cleansing”.

South Africa is the only place where affirmative action has been used in favour of the majority.  Usually it is practiced in favour of a minority or a disadvantaged group – like women.  (Who number about the same as men, biologically speaking.)  Frankly, this worries whites a bit. White men in particular find it hard to compete in an environment of BEE – doubled by “cadre deployment”.  “Patronage” is always mentioned with “corruption”.  Whites are on the back foot, although they have always enjoyed privilege in the past.  But the ten-to-one odds could quickly turn into a nastier form of exclusion. Like Idi Amin expelling all the Asians from Uganda – and thereby decimating that country’s economy.

There is another known way to even the score – reparations. This usually happens after wars, but the new policy of “expropriating land without compensation” is right on the edge of reparations. These sometimes work, but they can also back-fire. After losing the Great War, the Germans languished under a heavy load of reparations. This fed the populism of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. There is more to Peace than the cessation of hostilities. Peace has to sink in and give people security and some future prospects.

Sadly, South Africa’s social cohesion is dis-integrating. Its diversity is not coming together, it is falling apart. One cabinet minister publicly referred to Chinese compatriot as a “fong kong”.  The populist EFF has repeatedly made unacceptable remarks about whites. Femicide is raging. There are periodic outbreaks of xenophobic violence. Much as crime and corruption worry me on the surface, the deeper loss of equilibrium in terms of non-racialism worries me most. One opposition party is led by a man in a mixed marriage. This is symbolic. It is cause for optimism.

As a white man, I decided to cross the colour bar, and I paid Lobola for a black lady. But when I went to Home Affairs to register the marriage, I was turned away. I was told that Customary Marriages are only for “indigenous” people. Which makes me wonder why there is not just one comprehensive marriage legislation in South Africa, like in Kenya?  Why are there several? Three laws – for white weddings, traditional marriages, same-sex marriages… and no such thing as “common-law” marriage yet, in the midst of all the disadvantages by Gender. Where is that Domestic Partnerships Bill?!

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”


Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity.