Reflections and implications for South Africa today and beyond democracy

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South Africans queue in the early morning cold to cast their votes in the mining settlement of Bekkersdal, west of Johannesburg, in South Africa Wednesday, May 8, 2019. South Africans are voting Wednesday in a national election that pits President Cyril Ramaphosa's ruling African National Congress against top opposition parties Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters, 25 years after the end of apartheid. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

The post-apartheid South African society as per section 1 of the 1996 Constitution is founded on values of equality, the advancement of human rights and non-racialism amongst others. Despite many measures, initiatives and efforts, including the enactment of laws, policies and establishment of institutions such as the South African Human Rights Commission; to build a South Africa where all those who live in it, black and white, equally belong; the challenge of racism and its polarizing effects still persist in our beloved country.

This state of affairs, highlights the intransigent nature of the challenge of racism and the need for more intensive, smart, dynamic and effective measures and ways to address the scourge that has afflicted our nation for many decades and could, if not tackled properly could undermine all the gains made in the first twenty five years of our constitutional democracy and embroil our country into a racial conflict that would cause much damage to our nation.

The conflicts in much of the Middle-East, Somalia, and many other parts of the world are living and continuing evidence of what racial, religious and other differences amongst human beings can lead to if not resolved effectively, fairly and justly.  The recent killing of 49 people, including children, in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, is a deadly and sad reminder of the racism and religious intolerance – happening in a country regarded as stable and democratic, and in a country where many people, the world over, never imagined witnessing this level of intolerance and violence.

While there is no scientific, logical or rational basis for racism and for that matter any other form of prejudice – such as sexism, and religious discrimination and intolerance – all of them nothing but social constructs designed to serve the interests of those motivated by hatred, fear, exploitation and oppression of those perceived to be different – these false and baseless perceptions are unfortunately real and have had devastating impact on millions of those deemed different and inferior. Slavery, colonialism, Nazism, apartheid are clear examples in this regard. 

The false and unscientific perception of the inferiority and hatred of those deemed different on the base of race and any other ground knows no boundaries and afflicts the poor, rich and highly educated and judges alike. As an example of this, Lord De Villers, the first Chief Justice of the Union of South Africa said the following in the then highest court in the land, the Appellate Division, in Moller v Keimoes School Committee 1911 AD 635 at pp643-644, 

“As a matter of public history we know that the first civilized legislators in South Africa came from Holland and regarded the aboriginal natives of this country as belonging to an inferior race, whom the Dutch as Europeans, were entitled to rule over, and whom they refused to admit to social or political equality. We know also that, while slavery existed, the slaves were blacks and that their descendants, who form a large proportion of the coloured races of South Africa, were never admitted to social equality with the so-called whites. Believing as these whites did, that intimacy with the black or yellow races would lower the whites without raising the supposed inferior races in the scale of civilization, they condemned intermarriage or illicit intercourse between persons of two races. Unfortunately the practice of many white men has often been inconsistent with that belief, but the vast majority of Europeans have always condemned such unions, and have regarded the offspring of such unions as being in the same racial condition as their black parents. These prepossessions, or, as many might term them, these prejudices, have never died out, and are not is deeply rooted at the present day among the Europeans in South Africa, whether of Dutch or English or French. We many not from a philosophical or humanitarian point of view be able to approve this prevalent sentiment, but we cannot as judges, who are called upon to construe an Act of Parliament, ignore the reasons which must have induced the legislature to adopt policy of separate education for European and non-European children.”

More than one hundred years since the above views, and sadly and unfortunately so, the perceptions of racial superiority and inferiority still persist in our country, racist utterances including the usage of the k- word continues in some quarters, so do the adverse effects of apartheid such as racial spatial planning, and economic inequalities amongst many others.

What is clear, more so, as we celebrate 25 years of constitutional democracy, is the need for more concerted efforts by all role players – government, the business sector and citizens alike – to address the challenge of racism and get rid this practice and false belief and perception in the minds of all South Africans, black and white and young and old. Racism, like sexism and religious intolerance are taught and learnt behavior and perceptions and can be unlearned. However, this can only be achieved through greater determination and greater efforts and persistence than seen in the first 25 years of our democracy.      


Tseliso Thipanyane is the CEO of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).