In the run up to the crucial general election of 2019 the issue of race must of necessity be addressed by the political parties in the discourse and debates that will be taking place. Although race is a sensitive and controversial issue in our body politick it must be honestly and comprehensively dealt with so that we as a nation can move on and be healed. Apartheid and our discredited colonial history has left us with a traumatic and tragic history of racism which still persists in the thinking and action of certain individuals and groups.  

This is unfortunately reflected in the recent incident of Adam Catzavelos on holiday in Greece and his despicable comments in relation to Africans made on a video that went viral on social media. His comments must be condemned in an unqualified way and he must take the legal and other consequences for his words, which reflect a state of mind which is racist to the core and which we as a nation are endeavouring to eliminate in our social discourse and way of life. Incidents like the ones involving him and certain other misguided and irrational individuals indicates that much work still needs to be done in improving race relations in our country so that we can realize the legacy of reconciliation left to us by Nelson Mandela, in this year of the centenary of his birth.  In this regard we all must make a sustained and continuous effort.

Last year in a very honest and frank address on 25 May 2017 as reported by EyeWitness News ‘SA Race Relations Need to be Strengthened’. As erstwhile Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, informed a meeting of the South African National Editors’ Forum that ‘the ruling party has done itself a disservice with its weakened stance on its non-racial character, adding that race relations need to be strengthened’. He stated further that the African National Congress (ANC) has decided to invigorate its non-racial character to ensure it is seen as a home for all the people of South Africa. In developing the theme of his address he declared that that this meant that ‘we want to promote a country where all races feel at home in South Africa’. For this to occur he emphasised that it was necessary for all races to ‘feel that they have a role to play in building and developing’ improved race relations. Ramaphosa deserves to be lauded and emulated for his comments in this regard.

In regard to the cardinally important subject of race relations the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), founded in 1929, which has an international reputation for its accurate and scientific analysis of politics, the economy and socio-economic issues in South Africa, released a comprehensive survey of socio-economic trends and political perceptions in a report entitled ‘Life in South Africa: Reasons for Hope’. This survey spans the period between 1985 to 2016.

In relation to race relations the survey states that the views of the overwhelming majority of people are very different from the vitriol so often evident in the debate this year. Far from being hostile towards one another, most South Africans, black and white, occupy a pragmatic middle ground on race relations. White South African understand and support the need for redress. Black South Africans do not believe that their white compatriots should be treated as second class citizens. The overwhelming majority of both groups believe that they need each other for progress to be made. 

It is submitted that in the last two years that there were unfortunately indications of a deteriorating tendency in regard to race relations. This was the issue that Ramaphosa was boldly addressing in his address to the Editor’s Forum. The situation requires us as a nation to brutally honest and take serious remedial action. It is however necessary to approach this sensitive but very important issue in a circumspect and dispassionate manner and it is further submitted that the present time with the advent of the new Ramaphosa administration and the debates and discussions preceding the 2019 general election is an opportune time for careful self-reflection of all concerned on the subject of race relations.

It should however not be over influenced by certain very unfortunate and sensationalised incidents of individuals such that relating to Penny Sparrow, Adam Catzavelos and Vicki Momberg and their racist and profoundly hurtful comments concerning African people.  Where such racial aberrations do occur they need to be unequivocally censured. However of importance where racial good will and co-operation takes place such conduct also deserves publicity thereby promoting sound race relations. Multitudes of these occur each and every day and indeed, it is submitted, they inordinately outnumber the aberrations of racism. 

South Africa needs an intelligent, honest and informed discourse on relations and non-racialism. Furthermore such discourse should not be dominated by political parties or organisations on the extreme left and extreme right of the political spectrum, such as those of Julius Malema the EFF leader, who in political statements in relation firstly to whites, where he arrogantly ‘invoked his own authority to call his devotees not to slaughter the white yet’. Secondly in relation to Indians and coloureds, in a recent political utterance, speaking at his party’s Youth Day commemoration in Klerksdorp, he declared in an unstrained tirade that ‘[t]he majority of Indians hate Africans, and we must never be scared to say that they are racist…The same thing applies to some of our coloured brothers. They see themselves more white than black’.

This same critique applies equally to the misguided views of and Kallie Kriel of Afri-Forum who expressed the view that ‘Apartheid was not a crime against humanity’.  This last mentioned viewpoint is in manifest conflict with the United Nations resolutions of the General Assembly and Security Council, to this effect in 1966 and 1974 as well as the Rome Statute of 2002. These extremist views do not give us an accurate picture of the present state of race relations.
Although it is submitted that the viewpoint of the SAIRR referred to above is a useful starting point, the issue is far more complex and nuanced. 

The need for improved race relations demands a concerted effort by individuals, faith based and other groups, civil society and the political parties to analyse and discourse on it in a penetrating and serious manner in order to meaningfully improve both race relations and a commitment to enhance non-racism. Of seminal importance the issue of race relations cannot be divorced from the other pressing problems facing the country such as the vast unequal distribution of wealth and resources, not just land, in terms of which most in the middle-class of different races are economically affluent, whereas more than 20 million 

African people still live in abject poverty, 24 years after the advent of our democratic dispensation. This needs to change drastically in order to bring about greater social and economic justice which must inevitably result in an improvement in race relations. 


George Devenish is an emeritus professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.

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