Friday, 15 May 2015

The ASR Institute's Opening Dinner

The Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI) kicked off the second of their civil engagement conferences this evening at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg. This was an evening of inspiring speeches by high profile South Africans, pleasant food, and cordial conversation; and also, unexpectedly, a stark reminder that the nation-building work that lay ahead is perhaps just as daunting as it was in 1994. Just as the Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, prepared to deliver the keynote address, a man rose from the gallery and loudly pronounced that the speaker is a murderer, and that the people demand justice for what happened at Marikana.

The audience observed an uneasy silence as the protester was aggressively removed by the Deputy President's security personnel. The cacophony of the violence died down, and proceedings continued. The Deputy President spoke with the calm, measured confidence one expects from a seasoned politician - skillfully dissipating any tension that may have lingered. He spoke of the process of developing the National Development Plan (NDP), the revered blueprint of the coming South African success story. He spoke of how a group of strategists had been appointed by the President to consult and engage with representative segments of South African society to develop this plan, drawing similarities between the drafting of the NDP and the Freedom Charter. The point was that this NDP document needed to be adopted and implemented actively by everyone, because it came from everyone. He lauded ASRI for bringing together the "fertile minds" of the Muslim community to engage on the NDP, because "we all share a common future." 

Earlier in the evening, guests were reminded of the substantial contribution Muslim leaders made in the struggle against Apartheid. In the areas of politics, activism, social upliftment and sports - Muslims have been a positive force in South Africa. Guests were encouraged to make use of this excellent platform to reconnect with that heritage, to start become active citizens on matters of governmental policy. This, after all, is what ASRI is all about.

The final speaker was the leader of the Jamiatul Ulama South Africa. He took to the stage to share the Islamic perspective on cooperation with the rulers, working towards good in plurality, and being proactive. He made use of the platform to assure the government representatives present that the Muslim community of South Africa would offer its collective expertise and abilities to help build the country. 

What is particularly encouraging about this evening's event is the range and diversity of guests. Prominent people, Muslims and non-Muslims, from all sectors of civil society actively engaging on the state of South Africa. Excited at the prospect of unity despite clear differences. Excited that Muslim contribution to public policy will be based on credible research and will be heard by government. It would be easy to get swept away in the buzz of it all. Then, I look at the programme for tomorrow. Education, safety, health, unity, employment, environmental protection, corruption and policy implementation - they are all there. But one can still hear the cry of the protester as he is dragged out of the hall: "we demand justice." Yes; what about justice? Perhaps we will find out tomorrow.

Friday, 10 April 2015

All Rhodes to Racism

This is not about statues. It never was. Statues hold significance not as mere harmless impotent bronze or concrete in a contextual vacuum; but are erected to honour and immortalise people, and to reflect the values and aspirations of the people of a time and place. Those statues represent a past that must never be forgotten, but cannot be honoured by the majority of people in this time and place.

We would all like to believe that from 1994, most people in SA have disavowed their racism, and those that didn’t were just the ugly remnants of what had to be left behind. We heard our elders still refer to people of other races in ugly terms, but we forgave them and laughed it off thinking, “MY children won’t have to deal with this.” We held the narcissistic idea that starting with us, racism would just dilute itself out over a generation or two; so ending racism was just a waiting game. Then we could all just start respecting each other’s cultures and get on with being the awesomest country in the world. We didn’t even realise that that was perhaps the most racist thing we could possibly do.

How could we be so short-sighted so as to assume racism has no economic component? As if a black child in an informal settlement playing on the side of the N2, seeing the beautiful cars driven overwhelmingly by people that look nothing like him, would not start to make the connection? Would he not start to see his colour as a factor in his destitution and his indignity? Or a white child growing up in large Southern Suburbs home, watching his mother call Mavis or Patience to come and clean up the mess he made: will he not grow up with a sense of superiority over those darker than he? And then we have the “coloureds” – that still, believe the Apartheid construct that they are superior to black people in some way? Now please, do not misunderstand me. I am not saying this is true in all cases in all places for all races. I am saying that enough of these racialised circumstances exist to perpetuate racial animosity.

As long as the geographic and the socio-economic circumstances of people still mirror what it was during Apartheid, we cannot expect racism to disappear. And no, racists, this isn’t about “it’s their culture” or “they’re lazy” or “they want a free ticket”. This is about the hundreds of years of cumulative disenfranchisement of black people, and to a lesser degree other non-whites. This is about Apartheid’s INFRASTRUCTURAL and INSTITUTIONAL components that were never dismantled, and so remain active and current sources of racial tension.

So back to the young students at UCT and that statue. In their families, in their friends, in their trust-fundlessness, in their landlessness; the dispossessed still feel their dispossession racially. They feel the macro- and micro-racism, the subtle glances, the taxis crowded with coloureds and blacks. They feel the suspicious stares and the Bravos and Charlies by security guards; while white  people, by virtue of their skin tone and centuries of privilege, can walk around like they are NOT part of a police line-up. In the context of UCT, black students continue to feel unwelcome, unless they went to a school with white friends. They feel alienated on a campus that is supposed to be there to empower them. They feel the indignity and patronisation of being silently reminded that this is privilege for them, while it is a right for their white peers. Now we can shrug this off as "victim-mentality", but then we assume they are lying/exaggerating/feigning. Racism on loop.

And then, they have to look up at the face of one of the worst disenfranchiser of blacks in SA history sitting there. Cecil John Rhodes. The Usurper. The Entrencher. The White Collar Thief. The Unapologetic Racist. 

It’s time for us to realise: this may not be about race to many of us, but to those who still have to deal with race as a handicap, it very much is.