Democratic South Africa is nearly twenty years old, and the prosperous and peaceful rainbow nation we dreamed of has, as yet, failed to materialise. There are pockets where our dream has become a reality, but in general most black South Africans remain poor and marginalised and that makes a mockery of the South African dream.
At the launch of her new book a few weeks ago, Dr Mamphela Ramphele said something which suddenly brought clarity to the whole issue for me. She urged the audience to ask themselves why we are in this predicament of black poverty and exclusion. “When you ask yourself why, you are bound to confront the question: is it because black people are stupid and lazy?” she said.
The question is bluntly phrased, and for a very good reason. It helps us to cut through all the crap we tell ourselves to justify our lives. Dr Ramphele is right - there really are only two possible answers to that question:
- That we believe black people are stupid and lazy
- That we believe there is systemic exclusion of huge swathes of our society.
Dr Ramphele’s question made me realise that it is racist to accept the status quo. It is not just apathetic, or defeatist or apolitical. It is racist.
If you do not believe that black people are stupid and lazy, you must concede that the conditions many find themselves in are random. The lottery of birth dealt that hand, and it could just as easily have been thrust on you.
It should make us feel sick because it means that there is an oppressive structure in South Africa; that we are part of a system that excludes, exploits and ignores people. And not just “people” in some vague, detached collective. Actual people exactly like you. They could be your mother, or your daughter or your uncle or your grandfather. And this is not some “Apartheid legacy” or “historical context” either – those terms are some of the more common candy coatings we find. This is the current structure of our society. This is the reality of our people today. It is the life that most South Africans wake up to.
It means that if we are not trying, every single day – in one way or another – to break down that social and economic exclusion, to free people from this oppressive system, then we are racist. Only a smug, deluded and racist sense that 'we' deserve to be where we and 'they' deserve to be where they are could possibly justify being able to live with the inequality in our society.