Remarks by Minister Nathi Mthethwa at the meeting of social cohesion ambassadors on building the nation and eradicating racism, Johannesburg

Arts and Culture Minister Mr Mathi Mthethwa-fLet me welcome you to a new year.

And every new year presents an opportunity for us to renew our commitments to our families, our communities, ourselves and our contribution to the country as a whole.

While the global economic outlook is not rosy and we know that much remains to be done, nevertheless we are optimistic about the future.

Things are changing. It is getting better. We need greater co-operation. We need to harness our collective power to create a better world. This is what we tell ourselves.

Then the road we are travelling on takes a turn for the worse and we witness racism once more rearing its ugly head, to stem the tide of progress and transformation, to derail us from our journey.

We have witnessed the graphic and unashamedly racist language of those who call fellow South Africans monkeys and “bobbejaan”, those who want to bring back the Group Areas Act and do not want black people to share the same beaches, let along the same suburbs.

We have seen those who express their nostalgia for the apartheid era, who say that: “More than 25 years after Apartheid ended, the victims are increasing along with a sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities….”

These are but the latest examples in a long litany of insults against black people.

And we ask ourselves, how much longer does the hate speech have to continue, how much longer do people in South Africa mainly of a paler hue need to see themselves as superior, as brighter, as more entitled to the beauty and wealth of this country.

Yet the very words they use indicate how dehumanised they are; how their humanity has been lost, such that their attacks on others are attacks on humanity itself.

Is this the “banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt is said to have spoken about, as she studied Adolf Eichmann, one of the main figures in the Holocaust, and came to the conclusion that those of his ilk did not think about their actions, but were non-thinking?

For Arendt those, who do not think, do not value themselves as political beings and do not see their lives as tied up with the lives of those of others.

In our particular circumstances, the consequences of such non-thinking and seemingly knee-jerk reactions we have seen spewn from the mouths and actions of some around us, could result in a desire for genocide, a wish to bring back the darkest days of apartheid.

Those who say and think in terms of hatred for others reflect an allegiance not to the South Africa of the present but an obedience to the perpetuation of the horrors of the past.

There are those who dare say that we over-react and that words do not kill. The truth is that they do.

We should not be distracted from the building of a non-racial South Africa. What we are against is known. But what we are for is not known. Our approach must be multi-fold – what is it that unites us; what are our common values? Our approach must be multi-fold. Our social cohesion advocates are important. We need to partner with stakeholders.

I am reminded of the words of our first President of the democratic South Africa, Tata Nelson Mandela, when he said that:

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

This is why as a nation in the making we have dwelt so much on nation-building, national unity and bringing all our people together.

For racism is not merely prejudice: it is both ideological and systemic. Racism was able to be systemic in South Africa given the way it manifested itself throughout almost all institutions in society; hence in our context, we could also speak of a history of institutionalised racism.

There was a party that for 50 years preached racism. We need to ask what happened to these people. They are still here.

It is important that we de-educate people from their myths and re-educate them. Covert racism is worse – it is what political scholars call racism without racists.

Therefore it has not been for nothing that we have fought for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

Building a non-racial society is not an easy task. It requires a change in mindsets, a willingness to think, to understand the basic dignity of all people and a commitment to equality and inclusivity in pursuit of a better life for all.

It is not a rosy goal. It is easy to take shortcuts but we need to move beyond anger.

Nation-building in the context of South Africa cannot degenerate into the mere perpetuation of the hierarchies of the past, based on pre-given or ethnically engineered and imposed divisions of people rooted in prejudice, discrimination and exclusion.

Lapse into the past

Yet, despite the progress we have made, the structural legacy of colonialism, segregation and apartheid remains deeply entrenched as reflected in the colonial, sexist and super-exploitative structure of our economy; the spatial patterns of development and underdevelopment; and the social, human resources and infrastructure backlogs.

This structural legacy finds particular expression in mass poverty and extreme inequality, which were inherent to colonialism and apartheid.

Thus the current incidents related to racism are expressions of the views held by those who benefited from apartheid and who wish to retain the status quo.

It would be naïve to expect that even the best-drafted laws can eradicate decades and centuries of oppression and institutionalized discrimination in the space of two decades.

In the arts, culture and heritage sector, we have seen in recent months the racist reactions of those who want to continue to perpetuate colonial and apartheid history that declared their suffering and contribution in history as superior to that of others.

There are many areas, sectors and sites of struggle where racism has yet to be dislodged.

The future calls for something else; a country in which all are fully free, all are truly equal.

Thus a programme of engagement is key in educating society about racism. Dialogues and community conversations are important

Through these and other interventions we shall be able to say that we (as Ernest Renan says in his essay “What is a Nation?”): “have common glories in the past” and a “common will in the present” and “perform great deeds together” and “wish to perform still more”.

In this way we would have attained, what Ernest Renan has called, the essential conditions for being a people.

Today we are on the path to build a united South Africa.

We shall not be distracted.

We shall continue to believe in the power of South Africa.

We have the power.

We have the will; and we dare not fail.

 

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