SPEECH BY THABO MBEKI AT THE OPENING SESSION OF THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE ON RACISM
Johannesburg, South Africa
August 30, 2000
Issued by: Office of the Presidency
On behalf of our Government, I am happy to welcome you all to this important Conference and to wish you success in your deliberations.
I would also like to thank Dr Barney Pityana and the rest of the Human Rights Commission, most sincerely, for the work they have done, first of all to ensure that this Conference is held and that it becomes the success it surely will be.
The public discussion that has taken place in our country in the last few months on the issue of racism, demonstrates the point unequivocally that in this area, we are faced with one of the most contentious issues on our national agenda.
Its discussion does not lead to the national feel-good atmosphere we all experience whenever our national sports teams score a victory over a foreign competitor or when other benign events occur that help us to forget the persisting racial divisions in our society.
Arguments are advanced honestly that such a discussion, about racism, can only lead to the division of our country into mutually antagonistic racial camps.
It is also said that it might very well encourage racial conflict, destroying the progress we have achieved towards national reconciliation, towards the birth of a happy rainbow nation.
It has been argued that those who point to the persistence of racism in our country are themselves racist. Those who propagate affirmative action are accused of seeking to introduce reverse racism, or, more directly, of resort to anti-white racism.
Some assert that the description 'racist' is merely an epithet used by bad people to insult others, as well as a means of intimidating and silencing those who hold views critical of the government.
Alternatively, it is said that the issue of racism is brought up by unscrupulous politicians, in an effort to mobilise black constituencies to support them. After all, so it is said, we ended apartheid and therefore racism, when we became a non-racial democracy in 1994.
On the other hand, others within our society argue that those who are most vocal in seeking to suppress discussion of this issue are those who benefited from centuries of colonial and apartheid racial domination.
These will go on to say that the privileged do not want this discussion because they want to maintain their privileged positions at all costs.
It is also said that in order to achieve this result, the privileged work hard to convince both themselves as well as the rest of society, that what is being complained of does not, in fact, exist, except for isolated incidents.
This is categorised as the denial mode, in terms of which the dominant instruments of propaganda, which, by definition, are at the disposal of the privileged, are used to obstruct recognition of reality.
The aggrieved will go further to argue that the privileged sectors of our society, accustomed to setting the national agenda, continue in the effort to set the national agenda, regardless of what the majority of our citizens might desire.
Of course, by this time, the latter have been empowered by the establishment of the democratic system to believe that they have the democratic right, openly and legitimately, to set this national agenda.
The point is also made that our process of national reconciliation has been somewhat of a charade. In this regard, it is said that only the victims of racism have responded to the call to forgive and to let bygones be bygones.
The charge is made that the perpetrators and beneficiaries of racial oppression and exploitation have acted merely to defend their interests, refusing to extend their own hand towards the victim, in a true spirit of reconciliation.
Among others, the response of certain sectors of our society to the request to them to make submissions to the TRC helped to reinforce the view that the beneficiaries of white minority rule were unwilling to contribute to the process of national reconciliation. The same can be said of the initial response of sections of the media to the decision of the Human Rights Commission to hold hearings on the issue of racism in the media.
It is of course obvious to all participants at this Conference that colour and race would, essentially define the two schools of thought represented in the remarks I have just made.
Necessarily, this adds to the acrimony, the unpleasantness and, therefore, the difficulty of conducting a rational and even-tempered discussion on the question of racism.
With all these problems, some might legitimately pose the question - why not abandon this discussion until some later date, when we can discuss all these matters in a more propitious atmosphere! The Government is firmly of the view that this would be a very serious mistake.
The postponement of this discussion would sharply exacerbate the danger of the social instability implicit in the racial divisions that continue to characterise our society.
Nevertheless, as we enter into discussion, it is clear that all of us will have to make a supreme effort to allow all points of view to be heard and discussed in an atmosphere that permits of the free exchange of views.
As we begin to engage one another at this Conference, I would like to believe that there are some basic propositions on which we would all agree. Let me state some of these.
First: the practice of racism is both anti-human and constitutes a gross violation of human rights.
Second: as it has been practised through the centuries, the black people have been the victims of racism rather than the perpetrators.
Accordingly, what we have to deal with is white, anti-black racism, while giving no quarter to any tendency towards black, anti-white racism, whether actual or potential, as well as anti-semitism.
Third: racism is manifested in a variety of ways, these being the ideological, existing in the world of ideas, and the socio-economic, describing the social, political, economic and cultural power relations of domination of and discrimination against the victims of racism.
Fourth: for many centuries racism has been a fundamental defining feature of the relations between black and white, a directive principle informing the structuring of these relations.
Fifth: the legacy of racism is so deeply entrenched that no country anywhere in the world has succeeded to create a non-racial society.
Indeed, a deeply disturbing resurgence of racism and xenophobia constitutes part of the current social and political reality in some of the developed countries of the North.
These countries pride themselves, perhaps justifiably, as the home and repository of the ideas and practice of human rights, democracy, equality and human solidarity, and leaders whose example we should emulate.
Sixth: global experience stretching over a long period of time, demonstrates that the creation of a constitutional and legal framework for the suppression of racism is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to end this violation of human rights.
Accordingly, a constitutional and legally guaranteed right to equality and non-discrimination is very important in the fight against racism. Similarly, the legal possibility and right to redress in case of such discrimination is also critical.
At the same time, the creation of the socio-economic conditions enabling such equality to be achieved is fundamental to the realisation of that constitutional and legally guaranteed right to equality.
The American scholar Alan David Freeman has written that:
" The concept of 'racial discrimination' may be approached from the perspective of either its victim or its perpetrator. From the victim's perspective, racial discrimination describes those conditions of actual social existence as a member of a perpetual underclass. This perspective includes both the objective conditions of life (lack of jobs, lack of money, lack of housing) and the consciousness associated with those objective conditions ( lack of choice and lack of human individuality in being forever perceived as a member of a group rather than as an individual.
" The perpetrator perspective sees racial discrimination not as conditions but as actions, or series of actions, inflicted on the victim by the perpetrator. The focus is more on what particular perpetrators have done or are doing to some victims than on the overall life situation of the victim class."
(Legitimising racial Discrimination through anti-discrimination law: A critical review of Supreme Court doctrine).
Whatever else we may disagree about, I would hope that, at least, we would agree about these propositions.
Let me address our own situation more directly. Once more, I would hope that we would agree on most, if not all, the observations I will make.
Racism has been a fundamental organising principle in the relations between black and white in our country, ever since Dutch immigrants settled at the Cape of Good Hope.
As the dominant group in our country, the white minority worked to structure all aspects of our national life consistent with the objective that the whites should always remain the dominant group and the black majority, the dominated.
Throughout this period of over three hundred years, this work, focused on the deliberate construction of a racially divided society, was done explicitly on the basis of a racist ideology, legitimised by its open and consistent adoption as official state policy.
The destruction of the Nazi and Fascist regimes in the world was one of the principal outcomes of the Second World War.
The apartheid system constituted a latter-day manifestation of the crime against humanity that Nazism and fascism had imposed on the European, Asian and wider world, more than a decade earlier.
Accordingly, as a country, bearing in mind the post-war process of de-colonisation and the advances achieved as a result of the civil rights struggle in the United States, we became the epicentre of the state-approved ideas of racism, to which all humanity could legitimately attribute such anti-human phenomena as racism and anti-semitism, slavery and colonialism.
Our own specific history has created a situation that constitutes a common legacy and challenge.
The social and economic structure of our society is such that the distribution of wealth, income, poverty, disease, land, skills, occupations, intellectual resources and opportunities for personal advancement, as well as the patterns of human settlement, are determined by the criteria of race and colour.
An important part of this legacy is that the imposition of the ideology of the dominant group has led to the weakening of the self-respect, pride and sense of identity of the dominated.
This results in the incidence among some of the dominated of self-hate, denial of identity and a tendency towards subservience to a definition of themselves as would have been decided by the dominant power.
Clearly, it will take time for us to wipe out this legacy. The struggle waged by the black majority against colonialism and apartheid, supported by some principled white compatriots and the rest of the world, has, in the first instance, been aimed at ending the relationship of dominant-and-dominated, as between white and black, and achieving equality among all South Africans, in all spheres of human life and activity.
However, the incorporation in our Constitution and national statutes of the objective of the creation of a non-racial South Africa has placed an obligation on our society as a whole to strive to achieve this outcome, as an agreed national task that transcends all narrow partisan interests.
Our constitutional and legal framework and regime provide us with a strong legal base to confront the scourge of racism. That base includes:
Our transition to a non-racial democracy in 1994 and the subsequent creation of the constitutional and legal framework we have just described, have not ended the inherited racist, discriminatory and inequitable divisions of our country and people.
Despite our collective intentions, racism continues to be our common bedfellow. All of us are therefore faced with the challenge to translate the dream of a non-racial society into a reality.
Fortunately for all of us, we have the advantage that the overwhelming majority of our citizens, whether we are white or black, or black or white, we are South African and African.
Almost all of us do not have the option to uproot ourselves, to resettle ourselves and our families in other, wealthier countries, happy to assume another nationality and proud to denounce our former homeland, South Africa, and continent, Africa, for their failures and brutalities.
Whatever the negatives we feel ourselves to be subject to, most of us take the view that we should address such negatives, rather than respond to them by packing our belongings and leaving.
Those of us who do not leave stay because we take the decision to fight for the emergence of a society that would enable us and our children to lead secure, comfortable and happy lives.
In a sense, this constitutes a prayer to the future. It also represents a confident confirmation of our conviction that we are capable and willing to participate in determining what that future will be.
Accordingly, what happens to South Africa, as a result of policies and practices originating from the government and other decision-makers in our society, is of direct concern to all our citizens.
This includes the most lowly and those most marginalised from the centres of social power, regardless of race, colour, gender, age and geographic location.
Consequently, what you will decide at this Conference is of the most fundamental importance to the millions of South Africans whose interests all of us in this hall claim to represent and speak for. I will therefore make bold to advise - please bear in mind that we are a multi-racial and multi-cultural society, born out of and conditioned by policies and practices that sought to emphasise our differences as these racial and cultural groups, rather than our commonalities as human beings who have lived together for many long years.
We must also recognise this, that all of us are products of what the intellectuals have described as a process of socialisation. Accordingly, all of us are even conditioned to understand South Africa, our common home, in different ways.
Even at this Conference, the apparently simple question - how would you characterise present-day South Africa - will produce responses as varied as the colours of the rainbow.
As we try to determine what is best for us as a people, our intelligentsia will have to consider a wide variety of important matters. These include:
As I have said, hopefully all of us present here can find it within our possibility to agree also with these assertions about our own specific reality.
Needless to say, we are also perfectly at liberty to disagree with any and all of them.
Such an honest response is surely an inevitable and necessary part of the kind of discussion we need, that will enable us, collectively, to confront the challenge of racism.
All of us at this important Conference will have to answer the question -how do we respond to all the general and specific propositions we have presented to you, thus far!
This might very well include the response that all we have said constitutes the most unadulterated rubbish that you have ever had the pain to listen to.
Naturally, the delegates are perfectly entitled to arrive at this conclusion, having rationally argued that this is the only rational conclusion that any reasonable person would reach.
Having heard the charges that the government acts in a manner that seeks to intimidate those who differ with it, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all our people to break through the barrier of fear and to speak their minds.
At the same time, they must understand that true intellectual discourse presumes the vigorous contention of ideas.
By this we refer to the concept put forward at some time in the history of China when, for better or for worse, the political establishment advanced the slogan - let a hundred flowers bloom! let a hundred schools of thought contend!
Given the difficult solutions we have to find to the hundreds of problems that confront all of us, with none of us occupying a privileged position of being the exclusive domicile of wisdom, we cannot but agree that, in our instance as well, let a hundred schools of thought contend!
We speak here of a contention of ideas and not the reduction of ideas to persons, such that intellectual debate is reduced to skirmishes, battles and a war among individuals, however much any idea might be identified with a particular individual.
I make these observations because I believe that as we discuss among ourselves at this Conference, it will be important that we do not transform our rejection of any views that might be expressed into hostility towards the individuals who might express such views.
Whatever our protestations and our elevated views of ourselves, many of us are still immersed in a learning process of how to handle open and vigorous debate.
I would now like to request your indulgence to state what our Government believes that we, as South Africans, can and should do to respond to the common challenge of racism.
One of the critical national and international challenges that confront us as a country and a people, is to succeed in the objective of creating a truly non-racial society.
Many across the globe believe, with good reason, that because of our specific history, we have the possibility and will make an important contribution to the universal struggle to defeat the scourge of racism.
Whatever the problems we face today, our Government is convinced that, as a people, we have the capacity to achieve this historic and epoch-making objective.
We are convinced that as a people, both black and white, we have the wisdom, ingenuity and sensitivity to the human condition that will drive and enable us to overcome the demon of racism.
Correctly, much has been made by people around the world about the 'miracle' of our transition from apartheid rule to a non-racial society.
At the heart of the sense of wonder and relief among the international community was the fact that, contrary to many expectations, we avoided a racial war, despite the racial brutality of the apartheid system and the racial antagonisms it generated.
The international community responded with a similar sense of wonder and admiration at the formation of, and the work done, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reinforced by the morality and humanism of that outstanding son of our people, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Unfortunately, we have not done the necessary work to assess what it was that made it possible for the miracle to happen, being seemingly content merely to bask in the universal praise.
But this we all know, that what we achieved was the product of conscious and purposive human efforts and the outcome of the understanding by the millions of our people that all of us, regardless of race and colour, are interdependent members of a common neighbourhood.
It was the result of the effort expended over many years to entrench the understanding among the millions of our people that black domination was as evil as white domination.
I am convinced that precisely because we can rely on the same factors that made our peaceful transition possible, we can say, with confidence, that we will, indeed, defeat the demon of racism.
The first step we must take towards the realisation of this goal is the common recognition by all of us, black and white, that racism exists and that it is indeed a very serious problem, without whose solution it is idle to speak of a new South Africa.
Secondly, we must abandon any notion that the problem of racism has nothing to do with me and is the responsibility of another. We have to treat racism as a problem that challenges the black people. We must treat racism as a problem that challenges white people.
It is obvious that it makes no sense whatsoever to argue that the responsibility to end racism resides with the victims of racism. Another step we have to take is to make the common determination that, precisely because this issue is so fundamental to our future, we have to ensure that it is discussed frankly, freely and openly. We must be ready to take the pain that will be an inevitable part of this open discourse.
None among us should seek to suppress this discussion. To suppress it is to guarantee the perpetuation of racism, with the destructive consequences of which all of us must surely be aware.
These requirements place a particular obligation on the white section of our population, itself voluntarily to recognise the reality of racism, not to propitiate any sense of guilt, but to make a contribution to the bright future of our country which they legitimately expect.
It is not possible to over-emphasise this particular imperative, so central is its place among the panoply of initiatives we must take in the common struggle to end racism.
We will never succeed in the struggle against racism if the white section of our population does not join with its black fellow-citizens in common effort to transform ours into a non-racial society.
Naturally, I am aware of the justified feeling among many of our white compatriots that they were not responsible for racism and apartheid.
Accordingly, they argue that they feel insulted when the crimes of the apartheid system are blamed on them.
From this, it becomes an easy step to take to the conclusion that these compatriots have no particular obligation to heal a wound they did not cause.
Correct as this argument may be, nevertheless we have to respond to the actual situation that faces us in this country.
This actual situation is that racism organised our society in such a manner that the black oppressed could not possibly have a way of distinguishing between those who elected to enforce a racist system, and those who were the involuntary beneficiaries of racism.
Explained in other words, racism constitutes the practice of uniting people on the basis of race, even by statute, as in our case, and presenting them as a united entity relative to those who are the victims of racism. It is to such a united entity that the victims of racism must necessarily respond.
In this context, we must also recognise the fact that throughout a very long period of struggle against racism, very few of our white compatriots broke ranks with the system of white minority rule to join the black millions who were in rebellion against racist rule.
In this situation, it becomes easy to argue that - you may not have been against us, which we only know from what you say, but you were not with us, which we know because you were not with us in struggle!
It serves little purpose to take offence at a perceived attribution of guilt and therefore to decide to take no responsibility to help solve the challenges our country faces. In reality, such a position only serves to make it more difficult to end racism in our society.
If I may I would like to refer briefly to what the distinguished President of our Constitutional Court, Justice Arthur Chaskalson said last year when he addressed the Congress of the Jewish Board of Deputies.
He says that by the time he entered the legal profession, discrimination and humiliation of Jews in South Africa because of their religion "had ceased to be a significant factor in our lives." He continues:
" Then, the dominant defining characteristic of our family, within the broader context of South African society, was not our ethnic or religious origins, but the fact that we were white. Because of that, we were entitled to all the benefits then accorded by law to people who were white. We prospered, as so many of the Jewish community did, not only because of our work, but also because of the opportunities offered to us as whites. We were no longer part of a marginalised group within society; we had become part of a privileged group, and part of a society in which others were subjected on a daily basis to the discrimination and humiliation which had been the lot of so many of our ancestors."
As we engage the challenge of racism, it is also clear that we have to address the seemingly two-sided phenomenon of 'white fears and black expectations'.
Many within white society harbour fears that our country will slide into the abyss, if it has not already begun that slide. They fear that they will be the worst and perhaps the express victims of the impending catastrophe.
In her book, Country of My Skull, Antjie Krog says that General Constand Viljoen told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
" The Afrikaner can in no way detach himself from the past. But we must be allowed to make for ourselves an honourable role in the new dispensation. The Afrikaner feels disempowered, unsafe, his language is threatened, his educational structures are in pieces -in short, the Afrikaner feels flooded by the majority and he has nowhere to turn."
In this situation, the many negative things that do happen in our country, as they do in any other, are easily read as confirmation that the expected dismal future is on its way.
It is in this context that even the discussion of racism, aimed at ending racism, itself generates the fear that it will provoke black violence against our white citizens.
Out of all this comes the advice - move gently with your transformation processes lest you worsen white fears about the future!
For their part, the black people watch and wait in expectation that real change will come sooner rather than later.
They, too, are fearful that sensitivity to the reality of white fears might translate into insensitivity about their expectations speedily to end the pain they have endured for centuries.
If white South Africa is fearful of the future because of what it might lose, black South Africa looks forward to the future because of what it will gain.
In the end, what it expects it will gain is, fully, its human dignity, based on an end to poverty, ignorance and inequality, and based on the creation of a society in which its blackness will no longer be a badge of subservience.
Out of all this comes the advice - move speedily with our transformation processes lest we lose confidence in everything that has been said about, democracy, non-racialism and national reconciliation!
Peter Rule, with Marilyn Aitken and Jenny van Dyk have written a biography of Mrs Nokukhanya Luthuli, the wife of Chief A.J. Luthuli, entitled Nokukhanya: Mother of Light. At the age of 90 years, they quote her expressing this simple but profoundly humanist and African wish:
" My wish before I die, is to see blacks and whites living harmoniously in a united South Africa."
To answer her prayer, we have no choice but to act together to address both the fears and the expectations, without allowing that these fears are used to perpetuate racism, without allowing that the justified expectations are addressed in a manner that will create new crises.
The very act of getting together in pursuit of a common cause would both reduce the fears and remove any confrontational attitude attaching to the expectations.
It would surely confer a universal benefit if those who might despise and fear others because of their race, our history and its legacy, no longer had cause to do so; while those who might carry anger in their hearts against others because of their race, our history and its legacy, also no longer had cause to do so.
Thus shall we have a future of hope for the black and white children of our country, to whom we must bequeath an adulthood as free of hate and fear as they were free of hate and fear when they were born.
In the speech I have already cited, Judge Arthur Chaskalson says that what is demanded of all South Africans is:
" That we commit ourselves completely and wholeheartedly to the transformation that has to take place. This calls for more than pious statements or resolutions at the end of a conference (It means) seeking solutions and not recrimination. Pragmatically (as the Jewish people) this is what we have to do; ethically, this is what we are obliged to do, and in good conscience we can do no less."
In 1967, a group of experts convened by UNESCO issued a "Statement on race and racial prejudice." The statement begins with these words:
" All (human beings) are born free and equal both in dignity and in rights. This universally proclaimed democratic principle stands in jeopardy wherever political, economic, social and cultural inequalities affect human group relations. A particularly striking obstacle to the recognition of equal dignity for all is racism. Racism continues to haunt the world."
That world includes our own country.
You have convened here, distinguished South Africans and valued foreign guests, to help our country answer the question - what shall we do to end the nightmare!
This urgent question deserves an urgent answer.
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