Jonathan Jansen: Race-shaming a deflection

South Africa has a long history of race-shaming. It happens when individuals or groups of people are shamed for the simple fact that they are black. Bodies were lined up and hosed down. Heads were inspected for ticks. Pencils tested the spring-tension of hair. Coons were there to be laughed at. Jokes abound about various ethnic groups. To this day comedians make their money by getting audiences to laugh at people classed as races. Coloured women are ready available material for race shaming before and after Kuli Roberts despised their very humanity.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, is the former rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and currently Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies at Stanford University in the United States

You would think as South Africans we would know better than to race-shame people in 2017.

And yet that is exactly what happened when white citizens joined black citizens in country-wide marches against the leadership of our country.

An incorruptible minister of finance was shunted in a midnight cabinet reshuffle, setting off alarm bells among citizens and financiers alike.

One ratings downgrade was about to be followed by another. Public entities were racking up millions, even billions, in losses.

And the national currency was on a hiding to nothing. As economist Mike Schussler put it, 10 years ago South African industry produced 6.4% more and the rand was 83% stronger.

Ordinary people from across the race and class spectrum knew one thing: the ruling party and the government it dominates had failed the country.

Even leading politicians in the majority party were openly criticising the president, an unprecedented development given that the deputy president and the secretary-general, among others, weighed in. Something had to be done. Then something nasty happened. As white South Africans joined the marches they were roundly shamed from different quarters.

There were hard-core black supporters of the president who threatened physical action against the whites.

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“I want to say to our white counterparts they must be very, very careful,” said the shameless black mayor of one city – to applause from his audience.

For this group the attack on whites involved in civic action is naked racism.

Their twin strategy is to launch a racist tirade against whites and at the same time play victim – we are not monkeys, we will not tolerate racism. Sure, but where in the marches were those racist placards or statements?

The closest anyone came to finger-pointing was at a group carrying bananas to signal our banana republic status.

A more sophisticated group attacking whites want them to acknowledge the past and their own privileges in the present.

Again, a fair point, but since when did we require a political litmus test for solidarity marches?

It certainly was not required when whites throughout history joined the struggle for freedom in the liberation movements. Wrong was wrong. Then we recognised that our liberation depended on cross-racial solidarities. In the struggle against corruption and capture we also stand or fall together.

“I want to say to our white counterparts they must be very, very careful,” said the shameless black mayor of one city – to applause from his audience.

Most of the white folk I know and who marched are a mix of lefties, progressives and just good, decent citizens.

But shaming whites these days make no distinction.

That is why the moving picture of Black Sash member Rosemary Smith on social media was so powerful – more than 30 years ago her poster read, “Mr Botha when will you hear?”.

In the Grahamstown march last week her poster read, “Mr Zuma when will you hear?”.

The sad and scary truth is that in this part of the continent we turn on our white brothers and sisters when we are unable to change the lot of the poorest among us.

They are convenient scapegoats, in other words. Yet the failure to deliver social grants to the poor on a dependable schedule has nothing to do with white privilege or anyone’s monopoly capital. It has to do with official incompetence.

The failure to change the educational and social life chances of rural children in the largest provinces has everything to do with political impotence in the face of union threats and a frightening level of self-deception within the Department of Basic Education.

Now more than ever we need both white and black South Africans to come together, and radically transform education and the economy for those on the downside of history

Do not for one moment believe the so-called radical slogans from corrupt leaders such as Radical Economic Transformation or RET.

It’s called deflection from what seems to be a rush on the state coffers and a desperate defence of the president by a shrinking band of loyalists. And in that desperation, whites are fair game. Now more than ever we need both white and black South Africans to come together, and radically transform education and the economy for those on the downside of history.

And that task requires new political leadership.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, is the former rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and currently Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies at Stanford University in the United States

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