South Africa’s Racist Present

Guest Column: Sean Jacobs. When I read the reports a couple of days ago about a bunch of racist white students at a university in South Africa torturing black service staff members and then posting a video of their exploits on the internet as a warning against integrating the residences, and you wonder why Jacob Zuma fans still sing old songs about machine guns. After all the abuse that black people have had to swallow from white racists in South Africa, and then have to find it in their hearts to forgive and move on, and then to still be confronted with this savagery from a bunch of white thugs who seem to have been so confident of their impunity that they posted the evidence themselves… it’s pretty sickening. What would Gandhi do? I don’t know. But I was glad that Rootless Cosmopolitan occasional guest columnist Sean Jacobs had something to say on the matter. (He first published this in the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog.)

South Africa’s Ugly Present
By Sean Jacobs

It will be interesting to see over the next few days how western (and
South African) media (including South Africa’s racially skewed
blogosphere) will report on the racist incident on a university campus
in South Africa’s Free State (sic) province.

If you have not seen or heard about it yet, a group of white students
forced black staff to eat food that had been urinated on.

If the BBC’s tone is anything to go by, get ready for some apologetic

The BBC used scare quotes to describe the incident. As a friend
reminded me, why, in reporting an appalling recent incidence of abuse
of blacks by whites in South Africa, did the BBC opt to use quotes? The
headline reads “Outcry in SA over ‘racist’ video”. So which is it – is
it racist? Or is it merely “racist”?

I hope I am proven wrong, but I doubt we will see a serious discussion
and reportage about how racial apartheid lives on in South Africa’s
rural provinces, its small city campuses (like the University of the
Free State) and schools, as well as its small towns and farming
districts where things have not changed much.

Last June, I visited the district in Small Karoo (Klein Karoo in
Afrikaans) where my mother was born. She’s the daughter of farm workers
who moved to Cape Town as a young woman in the 1960s to do domestic
work for whites. We witnessed the still-feudal labour and living
conditions that still exist there, and are very similar, she reminded
me, to when she was a child.

I am also reminded of a trip I took with three other friends (two black
and one white American) to the Oppikoppi music festival in the North
West Province a few years back (this was after 2000). We were settling
in at the camp ground when a car with the flag of the 19th century
white Afrikaner republic drove past our camping spot and the occupants,
looking in our direction, gestured: “Wat maak die kaffers hier?”
(Literally translated: “What are the niggers doing here?”)

We also now learn that the racist students at the Free State University
were not just a few bad apples. The case highlights a greater,
institutional culture at the university that tolerated this kind of
behaviour. That black people had been complaining for a while about
racist incidents. These included “… an advert on the university
intranet system requesting a roommate who ‘should not be black and
should be Christian’, dehumanising initiation practices and lecturers
making fun of a student with an albinism condition.”

Watch over the next few days as the victims get blamed. For being the
“collateral damage” of “racial tensions” on the campus, or the result
of too much integration of the university’s residences by “pushy” black
students. And the protests already under way will be scrutinised; the
behaviour of protesters and protest leaders will be judged in terms of
how “responsible” they are in keeping black “anger” in check. There
will be calls for the situation to calm down so we can get things back
to normal.

Some will also hope, like the “liberal” South African Institute for
Race Relations has already done, that this mess will go away, as it
bedevils “race relations” and South Africa’s “reputation”.

What they mean is that the current set-up, by which South Africa is the
most unequal country in the world along racial lines, will be
threatened. As if the current set-up is the best thing South Africa can
afford. My wife has a phrase to describe white liberal sensibilities in
South Africa: “Freedom is [the] freedom to get in line behind us.”

Already in some quarters (the “racial tensions” framers like the leader
of the “opposition” Democratic Alliance) there are attempts to give
equal weight to the University of the Free State incident and the
recent murder of four black people by a young white man in the
country’s northwest on the one hand, and on the other the frivolous
charge by white journalists that they were denied entrance to a meeting
by the private Forum of Black Journalists. (On the latter issue, there
is nothing wrong in principle with a black journalists’ forum, given
the history of that profession in South Africa. That is not the same as
having an opinion about the people currently running it.)

The larger context is, of course, that it has become an article of
faith inside and outside South Africa (and in some quarters within the
country, especially among white liberals), as well as among those with
an interest in developments there (including foreign journalists),

• Overt racism is a thing of the past.

• That the changes from white minority control to a more equitable
society are moving too fast.

• That blacks expect too much.

• That the changes since 1994 are all “reverse racism”.

• That the current state of affairs should be laid at the door of the
“black” government.

Yes, it is true that every day in South Africa, black people are not
forced to eat food laced with urine by whites, dragged behind trucks,
fed to lions or murdered for no other reason than they are not white.

It is also true that not all whites act like this.

And it is certainly the case that since 1994 South Africa has been
governed by a democratic government. The faces of the national
government, and the majority of provincial and city governments today,
are black faces, be they Thabo Mbeki at national level, Beatrice
Marshoff at provincial level in the Free State or Gertrude Mothupi,
mayor of Bloemfontein, the city where the University of the Free State
is situated.

Since 1994 the size and relative wealth of Africans, and blacks in
general, as a class have grown considerably, whether personified by the
success of communications magnate Cyril Ramaphosa or mining
entrepreneur Patrice Motsepe. As the Guardian reported in 2004:

“A decade later, according to the department of trade and industry,
black people have moved from zero to 10% of company ownership and
occupy 15% of skilled positions. The richest black people’s incomes
have risen 30% and you see them spending it in air-conditioned shopping
malls and pricey restaurants.”

This is encouraging, but note, however, that blacks comprise about
80-85% of the population.

So while it is true that blacks and whites at the top are integrated
(and the Forum for Black Journalists “dispute” reflects the kind of
politics of this “new” non-racial elite), outside of this small
stratum, the worlds of whites and black South Africans are, to a great
extent, still separate ones.

The rate of intermarriage is negligible; integrated neighbourhoods like
those in soap operas are, with a few urban exceptions, quite literally
a fiction. Working together in an office does not qualify as

Today, 61% of blacks are considered poor, as compared to 1% of whites.
According to government statistics, about one in ten African adults
suffers from malnourishment and at least one in four African children
suffer from stunted growth. Only 17% of “coloured” households and 10%
of African households earn incomes to put them in into the top income
quintile. By contrast, 65% of white households are in the top quintile.

And while crime is rampant, and does not discriminate on the basis of
race, the majority of victims of crime are black.

The University of the Free State and this state of affairs are the real
racism(s) in South Africa.

This entry was posted in Guest Columns, The Whole World's Africa. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to South Africa’s Racist Present

  1. Doc says:

    Maybe you may want to consider the remote possibility of reclaiming your country as South Africans and reminding the world who the real owners of South Africa are otherwise you will fall by the way side like the Aborigins. This comes with a heavy price tag though (look at what is happening in Zimbabwe) but at the end of the day the white people in your country,like the ones in Zimbabwe, will know they are not superior to the blacks.

  2. Pingback: Nothing Surprises Me . . . « Liberty Street

  3. 'n Boer says:


    Vok jou

  4. Doc says:

    You see ‘n Boer you can not even make sense. I bet you are iliterate. But, personalities aside, the Jacob Zuma tide is coming your way to sweep away all filth wether you like it or not.

  5. Doc says:

    We used to have your kind in Zimbabwe.

  6. 'n Boer says:

    Ja, and then then the commies kicked them out and 2 million Zimbos have starved to death. History will be kind to us, whatever our fate.

  7. Herman Lategan says:

    Hello Sean

    Some good points, although some of your arguments are clichéd. It is clear that you have been out of South Africa for some time and that the nuances of living here has escaped you. Not everything can be broken into black/white either/or thinking. What happened in the Free State was disgusting, but it does not suddenly create a huge national crisis where every white person is a racist. By the way, when last have you been to the Cape Flats. Do you know how racist some so called coloured people are? And in the black townships coloured people aren’t welcome either. Just the other day a coloured man was chased out of his house in a black township. We are working towards complicated solutions in SA. It’s not easy and please, when you write a thought piece like this, stay clear of clichéd thinking. It’s unbecoming of a man with your intellect.

  8. Doc says:

    Get your statistics right before you open your mouth ‘n Boer. Some of us may starve but that is nothing compared to accommodating dysfunctional nonentities like you in my country. Consider yourself lucky you were not born in Zimbabwe because the system would have straightened you out by now

  9. Liz says:

    Dear Sean

    I agree with everything you say. I would just like to know, though, what you think can really be done short of writing about it. As a white South African, how can I affect a situation like this? How could Tony Karon affect it, if he were still here? And if he were, would you consider him to be part of the problem, or a mere “liberal”?

    So what I’m trying to say is, there are different kinds of people living in this country. How would you feel if someone who shared your skin colour comitted an atrocity like that and you were thrown in there with the rest?

    I know the white people who are actually working at changing this place and actually care are so few that we are mere statistics, and you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. And so who the fuck cares if we live or die. We are accidents of history, who fail to even register on the main stream of things. But there are thousands of us. We are horrified by this kind of stuff and who work themselves to the bone to educate themselves and keep learning and moving and aspiring to a just, non-racial society.

    And all us are tarred with this brush. Just take moment and imagine being one of us. No way out, nowhere to go, no hope in sight. This is how we live, and keep on an on trying our best, from day to day to day.

  10. Steven Solomon says:

    I find it interesting that South Africa, after 14 years of democratic freedom and a non-racist constitution, is still under the microscope. Isolated racist incidents do happen and will continue to happen, as they do everywhere in the world. Does the world expect change overnight? 14 years is a blip in the annals of history. Why do expat commentators focus on the negatives only, as if to attempt to justify their reasons for leaving. Lets look at a few positive aspects of South Africa. Millions of people now have brick and mortar homes, which continue to be built. Despite rampant fuel prices and other negative economic factors, we have experienced economic growth here for quite a few years now. AIDS awareness and education have yielded positive results in a decrease in the infection rate. Foreign investment continues to help alleviate the unemployment problem, through growth in the construction and related industries. And this is key. I believe that this type of negative ‘commentary’ creates an unrealistic view and negative impact on SA. The cup is half full, not half empty. Lets encourage a positive view of this beautiful country and what it has to offer the world, without focussing solely on the negatives. Bob Marley’s song ‘Rastaman Vibrations’ sums it up for me, “say, you just can’t live in that negative way, make way for the positive day….got to have positive vibrations”

  11. Napjadi says:

    I am a South African who is young and black, living in this mess that we like to paint as rosy for the rest of the world. My legacy is wrought with injustice that spills itself into my present. How do you expect the crime rate not to be so high when the young men who commit crime, were children in the burning townships, they have had their doors kicked in and seen their fathers,mothers and uncles kicked in the head for just being black, for wanting a better life. Anger persists in all of us quietly simmering, how dare we say we are free when even a child born in the millenium lives below the bread line like his mother and grandmother before him. How dare we say white people are our friends when they still occupy our ancestral land?How do we not stay angry when we are still poor and kept out of work by the lack of education, to meet standards that are set by white people. What about the psychological scars of apartheid and the self hate instilled in us by white people. Tribalism is rife thanks to the Bantustans. Families are shattered due to migrant work, children growing up without fathers, no wonder townships crawl with social ills. White rule kept us black and colored people apart and gave colored people a little extra liberty ensuring that we fear and hate each other. The revolution has not come yet. We will still rise and reclaim our land, Africa for Africans! We would’ve reached civilisation at our own time in our own way at our pace. Racism is alive and well, even the liberals are differential in how they treat the black man, depending on which Class he falls into. They still under-pay the domestic, who is always black and talk to her like a child but sit with their BEE partner and toast their success.

  12. Rufus lewis says:

    You speak the Truth.
    Humans destory the world.Each.other.
    Every thing they can get there hands
    on.Juct for self gratification for the moment

  13. Rufus lewis says:

    You speak the Truth.
    Humans destory the world.Each.other.
    Every thing they can get there hands
    on.Just for self gratification for the moment

  14. Dorothy says:

    To Napjadi: yes, Apartheid was bad. Now, you tell me: which country under Black rule is / was better? zimbabwe? nigeria? Benin? Also – it was paradise …. universities, hospitals, roads, calendars, clothes, schools … before colonialism? No, stone age people. Remember, without colonialism, NO WHEEL. The standards white people sat, are the standards that make possible the things you crave, i.e. cars, telephones, nice buildings, hospitals …

  15. jay says:

    I find it really surprising that an event like the Freestate saga makes headline news worldwide but the fact that thousands of white farmers got murdered by blacks already and is still an ongoing problem is nowhere to be seen. In many of these murders they are brutally tortured for hours before being killed. Yet the whole world throws a tantrum because some worker ate a pie with piss on it.

    It is true that whites still own the most riches in South Africa. When the whites got there they build towns and cities, harbours and airports, infrastructure and companies, and got rich by their own means. The black people were living in grass huts hunting food and stealing the white farmers cattle.

    What on earth do the world expect the white people in South Africa to do then? Just hand everything over to the black people on a silver plate so that they can finally be rich and the white people poor ? Is that what the world wants ?

    Would you overseas reporters and journalist give all your money, house and car to a random black person and then go live in poverty yourself ? Everything that you have worked for your whole life ? I don’t think so…

  16. “/video.php?gId=” “Comments”

  17. I comment after i like a post on a web page or if I have something to add to your conversation. Usually it is often a result of your passion communicated in the article I browsed. And after this guide Audi A6 3.0 TDI quattro Consumption and Costs | Cars Show. I used to be actually moved enough to article a leave a responsea response I do use a couple of questions for you if it’s okay. Could it be just me or does it appearance like like a few of your remarks appearance as whenever they are written by brain dead folks? And, if you are writing on additional places, I’d like to keep up along with you. Would you generate a list the complete urls of your respective community pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook webpage or twitter feed?

  18. I am genuinely grateful to the owner of this site South Africa’s Racist Present | Rootless Cosmopolitan – By Tony Karon who has shared this fantastic piece of writing at at this time.
    retro 9 jordans

  19. hey says:

    I believe what you published made a great deal of sense. But, what about this? suppose you were to write a killer headline? I mean, I don’t want to tell you how to run your website, however what if you added a post title that grabbed a person’s attention? I mean %BLOG_TITLE% is kinda plain. You might peek at Yahoo’s front page and see how they create post titles to get viewers interested. You might add a related video or a pic or two to grab readers excited about everything’ve got to say. In my opinion, it could make your posts a little livelier.|

  20. Daniel says:

    We are a bunch of volunteers and starting a new scheme real
    estate attorney in chicago (Daniel) our community.
    Your website provided us with useful information to work on. You have done a formidable process and our
    entire neighborhood might be thankful to you.

    Colyer Law Group PC
    161 North Clark Street #4700
    Chicago, Illinois 60601
    (312) 922-5152

  21. Derek says:

    Nice post. I used to be checking constantly this weblog and I’m impressed!

    Very helpful information specially the closing phase 🙂 I take care of such
    info a lot. I was looking for this particular information for a long time.
    Thanks and best of luck.

    Breslan Law
    1127 Plainfield Rd
    divorce attorney in joliet illinois (Derek), IL 60435
    (815) 726-7950

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *