Racism Outlives Nelson Mandela in South Africa

Image: Tasha Kleeman

Image: Tasha Kleeman

On 5th December 2013, our television screens, Twitter feeds and newspaper headlines were dominated by millions of people all over the world mourning and celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, the man who will be immortalised in our history books and in our memories for putting an end to Apartheid and the extreme racial discrimination in South Africa.

Over the Christmas break, I was fortunate enough to visit South Africa. As I had expected, it was an amazing trip and a fascinating country. What I, perhaps naively, didn’t expect was a clear remaining racial divide, through which the traces of apartheid were very much apparent. I discovered a beautiful country full of beautiful people, yet tainted by an ugly history that continues to cast a long shadow over South Africa.

For example, generally, when eating in restaurants, we sat amongst white customers and were served by black waiters and waitresses. The only white staff were those that were in charge. In supermarkets, black cashiers were told what to do by their white manager. In hotels, the pattern was the same, with the majority of low-paid jobs taken by black individuals, whilst the managers and owners were white. Furthermore, despite the fact that the two races supposedly coexist as ‘equals’ in society, it was fairly unusual to see black and white people together within groups. Of course, there were exceptions to the rule, but it was impossible to not notice the patent division between them, and the evident economic inequalities present.

There seemed to be a paradox between the acute awareness of the Apartheid and a glorification of Mandela in the wake of his death, with posters, books and exhibitions at every turn which seemed to consign racial issues to history, and an unsettling underlying sense that the issues are still very much impacting on the present. Of course, my small trip only captured a tiny fraction of what is a vast country, and the places I happened to visit as a tourist were not in any way representative of South Africa as a whole. However, after doing some research, I realised there is much more to it than my personal observations. For example, the income of white South African households is six times higher than black ones. According to the reconciliation barometer published by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in 2012, 43.5% of South Africans rarely or never speak to someone of another race. Clearly some remnants of Apartheid still linger in South Africa.

Furthermore, as David Smith writes in his article in the Guardian, “nearly two decades after racial apartheid bit the dust, its legacy persists in spatial segregation between affluent suburbs and neglected townships, with millions of black people still commuting from the latter at great expense of time and money.” South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, himself states that still “at the bottom of the rung is the black majority who continue to be confronted by deep poverty, unemployment and inequality, despite the progress that we have made since 1994.”

In reality, however, this isn’t surprising in the least. Only 20 years ago, black individuals were treated as inferior, without access to basic rights such as freedom of speech and the right to vote. South Africa was in turmoil, with great amounts of violence, which placed it on the brink of civil war, and with its global image in tatters as a result of worldwide boycotts. Today, South Africa is a respected, largely peaceful country with a fair, democratic society with equal rights for all. Considering how recent Apartheid was, South Africa has achieved an astonishing feat, which this article does not intend to undermine. Of course the entire economy of a country cannot completely change in 20 years, and it will also take time for all prejudices to fade, considering the scars of Apartheid are still fairly raw, and that a generation of living South Africans were brought up in a system that encouraged the dominance of one race over others.

South Africa has evidently come a long way. However, as the statistics clearly demonstrate, they still have a way to go, as highlighted by Mandela in his inauguration speech in Pretoriaon the 10th May 1994, in which he said, “we understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom.”

The explicit racism of South Africa during the Apartheid was abominable, and clearly things have greatly improved. However, what exists is a subtler form of racism, which sees a division of the two races: living together under a fair democracy, yet often living very separate lives within that society. Racism is also embedded within the country’s economy, which still suffers the inequalities of Apartheid.

This idea of a subtle, unspoken racism made me reflect on the UK, in which whilst there are occasional explicit acts of racism or prejudice, it largely exists beneath the surface. Institutional racism may be seen to exist in many areas of our society, such as the Metropolitan Police Service and in psychiatry, both of which have pastbeen accused of racial biases. Notably, politics is still largely dominated by the white middle-class, and the white majority attending private schools is disproportionate to the country’s racial distribution. Xenophobia and racism are still key stimulants for crimes. For example, in Scotland, according to reports, 17 people are abused, threatened or violently attacked every day purely because of the colour of their skin, ethnicity or nationality. I would suggest that such crimes are rooted in society’s institutions, which may be seen to subtly entrench racism into the UK sensibility.

Image: Robben Island Museum

Image: Robben Island Museum

We can all learn from Nelson Mandela. He chose not to accept the status quo. He saw something he was unhappy about and that was unjust, and he fought against it, sacrificing 27 years of his life for the cause. Mandela is the prime example of the power of an individual to make a real difference. Thankfully, we live in a just, equal society, which in no way resembles Apartheid. However, we, like all societies, are in no way perfect. There is a lot that isn’t fair and that is in everyone’s power to change, so long as we refuse to accept the ‘normal’ and are prepared to stand up for what is right. Whether it’s racial prejudice, political injustice, homophobia, sexism, or any other form of discrimination or injustice – we can all recognise when something is wrong, and all have the power to do something about it. No one is blind to injustice. Some just choose to close their eyes.


By Tasha Kleeman

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