From Barack Obama to persistent inequality in South African society
I have, in following the bizarre spectacle that is the process of selecting a republican candidate for president of the United States of America, come across a lot of material on Barack Obama.
I have seen in him passion, committment, massive intellect and wry humour. It has become obvious to me why he has succeeded in being elected for two terms as president, but a sense of puzzlement about why he is so vilified by so many of the people he leads.
However, there is one particular clip (it’s long, if you have limited data or bandwidth, be careful) that has profoundly altered my understanding of race and the insidious damage that racism has the power to inflict. You can find it on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/w5JlqDnoqlo
In this clip, Obama reads from a section of a memoir he published, after first explaining some of the context. He deals with the issue of his identity, and in the passage he reads, expresses some of the anger and betrayal he felt as a sixteen year old black man as he came to the realisation of the funadamental imbalance of power that exists in relationships at every level of U.S. society, from individual interactions between ordinary people to the institutionalised inequality that exists in the institutions of U.S. society.
His anger is provoked when, after years of being one among a handful of black kids at parties, he invites a couple of close friends to a party with no white kids except the couple of friends he invites. It soon becomes obvious that these guys are intensely uncomfortable, and after a short while confide in him that they want to go home. He reflects on how, for his whole life, he has had to live with this very same discomfort, and yet these friends, who he still counts as friends, can’t manage the same discomfort for half an hour.
He relates a number of similar personal tales, including discovering that his grandma (who is white) became too scared to take a bus the day after she was accosted by a black man at the bus stop, and how his granddad (who is back) explained to him the she was right to be afraid, because she would be aware that hundreds of years of being on the wrong side of the power equation would make for a lot of pent up anger.
Now, Obama is at pains to explain that this episode, while formative, was a phase during which he felt extremely angry, and how over time he has channelled that into a positive energy in which he has worked to build a sense of community and common purpose in all he does, and that he sincerely believes that there is a common thread of decency among all Americans. Tellingly, he relates how someone tells him that black Americans are generally quick to forgive, jokingly saying that they have had a lot of practice.
Now, this albeit flippant comment, struck a chord with me and triggered a thought deeply embedded in the psyche of our complex South African community of people. I always remember the amazement, as a white boy who had practically no personal interaction with black people for my entire life, the goodwill that so many black people demonstrably took into the transition from the apartheid system into our new democracy. The comment on the ability of black people to forgive reminded me of those awe-inspiring times.
Part of the process even encompassed an institutional process of confession and forgiveness, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I have always had two views of the TRC, the first being an awe at the capacity of massively damaged people to embrace their former enemies, but on the other hand, a sense of doubt, that surely a single short-lived process could not permanently erase or remedy the 300 years of the imbalance of power that existed between the black inhabitants of South Africa and the white inhabitants.
That this power imbalance existed is beyond doubt, white people came to the region in the main with the support of an extremely powerful global British empire. Black inhabitants were either small bands of nomadic herders who were quickly expelled from region after region, or, as they immigrated from the North, met a well armed and funded counter immigration of white people. It’s a simplification, and it is true that none of the groups in this conflict were homogeneous, but none the less true as a model of what happened. And what happened was that the the funding and the arms that the white settlers (and their colonial sponsors) brought to the conflict prevailed over the black people, and the consequence was that, for 300 years, black people were effectively marginalised and deeply subservient to their white masters. This potted history created the milieu into which the “New South Africa” would be born.
It is also the context in which politics would develop after the transition to a society that aspires to be non-racial, non-sexist and generally inclusive and tolerant. And a lot has been achieved. South Africa was one of the first societies in the world to institutionalise same-sex marriage. Our constitution is recognised as one of the most progressive in the world. There have been times of an outpouring of a profound solidarity between all its citizens, such as the the time of the passing of Nelson Mandela, or the unifying spirit the very same man inspired during the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Our statute book also reflects an attempt to redress the past, with laws including those dealing with land restitution, black economic empowerment, employment equity.
But, it is also true is that in many, many ways, the inequalities of the past linger frustratingly on. By almost any conceivable tangible and measurable criterion, black people in general are still much poorer, and have access to inferior services such as medical care, education, employment and much more. It is the subject of much debate and political posturing, and informs an alarming rise of racist popularism espoused by a number of prominent leaders. The language of our transition, which encompassed concepts such as inclusiveness, co-operation, common destiny, fair play, equality and the like has been replaced by angry and divisive rhetoric, and seems to be polarising our society.
The two ideas that resonated with me in Obama’s talk, that of the capacity to forgive (and that people are essentially decent), and that the root of racism is the imbalance of power that exists between races, offers a glimmer of hope to us in South Africa. But we have to embrace these concepts and work on them if we are to address the ills we face.
Firstly, and in particular, I and my fellow white people need to acknowledge that the power imbalances built in 300 years of colonial history, and the brief post-colonial apartheid era, was not and cannot conceivably have been eradicated by a brief, no matter how cathartic, TRC. The TRC did not, and was never supposed to, eliminate the cumulative effects of the past 300 years. This can only be addressed systematically by both public policy (the responsibility of government) and more pertinently, the personal acknowledgement that the past was fundamentally unfair, and more important, still continues to be unfair to this day.
It has to be an extremely deep and personal understanding that in every interaction at every level of society, these imbalances of power poison the vast majority of our interactions: those in the workplace between colleagues, managers, workers, unions, and officials; those in our personal lives, the persistence of the master-servant relationship in so many homes, the assumption of privilege in interactions between members of the public and employees of retail businesses, the expectation of entitlement when dealing with public officials. In so many of these interactions, the unequal balance of power can be extremely painful to the less powerful partner in the relationship, even and possibly especially if there is no overt or open racism.
As white people, I personally believe that we have to be overtly sensitive all the times to these imbalances of power, to be particularly careful not to offend, to be polite, to try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and mostly, to fundamentally understand that the disempowered among us have very real and legitimate reason to feel aggrieved and angry. With this level of empathy and understanding informing our every interaction, we can only step by step unlock that massive potential for forgiveness that we witnessed in the 1990’s. We have to understand that the TRC is not a one-stop miracle cure for the inequities so many people suffered from, and continue to suffer from. It absolutely needs to be a continuous and ongoing acknowledgement that in so many ways we continue to participate in and contribute to the perpetuation of a fundamentally unfair system, and to make sure that those on the wrong side of the equation are continually reminded of this acknowledgement, that we understand it, and that we genuinely want to eliminate it.
After that, we must also work to address the material and structural injustices of our society. It is fraught with uncertainty; there is no, and will not be, any consensus on exactly how best to do this. How to create the balance between the economic engine that needs to finance the process, and the social policies that must give effect to improving the conditions under which so many suffer today. It will of necessity involve debate, discussion, argument, conflicting opinions and points of view.
However, I do not believe that we will succeed in addressing our problems in a polarised, aggressive and adverserial context. Which is why is is so important that firstly as the former oppressors and vastly better off citizens, we as white people need to take the first step of acknowledging that the imbalance of power persists, and to take serious steps to change our behaviour on a day to day basis to acknowledge this.