Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Fighting racism is about fighting white supremacist thinking and we need a vision of a new South African society, the writer says. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

AS THE public spirit strained and contorted in the wake of racist social media comments and those perceived to be so, it soon became apparent that the ensuing debate would take place without figurative adult involvement; supposed leaders remained silent.

It has been the clearest sign yet that, as the ligaments holding SA’s democratic arrangement take increasing strain, the public will have to wait for rupture rather than a profound and orderly social transformation. If there ever were a theory of a new South African society, it has not taken root — but likely there never was one.

Is racism increasing given the frequency of problematic social media posts? The answer is two-fold, but simple.

First, social media creates a close proximity between social classes, races and genders that is physically almost impossible in a historically divided society. People of all kinds come across ideas and statements that are alien to what they have been socialised to understand. This creates tension on these platforms that remains under the surface in real life.

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THE people who exchanged harsh words on social media probably unknowingly bumped into one another at malls and other public spaces. They could not recognise one another, and probably wouldn’t know how to begin the same discussion if they realised who was next to them.

Second, social media create a false comfort that posts are being shared among a close circle of friends that would not have a problem with the views expressed. The opposite is true. They are available to the entire world and open to rigorous scrutiny.

The idle time created by the holidays also provided opportunity for the simultaneous consumption of alcohol and loose sharing of subliminal views often hidden by sobriety. The results are often staggering.

Racism has been with us since long before 1994. What changed are the forms of its expression. Apartheid laws were replaced by millions of small, but profoundly humiliating experiences for black people in interaction with white compatriots.

From homes that are said to already be taken when a black potential tenant calls an estate agent to notions of professional ability, competence and ethical standards, being black has been a continuous disadvantage. It is often difficult for white people to appreciate because not so long ago, white was automatically right, and backed by legislation or social and economic power.

In a country in which free interaction between black and white people outside the workplace is rare, the opportunity for deeper understanding has always been limited to what can be managed through political correctness. Social media has blown that framework to smithereens and the weaknesses inherent in our theory of social transformation have been laid bare. This limitation exposes the uncomfortable absence of political leaders, in particular from the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA).

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INSTEAD of providing a firm intervening hand to guide the tension towards lasting solutions, they have opted to play victim, so they are seen to be in step with the social media and radio talk show outrage.

They are opportunistic because their leaders have neither the social credibility nor the intellectual competence for the task. They are unable to say that because our racism is structural and intertwined with other prejudices such as patriarchy, sexism and homophobia, interventions have to go beyond legislation to "criminalise" racism.

While the overt practice of individualised racism can sometimes be tackled through instruments of legal justice, the outcome is less beneficial if the founding white supremacist belief is not unlearned and disowned. Imprisonment or a fine on their own are unlikely to bring about such a profound transformation.

While regular open debate about race and racism is healthy when leadership is present, gratuitous displays of outrage are mere symptoms of a society unable to navigate itself out of its own history. That navigation requires a clear path on which the physical infrastructure, economic power patterns and their intellectual foundations are geared towards social justice.

A gratuitous screaming match such as we have seen in recent weeks treats racism as a priority prejudice and ignores the hard, continuous effect living in a violently racist and patriarchal society has on poor, young black women, for instance. They not only have to endure historical structural and personalised racism, but also oppression by black men.

Over the years, the ANC’s capture by white leftist thinking resulted in a conception of society rooted in political economic theory instead of being informed by our unique challenge in which the former oppressors and their cultural and social norms remain a continuing part of a "new society".

This is why in its responses, the party invariably has to vacate its leadership position and attack a section of its own society, while the DA becomes an occasional activist that lays charges to absolve itself of the racism tag.

In examining what needs to be done, we must accept that President Jacob Zuma, DA leader Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have been unable to deliver a coherent and visionary idea of the society we need to be. Instead, all are looking to profit from the fractures in society by presenting themselves as a better alternative through criticism of the other, and by proposing solutions that are either short term or lack an articulation of a future society that works coherently.

The EFF’s opportunistic visit to King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, followed by its insistence that he should have been treated differently because of his "royal status", illustrates how expediency trumps the need to build an accountable society in which power and social status shield no one.

For a party that claims progressive credentials, it harked back to feudalism and belittled the suffering of the rural poor it claims to represent.

At the heart of finding solutions to the problem of race and racism must be an acceptance by all that we have a messy and unjust society. The task of leadership is to get all South Africans to accept their obligation to resolve these issues, and that much of it involves difficult soul searching and a quest for understanding continuing black pain and white defensiveness about the effect of the past on the present.

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IT IS the same journey men need to undertake in understanding their oppression of women, and unlearning long-held views about male supremacy.

While it may appease the senses to propose a defeat of Eurocentrism and its replacement by notions of Afrocentrism, the task is about conceiving a new society, and possibly a civilisation, in which we accept the permanence of the intertwining of norms and traditions developed over centuries.

An essential ingredient in the formation of a new society is to let go of the entitlement to determine direction on the basis of racial superiority. Instead of calling the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and panicking about public health when black neighbours slaughter an ox, an appropriate conversation would attempt to understand and respect black spirituality, while taking seriously any concerns about public policy.

Despite the repeal of many apartheid laws, the social and economic structures it put in place have not been dismantled and have a real effect on the lives of black people. That dismantling is the task of all, and if we are to define deviance from the route of national reconciliation, it is because we have determined that some fundamentally disagree with the collective nature of the task of dismantling people. They may even be working against it.

Penny Sparrow is a mere illustration of the society we have always been, and the transformational challenges we have. Harassing her into hiding will merely feed subliminal racism, and give us false satisfaction that racism has abated when it has gone deeper to ground.

It remains the tragedy of our time that none of our crop of political leaders has the depth and cross-sectional appeal required to challenge us to participate in a new theory of society. Their politics is about capturing state power and using it to direct everyone to do as they may determine.

The first step, therefore, may be to accept that fresh ideas will come from new thinkers and leaders, not the lot and thinking that has brought us to the unsatisfying place we find ourselves in today.