Nathi Mthethwa. Picture: GCIS
The ANC’s annual January 8 statement, echoed by Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, insists racial prejudice afflicts a 'tiny minority', says the writer. Picture: GCIS

FOR politicians who are sometimes accused of "playing the race card", African National Congress (ANC) leaders seem oddly unaware of how important a problem race is here.

The party’s annual January 8 statement, echoed last week by Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, insisted that racial prejudice afflicts a "tiny minority". This may be why one suggested cure is to make racism a crime: if only a few of us are afflicted by it, we can throw the book at them, while the rest of us get on with living in harmony. The problem is it’s not nearly that simple.

Yes, very few white South Africans call black people "monkeys" in public (and only a handful of black South Africans react by urging that whites be killed). But, as many voices are pointing out, the problem is not a handful of bigots, but the fact that the racial pecking order democracy inherited in 1994 is still in place, masked by the fact that everyone can vote and most people in government are black. Politics is, in reality, the only area of life in which the minority is no longer in charge.

In the economy, race denialists — those who claim we sorted out the race problem in 1994 — can show that there are more black people in business and professions. What they cannot show is that the racial make-up of those who take economic decisions has shifted: only a few black people are in powerful positions in the economy. A sign of the stubbornness of the past is that, in all areas of national life, "reasonable, rational" people who insist that they harbour no racial prejudices simply assume that whites are superior.

One of many examples is the "non-racial" world of ideas. How often do students or the national debate hear about Bernhard Magubane, Sam Nolutshungu or Archie Mafeje, important black thinkers whose ideas have much to teach us today? Social science students are taught little or nothing about them and just about no one applies their ideas to our problems. (They are all, of course, men: anyone who wants to know about women’s contribution to thinking about our problems and why it is often ignored can read Amina Mama or Nomboniso Gasa, who also don’t receive the attention they deserve.)

Despite two decades of political change, those who decide who has something to say still assume that only white people do.

Race remains our central problem not because some are evil and others good, but because patterns built up over centuries do not disappear simply because the Constitution says everyone is equal. It takes painstaking effort to create a society that is fair to all regardless of race — but those who could have made a difference did not make the attempt after 1994 because the sense of crisis that existed before then, the belief that a new departure is needed, was lost.

The entire society was the loser. The pecking orders and the attitudes that underpin them cost the economy more than any other factor: they sideline talent and ensure we are divided even when we share common interests. We need to regain the sense of urgency that existed before 1994 and to challenge the often subtle mind-sets that exclude black people from power, but in ways that make whites part of the solution.

Judging by its recent statements, the ANC is in no condition to make this happen. If Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane’s race speech last week is a guide, the opposition is more aware of the seriousness of the problem. But, as others have pointed out, its ability to deal with it is equally in doubt. It may distance itself from the obvious bigots, but its willingness and ability to tackle the subtler, deeper sense of white superiority in parts of its leadership is less than clear.

The fact that our major parties cannot solve the problem may be less important than it seems: political parties are not the right vehicles to change our racial realities — they are too divisive, too busy competing with each other, to be agents of change. The best they can do is not make matters worse. The task of beginning racial change lies, rather, with those who took the lead before 1994 — places of learning, businesses, professional associations, religious organisations and the media.

Some are beginning to stir, but it is not yet clear whether the mood of the early 1990s has returned. Until it does, the costs of not reversing our racial past grow with each year.

• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy