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Sat Sep 20 12:01:50 SAST 2014

Ugly omens of a yawning racial divide

Mondli Makhanya | 14 June, 2011 12:20
Mondli Makhanya
Image by: Sunday Times

Mondli Makhanya: On May 31, 30 years ago, the National Party government gathered its sheep at venues around the country to celebrate 20 years of the existence of the apartheid republic.

There were flypasts, military parades and grand speeches by P W Botha and apartheid's knights and barons.

In his speech at the time, the then state president Marais Viljoen described the 20 years since South Africa gained independence from Britain as a "golden era". Around the country, mass demonstrations were held to protest against the celebration.

There were clashes and mass arrests as the government cracked down hard. Republic Day, as May 31 was known, was the ultimate boast of white supremacy. This one was a boast and a spit in the face of black South Africa.

On that same day, on the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, a long-haired Wits University student named Bruce Fordyce was leading the pack in the world-famous Comrades Marathon. The student, running his fourth marathon and by then a hero of this race, wore a black armband in protest at the Republic Day celebrations and in solidarity with South Africa's oppressed.

It was an important statement at a time when many white South Africans couldn't give a hoot about the suffering of their fellow countrymen.

Most people from this segment of society were enjoying Viljoen's "golden era".

Through the efforts of the National Union of South African Students, Black Sash and other progressive organisations, the edifice of white support for apartheid was beginning to crack. Indifference was making way for activism.

Little wonder then that Fordyce's action met vehement condemnation from the Nats and their sympathisers, who blasted his lack of patriotism. He was slammed for mixing politics with sport and not treating this sacred day with due respect.

It was a powerful gesture that played a big role in waking white South Africa up to the evil that was being celebrated on that day. Fordyce's action was by no means the epitome of defiance. Many other South Africans, black and white, did more courageous and dangerous things than that. But it did shake the Nats and jolted the consciences of white South Africans.

Fordyce this week marked the 30th anniversary of that run by getting on the road and doing the up-run to Pietermaritzburg. Sadly he didn't have a great race this year and only managed a bronze medal.

I return to that 1981 race not because I just want to celebrate the king of the Comrades. Yes, he certainly does deserve being hailed, given the fact that he inspired many would-be marathon runners, including this lowly newspaperman who will very soon be joining the legion of Comrades athletes. (To all you Doubting Thomases out there: watch this space.)

But I also return to Fordyce's 1981 run because I want to beat the drum of racial polarisation one more time.

As has been pointed out in this space and by many other commentators, we are sliding backwards into our laagers and very little is being done to arrest the slide.

You need only to have read the letters pages in Business Day about the University of Cape Town's entrance policy this week to see the extent of polarisation in this country.

A necessary debate about affirmative action in university entrance policy revealed just how far apart we are in how we see the past, present and future. Intelligent and articulate individuals took very hard and fast positions about the policy.

It was a manifestation of the conversation that takes place away from the public space.

The thing is that the political leadership is not only watching idly as this polarisation happens, but is in some instances fuelling it.

The only comment that the ANC has made about Julius Malema's labelling of whites as "criminals", and other racially inflammatory statements that should be treated as such, has been to say that they are not ANC policy. Or that spine-chilling declaration that "the ANC is for blacks and the DA is for whites".

Ditto Nceba Faku's racist ranting and his threats to chase blacks who voted for "white parties" into the sea and to Europe. And there have been many other outbursts by senior party leaders.

And it is not just one way. White racism is very palpable in attitude and in deed. One need only tune in to talk shows and read newspaper letters to see racist subtexts in current affairs commentary.

It manifests itself in reverse victimhood, the notion that white South Africans are the new disadvantaged. Affirmative action and black empowerment are bad for their own sake. Corruption and maladministration wear a racial face.

One would expect the ANC, which has for the past century flown the non-racialism flag, to jump in and defend non-racialism from detractors within and outside its ranks. Not so. In the recent local government election campaign, the ANC regrettably took a huge regressive step.

What we are finding now is a redefinition of the struggle against apartheid as a battle between blacks and whites.

The defeat of apartheid is being defined as a triumph of one race over another, rather than of good over evil.

The Mass Democratic Movement of the 1980s and the Congress Alliance that preceded it sent a clear message that what we sought to do as South Africans was define race out of our existence. The path to this would be liberation, democracy, redress and constitutionalism.

We have to revisit that era and remember that the struggle was for non-racialism.

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Sat Sep 20 12:01:50 SAST 2014 ::