This past week I have been confronted once more with the debate as to whether we should ‘’talk’’ about apartheid and by extension race relations.
First I tuned into Eusebius McKaiser’s talk show on 702 where a gentleman called in to ask whether ‘’we can stop talking about race every day’’ and McKaiser responded by asking whether callers can ‘’stop asking others to stop talking about race’’. A great radio moment indeed! Then on Sunday, social commentator Khaya Dlanga reposted his brilliant article “Why we still talk about race and apartheid” and urged his twitter followers to re-read the article.
McKaiser was of course spot on, and initially after reading the Dlanga piece I thought his argument put the matter to bed. It’s by now widely understood and agreed that white guilt is not productive and that the African struggle narrative is based on real events with real consequences felt in many ways worse today than during the period of apartheid as legislation.
But I still felt annoyed when reading Dlanga’s tweet and could for a few hours afterward not fathom why. Then I remembered a memory I had stored when contemplating my travels to Ireland.
A lesson from Ireland
The Irish as we all know have been embroiled in a conflict with Britain spanning all of 900 years. Add religion to the mix and you get a country with very sad songs and a serious drinking problem. I saw this Ireland in 1997 when after school I went to work there as a dishwasher. Fast forward to 2004 and the Irish tiger kicked in. ‘’Poor’’ Ireland a decade earlier decided to invest in quality education and by the time the micro-chip was developed the graduates in Ireland were the preferred choice for computer software manufacturers due to the country’s proximity to Europe and its relatively cheap skilled labour force.
Upon my return in 2004 the sad songs were now replaced with Westlife and hardly anyone ever mentioned ‘’the troubles’’ or the Pope. Economic prosperity helped Ireland ‘’get over’’ its issues and all this within a space of 10 years. Funny then how people can get over 900 years of collective struggle purely because you now have a decent job and can afford an Xbox.
Seeing Ireland change so completely and in such a short space of time made me realise one thing: political victimhood is the preserve of he who lacks opportunity. As Bono from the band U2 sings in the song ‘’God Part 2’’, we “glorify the past when our future dries up”.
In South Africa we have only witnessed for a brief period what a great country we can become, and in those years we seemed to want to ‘’just get on with it’’. In 1996, nothing could stop us. We were cruising. Yet the minute our opportunities diminished, we found it convenient to rather talk about apartheid and race than find ways to make the Karoo pay for all our electricity needs.
An emotional stalemate
Now tune into our radio debates you will soon realise that very few people actually listen when they ‘’debate’’ apartheid and most do not even try to understand one another’s views. Most callers are not on the radio to try and understand and maybe ‘’get over’’ apartheid. Instead some seek an apology and others defend their choices and that of their parents. Yet listen closely and you will soon realise that our apartheid debate is rooted in the frustration over our current economic situation.
We are emotional and angry because we are insecure and many of us are hungry. We look for answers in our past to try and explain our current predicament.
The debate in my opinion has reached a stalemate.
So when I say “you must get over apartheid” I hope to argue that we must defeat its current hold on our national psyche by ensuring economic liberation becomes a national obsession instead. If we manage to keep ‘’apartheid talk’’ out of it we will all quickly realise that our new enemy is the forces of global capitalism. Only those nations that are fiercely united stand any chance of getting an upper hand while the fragmented ones lose out.
Let’s fix our future first and then return to the important debate of apartheid and race when all our tummies are full? It worked in Ireland.