Many white people see no just cause in blacks blaming apartheid for anything. It ended almost 14 years already; get over it already, they say. Often it is said with indignation, if not irritation, as though to say, how dare they!
Those who insist we stop talking about it tell us it’s in the past, so we should forget about it. Perhaps it would be easy to forget if we didn’t bear the scars of the past. For some it’s not mere scars; some walk around with deep sores that are still healing — slowly. Every now and then, the sore is disturbed and the healing process is reversed.
It is easy for the “perpetrator” (I use that word liberally here) to say: “Forget about it,” because he does not want to be reminded of his sins. At the same time it is also too easy for the victim to keep playing the victim card instead of getting on with it. There is a middle ground somewhere between these conflicting feelings.
When we blame the legacy of apartheid, most white people take it as a personal attack on them for having benefited from the system. Or they accuse blacks of refusing to take responsibility for whatever is going wrong in the country. This is not the case. It is an attack on the system. We are not asking you to feel guilty. If anyone needs to get over anything, it is white people who walk around carrying guilt. This guilt might paralyse them, or even make them unwitting racists. Or, even worse, cause them to overcompensate, thus wiping away any sincerity in their efforts to balance the past.
To be honest, had I been white during the height of apartheid I don’t know if I would have had the moral fortitude to stand up against the National Party government. Perhaps I would have condemned it in the comfort and privacy of my mind.
The legacy of apartheid is very real. Let us not pretend that people don’t have a legitimate reason for blaming it for their current condition, as some excuse for their lack of progress. It is an undeniable fact that the vast majority of black people were denied a good education; some were even denied an education. The government of the day did not bother to build schools for them.
Where there is education, opportunity soon follows, and without it blacks were caught in a vicious cycle of stagnation. They saw no real progress for themselves. Instead of passing on wealth from generation to generation, their descendents inherited poverty and a very visible reality that they were not allowed to prosper in the land of their birth.
To dismiss these realities as mere laziness on the part of the black person is a clear lack of understanding of the position the formerly oppressed find themselves in today. The black person is still playing catch up.
We in the black community are lacking decent education, even with the new government. The teachers who teach most black students did not get a fantastic education themselves. With these steep hills to climb, it is a miracle that so many children who went through those schools have managed to extricate themselves from the web of hopelessness.
Jobless blacks in the townships and in the rural areas do not expect the government to do anything for them. What they want are opportunities so that they can improve their lives — not handouts. Many of them don’t see these opportunities, so they create some for themselves even in the bleak conditions in which find themselves. Young men create car-wash businesses and young women hair saloons, to name just the most obvious examples.
On the other hand, blacks look at white misbehaviour through the prism of race without seeing the core of the problem. When we only look at it that way, we don’t try to solve the issue.
The black community must not confuse with racism the young white man’s anger. He cannot understand why he has to be at the back of the queue when he seeks employment. Let’s say that he is too young even to remember apartheid. Shall we now punish him for benefiting from a system that was not of his choosing? Is it his fault that he just happened to have been born into it? Whether he would have grown up to be a perpetrator of the evils of the previous system or not is immaterial. What matters is that the system ended before he could be a conscious and active participant in it. What do we do now?
Having said all I have, I would like to point out that I am not as naive as to believe that racism does not exist. Sadly it is does. We saw manifestations of it recently at the University of the Free State.
Whether we admit it or not, we are all victims of apartheid. But we cannot be victims forever. We may have been victims, but we don’t have to think and act like them. The only way we can raise above it is when we first seek to understand. However, this must not excuse bad black or white behaviour.