A professor at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) has expressed concern at an alarming increase in racially charged incidents, ranging from physical assaults to the several infamous ‘blackface’ sagas. In a recent court case that has made headlines across the city, a member of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been accused of physically assaulting his gardener with a sjambok. Reports have also emerged that at least 10 race related incidents are currently under investigation in Cape Town alone.
Prof. Melissa Steyn, the director at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, compared such incidents to the analogy of an iceberg, stressing that whilst the incidents themselves were on the surface for all to see, the actual causes that were shaping individuals to commit them were firmly out of the public eye.
“It’s the way people are talking, and the way they are stoking up feelings. They are constructing themselves up as victims, which then in some way legitimises aggression. All of this is happening overtime, and we have to take cognisance of it,” she stressed.
In her view, there was also a tendency amongst South Africans to view racial issues under a linear timeline, assuming that the further the country moved away the country moved from its democracy, the less attention such issues needed to be afforded.
“That is completely untrue. It is rather like when you are in a relationship and there is some underlying issue that you haven’t sorted out. It will keep coming up as circumstances change, because you haven’t actually dealt with it,” she explained.
Amongst the most infamous racial incidents to have hit the country in months has been the emergence of several ‘blackface’ cases. The most recent saw two students at the University of Pretoria painting their faces with black paint, whilst donning the attire of a domestic worker. Steyn described it as unbelievable that students could through an education system where the countries racially divided past was greatly emphasised, without realising the implications of their actions.
“There are some things that you learn really early on in life about basic civic behaviour. You don’t mock each other, you don’t dress up and laugh at another person, and you don’t call each other by racial epithets that are insulting. This is basic civic behaviour,” she said.
It has been suggested that another potential motivation for continue racial division in the country, is the widening gap between the financial elite and those less fortunate. Steyn claimed that privilege had a tendency to create the worst attitudes and entitlements amongst people when it came to race. But she was quick to assert that race and class not be viewed as one and the same, even if many of the countries rich still entertained certain racialized attitudes and behaviours.
She added that this also had an effect on the mindset of those not financially well off.
“It is the people who actually do feel a sense of entitlement, that project that onto poorer people. So they feel entitled when they are fighting for their basic rights,” she said. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)