Confronting Race and Racism as a Crucial Element of the Conflict in South Africa

Confronting Race and Racism as a Crucial Element of the Conflict in South Africa

Meintjies, F. (1993). Confronting Race and Racism as a Crucial Element of the Conflict in South Africa. Paper presented at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Seminar No. 8, 20 October.


Presenter: Frank Meintjies

Frank Meintjies is leader of Frank Meintjies and Associates.

Date: 20 October 1993

Venue: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Johannesburg, South Africa

Racism – embedded in the psyche, attitudes, behaviour, self-perceptions and perspectives of people – remains an intractable part of the South African reality. It cannot be otherwise, given that we have grown up in a racist society and that our earliest messages about ourselves and others came from an ideology of white superiority over black.


However, an examination of race in South Africa reveals a disjuncture between the formal depiction of national problems and informal, popular and spontaneous articulations. Scanning documentation, reports and analyses of the current South African reality, the most pertinent conflictual issues seem to be competing polices, conflicting models, constitutional choices and so on. One very infrequently encounters direct discussion of racism – as an issue or as framework and context. However, on the streets and in day to day conversations, the subject of race is very much alive: a pivotal and recurrent subject on the ground is the ending or continuation of white domination.

The reason for this discourse lies in a range of factors. Firstly, the dominant school of resistance thought has sought to present the South African question as more sophisticated than simple white power versus black interests. The struggle was that of non-racialism (an ideal accepted by most if not all) versus apartheid (capartheid), implemented and driven by a Nationalist minority government. Generalisations about white people – and by extension questioning of the white/black power balance in oppositional organisations – was frowned upon as being out of line. Injustice, it was said, was embedded in the system of apartheid, and the only way to destroy this system was "non-racialism" and democratisation.

A second factor contributing to the erasure of race from public discussion has to do with the official scrapping of apartheid legislation. Now policy-makers and people of influence within the ruling group prefer to talk about racist repression in the past tense. Thirdly, the political negotiations seem to require a spirit of reconciliation. In this context it is apparently not astute to bring race onto the table – knowing that it could trigger defensive and blocking reactions (since no politician today wants to be associated with preserving racist practices, norms and traditions).


However, race strife is thrusting itself to the surface more vigorously and dramatically than ever before. In this regard the racial outburst of the right wing horrify and shock but does not surprise. That is because it is rooted in an ideology of white supremacy and in a history of institutional aggression – all of which are being rolled back by the current changed process.

It is the growing level of angry anti-whitism among the disenfranchised that needs to be unravelled and confronted as a phenomenon. It seems more remarkable that this kind of anger is spiralling just when the harshest legal strictures on black people have been removed and the bonds of oppression loosened. In the last year alone, this anti-white sentiment has graphically asserted itself in a number of events:

  • During the funeral of Chris Hani, white reporters were shocked and dismayed when they were attacked by black youth who apparently had lost sight of the noble work of the liberal press. These same reporters, by and large, had worked in township flashpoints and trouble spots at the height of popular resistance in the 80s; then they could count on help rather than being hurt by those fighting apartheid.

  • White people have appalled that guerrilla attacks on whites do not elicit the level of condemnation and sympathy they expect from black people. The St. George's massacre, the Eastern Cape attacks and the killing of Amy Biehl – even where blacks are troubled or concerned the response is somehow never the same as that of white people. Indeed, there may be widespread support for APLA at grassroots level.

  • Leaders of traditionally non-racial liberation movements have often been forced to respond to the strong black consciousness undertow in black communities. An example is Nelson Mandela who on a number of occasions accused De Klerk, charging that his inaction in the face of violence stemmed from the fact that it was black lives being wasted. The PAC's Benny Alexander evoked widespread support among black people when he rejected international outrage against attacks on whites as racist hullabaloo.

These issues were again telescoped onto our consciousness in the last ten days or so – what with a rewind of some of these issues through the Hani trial, the Biehl murder trial and reactions to an ill-conceived SADF attack on a Transkei house apparently to avenge attacks in which white people were killed. The headlines said a great deal: "White homes and stores attacked", "Race riot in Umtata", "Its a white man's trial", and "Threats and chants (to whites) at Amy's murder trial".


Today's topic of discussion has important implications for attempts to deal with violence. Is it possible to address violence effectively without confronting the reality of racism and the anger of its victims? Is it possible to redress the imbalances of apartheid without getting them to understand the continuing damage wrought by racism?

Racism is not merely the manifestation of prejudice and discrimination between people – it is an entire system, entrenched and deep-rooted, working against black people, depriving them of resources, opportunities and dignity. It is bolstered though education, religion, media, political power, the economic system and the dominant values in the society. This mean that black people in South Africa not only carry with them the hurt of a life-time of exclusion and alienation, but daily experience the brutal reality of racism.

Thus: a white person does not only perpetuate racism if he or she consciously or intentionally acts in racist ways. On the contrary, all they have to do is remain blind to the assumptions, norms, expectations and dominant culture and the effect of this on black people who must conform to this on a daily basis.

By the same token black people do not have to be brainwashed Uncle Toms to experience and acknowledge the effect of internalised racism. It is the struggle of every black person battling against low self-esteem, unconfidence, self rejection and the messages of undermining that she or he is constantly receiving. In addition, every black person is prone to the danger and disempowerment that results when playing the victim – an element of survival strategy – ossifies into the habit and fear of taking responsibility and initiative. It is then that awareness-raising or "psychological liberation", as Steve Biko termed it, is called for – a road that many find hard and too risky to take.


The only way to dismantle this system is by working for increased understanding in the society of the insidious and pervasive ways in which racism functions. It calls for a willingness to re-examine what would be regarded as normal and everyday. It presupposes opening up the subject of racism – no longer isolating and alienating those who dare raise it. It involves listening and creating spaces to hear the hurt, anger and aspirations of those experiencing race oppression. It means dragging racism from the hushed conversations and murmurs and silences into the arena of public discussion.

(It also means – especially in an organisational context where black and white people are united in common endeavour – black people providing themselves with tools to raise race issues directly but in a building and forward-looking way. This might involve engaging with fellow black people who: need to deepen their understanding of the issue; lack self-esteem and struggle with internalised oppression; constantly ride on the race issue not to confront it but to avoid addressing personal difficulties such as inefficiency, autocratic tendencies, lack of commitment and even corruption).

The temptation, however, is for those from the dominant group to want to focus exclusively on some of the above issues (in brackets) when talking of racism – it would also be much more comfortable than facing issues cited in the previous paragraph – examining one's own practice and the dominant culture for collusion and involvement with racism.


Refusal and failure to confront the issue of race does not, as some hope, make the issue go away nor bring us closer to a non-racial society. The tension and pressure remains under the surface. And before long and ultimately, that pressure will detonate with destructive results. And "destructive" is the operative word, because while rage, it can be argued, is always justified, it is seldom constructive. It is not concerned with change or propagating an alternative. It is a cry, demanding the attention of those too blind to see; it is the venting of long suppressed reaction, a lashing out.

No doubt there are many layers of black people who have developed strategies for survival and for constructively channelling their anger over racism. Such people may be initially disoriented by violent attacks by black people based on anti-white feeling. Yet ultimately they can identify with, they know where those furious sentiments come from. For them the doubts, questions, reservations and concerns for the violations suffered by the victims co-exist with a basic empathy for the perpetrators.


The current situation appears to be predominantly characterised by anger and rage (among black people) and blindness (on the part of white people). Apart from efforts to build a peace culture and a climate of tolerance, we also need to develop in South Africa a culture of sharpened sensitivity to race oppression. If we did develop more sensitive spectacles in this regard would we be evaluating the change process currently underway in terms of different criteria? Would we have a different perspective (regarding methodologies, processes, personnel, objectives) on the key aspects of the pre-transition such as:

  • policy formulation and the machinery for constitutional change
  • peace keeping structures
  • notions of a free press
  • the agenda of change in business
  • etc, etc

Would we constantly be asking: is racism actually being challenging in sustained, fundamental and proactive ways or are we mostly colluding with and reinforcing the unequal and distorted status quo?


Margaret Legum correctly predicted in 1990 that very soon it would be very difficult to find any South African who owned up to being a racist. We have already entered that period. Far too many – among whites and blacks – are so keen to experience a new South Africa that they are prepared to replace reality with wishful thinking. But every now and again an explosion of black anger disrupts the day-dreaming. Then we are reminded that we have not yet begun to tackle racism and its effects in our lives. Then we are reminded of the huge task of dismantling it – a task which starts with probing how racism works, understanding its effects, and analysing reactions to it.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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