Face racism head-on

This week the Human Rights Commission held a public hearing to discuss the recent re-launch of the Forum of Black Journalists and the issue of racially exclusive organisations.

This week the Human Rights Commission held a public hearing to discuss the recent re-launch of the Forum of Black Journalists and the issue of racially exclusive organisations.

The hearing arose from a complaint by Prime Media that the forum (FBJ) had acted in a racist manner by excluding white journalists to its re-launch.

The public hearing was attended by journalists, media executives, activists, political commentators and business people.

It was interesting how a hearing that was supposed to focus on racism within the media was broadened to deal with racism in general.

Speakers raised their concerns about what had happened at Skielik, at the University of Free State (UFS), the plight of black students at previously white tertiary institutions, the plight of black workers, black economic empowerment and dispossessing blacks of their land.

One of the participants, for example, spoke of the plight of "independent" street hawkers.

"Unlike their counterparts who have white bosses, these hawkers have to run whenever they see metro police officers - or have their goods confiscated."

Publisher Mike Steinberg highlighted how the media continued to perpetuate racism and class in the manner in which it writes about issues.

"Show any young person who follows the news a picture of Schabir Shaik and he will recognise him. Chances are, if the same youth is shown a picture of Tiger Brands' boss, he would not recognise him," said Steinberg.

The point Steinberg was making was that the media has covered Shaik's trial so extensively that it has become indelible in people's minds.

The same cannot be said of Tiger Brands, whose executives were involved in the relatively more heinous crime of cheating poor people by fixing bread prices.

Participants who commented on the UFS incident, where white students humiliated black cleaners, said it should not be seen in isolation.

Activist Andile Mngxitama said racism was about the violent encounters between black and white - including land dispossession.

He said any failure to acknowledge this reality would lead to solutions that still disadvantaged black people.

There was overall agreement that, 14 years into democracy, South Africa continued to face major challenges in terms of achieving equality and building a nonracial society.

In his comments, HRC chairman Jody Kollapen said it was important that South Africans confronted the realities that racism continued to exist - and that the majority of black people continued to experience it.

"Unless we do so, we may talk about a rainbow nation only to find that there is no rainbow," said Kollapen.

The question then arose, what are some of the challenges that our society continues to face in terms of achieving equality, and what can be done?

Most importantly, this question was not asked at the public hearings only, but also at other forums during the week.

For example, on Monday at a forum organised by the Mail & Guardian newspaper, issues were raised about transformation in the media. At the heart of this question was the issue of media ownership and how it continues to remain in white hands.

Later that evening, South Africa's internationally-acclaimed theatre producer Lebo M raised issues of transformation in the theatre industry.

What is encouraging is the fact that in some of these forums, proposals were made on how to tackle the issues of equality and racialism.

Among the proposals were that there should be a charter in the media industry that deals with black economic empowerment.

It was then pointed out that the government had introduced charters in most sectors for purposes of transformation and economic empowerment.

Maybe this is the time when the government should come up with such a charter in the media industry. The suggestion is that such a charter could, for example, include a clause that calls for a minimum 25percent black ownership.

Having said this, it was also agreed that having black bosses did not necessarily mean that the lot of the workers would improve.

Hence the need for organisations such as the FBJ to continue to agitate for the improvement of workers.

What then do all these inputs mean?

They mean that South Africa is prepared to engage with itself and confront the challenges arising from 40 years of apartheid.

What then becomes most important is for the country to develop solutions that would not be superficial in the name of non-racialism.

As former Azapo president Ishmael Mkhabela said, non-racialism cannot be imposed. In working towards it, we must be willing to listen to the concerns of those who have been victims of apartheid.

Such solutions must also take into cognisance how white privilege - arising from apartheid - has been naturalised.

It is this naturalisation that sometimes makes white people (sometimes subconsciously and at other times consciously) fail to acknowledge that their actions could be racist - despite being couched in the language of non-racialism.