We all need to confront the race issue

A sign during apartheid. The writer says that no nation has ever solved its present problems by blaming the past. /Andrzej Sawa/Sunday Times
A sign during apartheid. The writer says that no nation has ever solved its present problems by blaming the past. /Andrzej Sawa/Sunday Times

Race is a big factor in South Africa's public life, yet we only talk about it when some racist has done or said something stupid.

Much of what occasionally bursts into public discourse regarding race relations in our country is either backward-looking or angry.

It is true that we black people are poor and underdeveloped, largely because of colonialism and apartheid, but getting stuck in the blame game will take us nowhere.

No nation in the world has ever solved its present problems by blaming the past. The rear-view mirror is always smaller than the windscreen.

This is a perfect semiotic representation of the necessary smallness of the past and the inevitable bigness of the future.

Normalising race relations for a better South Africa will require readjusting the white mind and fixing the black mind.

To say the rear-view mirror is smaller than the windscreen is not to betray an insufficient appreciation of the weight of history on contemporary societies.

Bertrand Russell was right: "The past alone is truly real: the present is but a painful, struggling birth into the immutable being of what is no longer."

Readjusting the white mind in South Africa today requires the understanding that the mental constitution and practical conduct of white people is a product of a truly real past.

A white person who is offended by what may appear to be an essentialist, nay collectivist representation of the white mind must pause to ask if it is realistic to expect a white South African to conceive of another white person as a domestic worker or a security guard.

The image that must be scrubbed out of the white mind is not only that of lower-class blacks who "deserve" to do dirty work; it is also the image of "inherently" lazy and corrupt black tenderpreneurs who drive big cars as a fitting caricature of black success.

The point is not that there are no corrupt black tenderpreneurs; it is the fact that there are many corrupt white people who are not taken to represent the collective image of white people.

The re-imaging of black people in the white mind will confer a greater humanness on the white person himself, since he will begin to conceive of a black man in the same way he views a white man. This sameness of conception will, suddenly, restore to the white mind the capacity to empathise and identify with blackness as another side of a God-created humanity.

In a strange way, the discovery of the black man's full humanness by the white mind will lead to the restoration of the white man's lost humanness.

From that moment on, God will hug both the black man and the white man with the same warm arms.

This is precisely what I mean by readjusting the white mind. The white mind must be awakened to its dialectical character as a truly real past, painfully struggling to give birth to something new.

The black mind, too, must be fixed. The starting point is to awaken the black man's sense of self. This entails altering in the black mind the distorted image of blackness as a one-dimensional, collectivist being without individuality.

Like other humans, a black person is born alone, gets initiated into a social context and, through the striving of his consciousness, is capable of rebelling against aspects of his cultural heritage.

Fixing the black mind must not be the business of the white mind. It must be the independent responsibility of black people themselves.

Living as if life would be incomplete without white people is to project blackness as childishness in the hands of a white nanny. Black independence means developing the cultural confidence to provide for all the spiritual and material nourishment of black life.

Being able to provide for the nourishment of black life must mean accepting responsibility for what goes wrong in black life. This includes forgoing the proclivity by black people always to point a finger at white people whenever critical questions are raised about the bad conduct of black people.

Providing for spiritual nourishment seems easy. What has proven difficult for blacks is the provision of their material nourishment. Why are black people unable to build factories and employ each other?

It does not matter how you feel, the black and white people of South Africa must confront the race question at some point - honestly so.

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