The South African flag
Image: Supplied

What has race got to do with it?

Would we hold it against any passing alien ship, exploring our galaxy for the first time and sampling the southern tip of Africa’s social media platter, to answer “apparently, everything”?

Is there any issue in South Africa that can be discussed without race being the primary lens through which we view it: inequality, poverty, unemployment, land, (farm) murders, education, corruption and whether the new president, mixing it up with ordinary citizens on promenades and planes, is cool?

While any wise alien invader is likely to hold off colonising us until we get the matter sorted, South Africans do not have that luxury of opting out.

There’s no magic rocket ship that will allow us to escape the apparent reality we see the world in – one of two colours: black or white.

We live here and unless we get it sorted, are we likely to see a rainbow again? So how do we get this race thing settled? First off, we need to ask whether a (negative) perception of race actually pervades everything.

Does every black person experience racism, is every white person a racist?

The Institute for Race Relations (IRR) does an annual survey of race relations, in which it asks the same set of standard questions every year.

Three questions stand out.

The first is: “have race relations improved since 1994?”

In 2015, 54% of respondents said they had improved (blacks: 59.7% and whites: 33.5%), and in the latest report last year, 60% of people said it had (black: 63%; white: 48%).

Good news – the majority of us consistently say race relations have improved since 1994?

But hidden in the detail is the white view, very low in 2015 (33.5%) and still significantly below black views last year (48%). Why is that? The second interesting question the IRR survey tests is whether people experience racism in their daily lives.

If Twitter and Facebook were the guides, you’d expect that answer to be a resounding “yes”!

In 2015, 78.5% of South Africans surveyed said they had not (79.4% of blacks, 75.3% of whites) and last year, 72% said they had never experienced racism directed at themselves personally (blacks: 77%, whites: 46%).

Good news batch number two – aliens beware, we actually may like each other!

But look at the white respondents’ answers last year: 53% claim to have experienced racism? How is this possible? White people are the inheritors of colonial and apartheid privilege.

Black people cannot be racist.

Or has South Africa simply done a switch, have we reversed roles?

Is it now time to pick on white people?

Many people listening to EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema may nod their heads in approval.

See, we told you so! Many will shake their heads in despair that white feelings are again centre-stage.

The Freedom Charter declared, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white . . .”
Our constitution, in turn, repeats the belongs-to-all bit, but adds “united in our diversity”.

Upfront it’s clear that one of our founding values is that of non-racialism and non-sexism.

So the third IRR question of interest: “(is) South Africa now a country for black Africans and whites must take second place?” is a controversial one, as it suggests ownership of South Africa resides in a single race group.

In 2015, only 30% of all respondents agreed with that statement (28.5% of blacks and 32% of whites), whereas by last year, 50% agreed (blacks: 61%; whites: 18%).

The number of black respondents who think South Africa is a country for blacks has doubled within two years, while white respondents have halved.

Is South Africa to be seen as a black country, where whites are simply tolerated guests or where whites must now take their turn at being “second-class citizens”?

When Nelson Mandela Bay ANC councillors – whose founding principle is non-racialism – join the UDM and EFF in (allegedly) singing “white people are dogs” during the chaotic March council meeting that sought to oust the mayor and speaker; when Malema tweets at mayor Athol Trollip, “Hahaha, you are going white man. I’ve got no sympathy for whiteness, it feels so good for a black child to determine the future of the white one” – how are South Africans to interpret that?

On the one hand the IRR surveys say the majority of South Africans think race relations are improving; on the other hand it says the perception that South Africa belongs to all has shifted to a view that South Africa belongs to blacks.

The question of who gets to call South Africa home is increasingly being decided on the basis of colour, not values, not contribution, not on the constitutional commitment to diversity.

Relationships between races is now the side show.

So do white people pack up and leave; do they keep quiet and stay in the shadows hoping it all blows over?

Do black people say enough is enough; we’ve had it with white privilege and feelings, this land is ours?

What about those people we label “coloured” or “Indian”?

Do they qualify for land or for boats?

What about our colour-blended families – one parent goes, but the kids get to stay, with a free pass for Christmas?

Or do we simply stop pretending that non-racialism is possible and go for majority rule? We’re at a crossroads. If we’re to maintain non-racialism as our guiding light, we have to understand why, despite its entrenchment in the constitution, race is still the primary lens through which all of us choose to view the world.

It’s a question we don’t hear: what’s race doing for us that we can’t let it go?

Some might say it’s obvious – it worked for white people for 342 years, now it must work its magic for black people and so we end up shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic while the quota band plays on.

Some may say it’s the work of stereotypes and comfort zones, and we just need more diversity training, as if we haven’t been investing heavily in breaking down barriers already.

Some may say it’s cynical and compromised politicians, who are intent on hijacking the bandwagon to pay for working vacations to Dubai.

Change the politicians, change the party and hey presto, the rainbow will appear.

Some may say it’s former president Jacob Zuma’s fault – no growth, increasing poverty – we have our monster under the bed to blame our woes upon; give President Cyril Ramaphosa a chance, he’ll be our saviour. Maybe. Perhaps. Possibly. Does anyone know why, after 24 years of trying, we remain stuck in the rut of those two colours, black and white?

Isn’t that the conversation we should be having?

Or is that a question only aliens would have an answer to?