In large part I still don’t know I got here. I’ve seldom thought of myself as much of an activist. I’m probably as uncomfortable in a protest as the next white middle-class guy. But it’s clear that the students are right. They’ve been right all along (if you ever had doubts, you can also scroll down and consider the advise in the last paragraph). I can talk about the math on why they were right if you want, but we’ll have to grab a beer or a coffee for that. For now it’s enough to just say it: they were right and I knew it. The church supported them. Academics I trust supported them. So I knew that when the march go to the Union Buildings then I will join them. I decided to join as verbi divini minister – minister of the divine word – and the dress-code clearly revealed this.

Today I saw young students, beautiful young students, on the bus I took towards the inner-city. Their water bottles gave away their agenda.

Today I saw students gathering in a park. A joyous occasion. I saw white students learning the art of politics. Slowly, hesitantly, learning what it means to be part of a mass movement. I saw a massive amount of students, reflecting the demographics of this country, singing together, marching together, joking together, sharing space and company, dreams in their eyes about the future of this country. I walked with them and I knew: if these people represent where South Africa is going, then I want in. I want to be a part of this.

Today I saw ministers from different churches joining students. Some in liturgical wear, others indistinguishable from the students around them, representing a range of churches. When signs of violence started appearing I saw a senior minister tell us: “come, we need to go there”. “Isn’t is safer here?” another asked. “Indeed it is”, he answered, “but we have to help calm things down”.

Today I saw thousands upon thousands of students gathering with utmost discipline. Insisting on peace. I know that you’ll see thousands upon thousands of photos of a small group who might not fit this description, and I’ll get to them, but the norm of the day of peace.

Today I saw violence. Perhaps I’ve never seen violence in my protected existence as close as I’ve seen it today. For my white friends, today I saw a small group of both white and black male students instigating violence.

Today I saw pastors standing in front of a fence which students want to break down and occupying that space. At least for a while. I saw them promise to students that we are here with you. We support you. But insisting that this is not the way to go. And I saw angry, deeply angry, students respect that. I plead with my fellow pastors and church leaders: I saw students showing a cautious trust towards the church and faith leaders. Cautiously considering that the church does have the kind of integrity that we will stand with them. Please, we cannot let them down. Statements are great, but we will have to get together and think deeply about how we consciously journey with the young people of this country. I say this in particular to my own church, the Dutch Reformed Church, because, let’s face it, we are very very far removed from what the average South African is going through.

Yet, today I saw a Dutch Reformed minister standing with students, actually trusted enough that they would calm down around him, at least for a while, and repeatedly explaining the churches support for these students to every journalist approached him. And many did. Colleague, you know who you are, you earned my deepest respect today.

Today I saw how even with even this utmost discipline, even with student leaders from every party and group working for peace, it is really difficult to stop a small group of instigators. Probably impossible. Before you point a finger, stand in that space. Today I watched as a fire was started close to where the stage will be. Pastors around, lawyers for human rights around, and a massive amount of students working for peace around, without resorting to further violence it is almost impossible in the long run to stop a small group of instigators. And when a tire burn is burning it is burning.

Today I saw 10000 students (I guess the official number will be confirmed later) gathered at the the Union Buildings by 12:00. There was no problem by 12. But by 13:30 there was no sign, not even an announcement, from the people that had to speak. Nor by 14:30. We stood their shaking our heads. We could see how difficult it is becoming to contain those instigating violence. We knew that working through the program will give the majority of the students something to keep the peace with. We knew that what was needed was someone with the authority to speak to get onto that podium and speak. But it didn’t happen. Forgive me for getting the impression that someone wanted to delay this until there were instances with which to delelegitimize the students.

Today I some kind of armored vehicle driving through a crowd of students as if they are not there. To that driver: what were you thinking? There was absolutely no reason for doing that! I’m no security expert, and probably never will be, but I’m quite convinced that someone who is will be able to indicate that what happened today is simply not the way to work with a crowd of students.

Today I saw journalists on both side of the fence. I saw journalists among the students and journalists among the police. I know that you had to look at the conflict, but you will tell the story in the coming days. Hats of to you who can look beyond a single incident and see the broader movement.

Today I saw students regroup after teargas was thrown around. Not up by the gates where some clashes were happening, down by the grass where students were waiting. I saw students gather themselves, following leaders, peaceful with utmost discipline, preparing to occupy that space again.

Not everything was beautiful. Not everything was perfect. But you are going to make a choice whether you want to look at the thousands of students peacefully gathering or whether you want to look at the thousands of photos of the violence that did happen. I’m not blind to what happened. I stood as close to that fire as was humanly possible. But I know that this is not what defined today. Today was defined by the insistence of the majority that this will not be another violent clash. Today was defined by the two young woman who, deep into the day, took position right in front of me, where we were pastors were occupying the space next to a fence that some wanted to break open, to form their small part of a chain. It was defined by their insistence to each other that they’ll wait until tonight if needs be, but they will not engage in violence. You choose what you want to see. But it will probably say more about you than about what happened.

Today would have been a totally different story if someone walked onto that stage at 12:00 and made the announcement that was made at 15:00. It would have defined the story of this country in a way would have been far more hopeful. Alas.

That is what I saw today. I guess I need much more time to process this. I apologize if I can’t express this correctly. But this is what I saw. To the students I marched with this morning: if you are the future of this country, then I want in. You’re walk was a symbol of hope.

And to those who think the protests was unnecessary or even wrong. I sincerely hope that you’ll pay the 10% difference in you or your child’s university fees into some bursary fund.

The conference for John de Gruchy’s 75th birthday was an amazing experience. It seemed like no cost or trouble was spared to gather a selection of amazing speakers, and these speakers presented possible the most engaging set of lectures that I’ve ever heard in such a short time. Alan Boesak was to deliver the last main lecture, and many expected it to be an explosion. Boesak is without a doubt one of the most gifted speakers that South Africa has ever had, and his overview of the struggle against apartheid, of the problems in the transition to a democratic South Africa, and in all honesty, his sermon on the challenges facing the church and the world, was met with a standing ovation.

But his insistence that we have not yet dealt with white supremacy, said in the most pastoral of ways, even more particularly his softly spoken critique against an overemphasis of Afrikaner experiences of trauma in explaining racism, create that movement of white bodies, the shifting in the chairs, the darting eyes to note what black colleagues might be thinking, and while a conversation didn’t happen, if this were a round table rather than a lecture hall, and if all participated, my guess is that the struggle to adequately respond to whiteness and racism would also be audible in the words spoken by white participants.

But it was a young black women, a theological student presumably, most probably undergraduate, that may have caused a deeper explosion that Alan Boesak could. Whether those of us sitting there were aware of it at the moment I doubt, I doubt that she was aware of it. It started as a critique on Boesak, but this just hid the critique on the generation of Black Theologians that came after Boesak, and the even more fierce critique of the guild of academic theologians in general, of which many, if not most, in her experience would have been white.

“Dr Boesak”, she started out, “thank you for your work, but it has become a matter of entertainment.” Entertainment? I cringed. But entertainment was meant as theological work reduced to the public and political sphere. Yes, the irony should not be overlooked, how can it be that a theologian is “reduced” to the public sphere, that politicians quote a theologian but theologians don’t. She then continued with a plea that she and her generation want to do Black Theology, but that there are not space for this in the university. There are no space because “when we tell our lecturers that we want to do Black Theology, they tell us that there isn’t sufficient literature available”.

The response she got was that all of Alan’s books are in the library and on the shelves of lecturers (or more specifically, not on the shelves of lecturers because it was borrowed to students). But I suspect the response missed the mark. Yes, the books are in the library. But her experience that she is being told that she cannot work on Black Theology because there isn’t literature available does not refer to availability in the library, it hints at a response which said that it isn’t available. There isn’t anything academic that you can use to do Black Theology.

Now, I quote from memory, I don’t know who she was (and if anyone do know, I would love to contact her). I interpret generously to make a point. But what are we to say of this? Somehow I had the experience that a young black women, possibly an undergraduate student, disrupted the guild of South African academic theology with one question. And she did this by merely pointing out that academic theology has silenced the one attempt at making race a central question of critical theology, silenced it to the point where young Black theologians who know that race is a key theological question experience that the theological academy it not the place where this is to be asked.

The silence of particularly white theologians on matters of race has been pointed out repeatedly over the past 15 years or so. While much is done in theology on class and gender, race as a particularly theological problem and theological challenge is seldom directly engaged by theologians, specifically white theologians. For the moment let me just say that this silence seem to beg for a response, both in continuing the work of the tradition of Black Theology, but also by white theologians taking up this task.

We often hear that “apartheid was a heresy”, yet what exactly made this a heresy is at times lost in our church discussions. For those of us in the Dutch Reformed Church this might be partly because nowadays we are looking at a tennis game between a group in the church who find heresy everywhere, and another who cannot work with the concept of heresy at all (I’m rather drawn to the second one, so if this post relate to the current conversations on heresy I’m responding to myself).

Russel Botman share the story of how their class of theological students became convinced that apartheis is indeed a heresy. Jaap Durand was the lecturer in systematic theology, and challenged his students:

“You have been quite explicit about the legal, sociological, psychological, and political science reasons for your judgment on apartheid. I want to challenge you to find the theological essence of the judgment on apartheid.”

The answer he then provides is that “apartheid has as its point of departure the irreconcilability of people of different race groups.” Apartheid assume that people are inherently irreconcilable, while the gospel assume a radical reconciliation which transcend all borders.

We might want to revisit this idea that arguing from a belief of the inherent irreconcilability of people is nothing but a heresy, since this continue to be such a common idea. Is this not what underlies every statement that two groups of people will “never be able to find each other”? If we normalize the divisions in society by saying that “our cultures differ too much”, “there will always be conflict”, are we not assuming that people are inherently irreconcilable?

Socially I think there are two ideas which we are holding to in order to keep this heresy going. The one is the belief in some kind of essential group identity. White people will always be white people, always act like white people, and always want to be part of a group of white people. The other is that conflict between groups of people that are different are inevitable and natural. Yet neither of these are true.

Groups are fluid, change over time, merge with others, die out, have individuals abandon that group, and are joined by individuals who it would be inconceivable in another context. Religions as a social group provide a good example, or nationalities, but cultures, ethnicities and the way the world are constructed as races are not essential and eternal either. Secondly, even where we do belong to different social groups, conflict and strive is not inevitable. Groups of people find amazingly creative ways of living in harmony together.

Yes, group identities are strong and will form us over generations, sometimes over thousands of years. But they are not permanent. Conflict do exist between different groups, but it is not inevitable. Reconciliation is difficult (and true reconciliation should be difficult, if it isn’t difficult we might want to suspect that we are not yet totally honest with each other), but always possible. So let’s start watching the language of “never” and “impossible” when it relates to reconciliation.

This does not imply that we will sort out our divided legacy in this country in one generation, or even in my lifetime. But it does mean that I will reject every movement which support an irreconciled society, or which work with the assumption that we are inherently irreconcilable, and trying is therefore worthless. Let’s agree to end that kind of talk.

It has become quite a popular quote in some church circles to remind that church is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. Your life from Monday to Saturday is where the real church happens, so we say. But what if that is wrong. What if it is all about Sunday morning 9 o’clock? What if everything that I’ve been reflecting on over the past 5 years on this blog (emerging churches, missional conversation, public theology, liberation theology, theology and racism) should not be a call towards the Monday-to-Saturday-real-life, but rather a radical call towards Sunday morning 9 o’clock.

On the ticket of it-is-not-about-Sunday, some of my friends has quit the church-on-Sunday’s system. They left that behind, since if the logic that it’s not-about-Sunday, but about my life from Monday to Saturday is correct, then why not take it to its logical conclusion and just end Sunday morning 9 o’clock (or whatever your equivalent of the central gathering of a community of faith is, whether Sunday evening 6 o’clock, or Wednesday evening 11 o’clock). but for most people however vaguely committed to the Jesus-story there remain a Sunday morning 9 o’clock, or equivalent event (perhaps not weekly, perhaps not in a church building), which give some kind of explicit form to their faith commitments, even though they, to some extend rightly, identify their whole of life as the place of faith.

The dark side of underplaying Sunday morning 9 o’clock is that we can use Monday to Saturday as a tool to divert the gaze away from the problematic nature of Sunday morning 9 o’clock’s gathering of a community of faith, and so underplay the very important symbolic moment which Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain, a moment which publicly reveal that which is real, and in this revelation is actually calling the church’s (and is this perhaps more than merely the church’s) bluff… or at least should be.

The form this might take is the following: “Even though we are a white middle-class community gathering on a Sunday morning, that is not our real identity. Our real identity is to be found Monday to Saturday, where members of this community of faith are through their work building relationships across racial lines, and in our outreaches building relationships with the poor“. Sunday morning 9 o’clock is therefore not our real identity, and the exclusivity revealed in this gathering should not be seen as central to the identity of those who are gathered. The church is therefore not simply a middle-class white Afrikaans community, since Sunday morning 9 o’clock is not a true revelation of who we are.

But what if Sunday morning 9 o’clock does indeed reveal our true identity. Does our choice for who should help us in heating pews on Sunday morning not reveal our relational commitments in it’s truest form? Perhaps not on an individual level, in the sense that I only choose my friends and romantic partners from those who attend church with me (although this remain common in some church circles), but rather more generally, in the sense that those who I join on a Sunday morning reveal the broader class, racial, ethnic or cultural group into which I commit myself relationally. I also do not wish to argue for simple causality (as in that the church is the reason why I have bound myself to this network of people), but rather that we need to notice that this particular commitment to a community of faith does indeed reveal our “true identity”.

Is this not perhaps in part why transforming religious communities is proving to be so extremely difficult? Not only in South Africa! Follow the North American discourse on race, look at how church from similar traditions remain separate when immigrants to Europe prefer their own communities rather than joining the existing church. On an even superficial reading of the Christian tradition we know this to be problematic, which is why we have a very long history of attempting to theologically justify this phenomenon. A mission policy which dictated that it is “more effective”, “better” or “biblical” for “each group” to have an “own church” was one brutal way in which we did this (an approach which has resulted in extreme shame as we had to acknowledge that this was built on racial ideologies masked as theological convictions), but why should a reinterpretation of Monday to Saturday necessarily be exempt from similar biases?

Don’t get me wrong, the theology which made Sunday morning 9 o’clock into the absolute symbol of religiosity need to be challenged! Insisting that Monday to Saturday (or perhaps just Monday to Sunday) should indeed be the place where faith finds its primary expression – in how we conduct business, where we choose to buy our homes, the schools we choose for our children, the way in which we do our shopping, the political convictions we have – is indeed an important shift (although not a new revelation, but rather something which we have a centuries long history of attempting to do). And using a small religious life as a way of diverting the gaze from how we continue our ruthless exploitation of others beyond our religious life might be on of the most important insights the church need to face in our day. But what about the opposite?

What if we use our public lives which is lived in a more diverse environment, or even our acts of charity across class divisions (to approach the Rollins parable used in the above link from another angle), to keep the critique out of our most intimate spaces. For us as religious leaders the most intimate space might be the church itself, and we might use the above kind of argument to divert attention from the very obvious symbols of exclusivity which our churches remain, while for members of faith communities the gathering on a Sunday morning is symbolic of our most intimate relations, and we therefore need to divert the critique away from this, even using some nice Christian notions like participating in development work or living out our faith from Monday to Saturday as tools in immunizing the local community of faith against critique.

The message of Jesus and Paul seem to be much more radical, and Sunday morning 9 o’clock might be the more important political event, even in our day. As I read both the gospels and Paul it seems like their social experiment, grounded in a particular vision of who God is, was to change the most intimate relations, which was also often found around religious gatherings. Jew and gentile, tax collector and zealot. These were not bound into a spiritual unity, but rather walked the same roads following the same rabbi, or gathered in the same community – or at least that was the ideal.

Most white South Africans have black colleagues, and we tend to at least “muddle through” these relations, and often have good relations. But the unwritten rules remain that I can leave these relations behind Friday afternoon. These relations can remain official. And we can volunteer at a local soup kitchen, but no one expect us to continue sharing a meal elsewhere with those who come to get a bowl of soup. But we perhaps know that the local congregation has a different set of rules. The local congregation to some extend assume that we will share a table at some point, perhaps give others access to our home (through various small groups or Bible studies for example) and that we should cry together when others experience pain.

What if we just started right here, at what seems to be the most difficult. What if CEOs and cleaners, black and white, Zulu and Shangaan, Afrikaans and English, were to sit next to each other on a Sunday morning. To listen to the announcement of the deaths of each others family members. To visit each others homes. Have our kids attend Sunday School together. Drink coffee together while we wait for the Sunday School to end. You know, just typical church stuff, but explicitly crossing the very divides which our particular context keep in place. Obviously we could find new ways of keeping the divisions in place even within one congregations, and a naive focus on the membership list should never be mistaken to relationships which transform our identities, but the very difficulty of doing exactly this might be a reminder that it might be the place where we should start.

Perhaps it is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. But as long as Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain a symbol of class, racial and ethnic divisions in a society, we might want to consider that the truth is that it is about Sunday morning 9 o’clock for most of us. This is indeed the place which illustrate who I am in all its obscenity. I am part of this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation. I am not the guy who is nice to my workers or who contribute to a soup kitchen. As a Christian I might actually be doing this exactly in order to divert the critique against this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation of which I am part.

For many of us the weekend was spent struggling with the question: how do we worship after Lonmin? I remembered preaching the Sunday after Eugene Terre’blanche was murdered, that Sunday was a difficult sermon, but at least many of us felt like we had some consensus on what had to be said. My sermon focused on reconciliation, and in the sermon I could point to many people from diverse backgrounds who all called for the same thing: reconciliation.

This Sunday was more complex. Do we pray for the police, striking workers, government leaders? Should we pray for an end to violence or for a more just economy? I insisted on Saturday that the ethical challenge facing us is to insist that this event be interpreted in the broader context of a South Africa culture of violence (and other aspects which we might discover allowed this to happen). In the liturgy I believed it was not the time to identity either the police or the striking workers as the root of the problem. Tom Smith suggested that the only thing appropriate for this Sunday’s liturgy was lament. To my mind this was correct, and following some guidelines on using the Psalms in liturgical lament, our small church service in the inner-city cried out to God that things are not going well, and we focused on the fact that at times the church pray “Our God, our God, why have you forsaken us”.

I reflect on this in order to say that the presidential call for a week of mourning has some overlap with an appropriate Christian response to Marikana. The overlap should be recognized, but the limitations for the church following government into this week’s mourning should also be noted. I don’t want to downplay the public rituals of mourning that will be visible throughout the country this week. I think those are important, and I support president Zuma’s call. But as Christians I believe there should be more to our week (week? and then?) of mourning.

Typically mourning involves an expression of deep sorrow for the death of another, often accompanied with public symbols such as the wearing of black clothes, and in this case flags hanging half mast. According to some reports, Zuma added, and again I want to agree entirely with the importance of this, that part of our mourning should include reflecting “on the sanctity of human life and the right to life as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic”. But I do want to add two things for the church.

First, when entering a time of lament, the church cannot only give expression to deep sorrow. Our sorrow cannot be disconnected from the plea that God will change our society. Our sorrow cannot be disconnected from a process of committing to justice. I don’t yet know what justice will imply at Marikana. I don’t yet know what exactly justice will mean in the relationship between rich and poor in the coming months and years. But I know that as a Christian I cannot enter into a time of lament following Marikana without simultaneously being formed towards a commitment to participating in the reign of God at Marikana and beyond.

From this I want to add a second aspect which I believe is crucial at the moment. In some way we are all connected to Marikana. Marikana was not merely a once-off event, but it was a mirror of our society. Our time of lament should call us into a time of self-reflection, not merely feeling sorrow for those who suffer, but also asking how we are embedded in what happened. I say this not as a way of pre-empting our analysis, but rather as a call that social analysis involve self-reflection. I don’t doubt that we will have to talk about police reform (again!) in the coming months. We will rethink our labour union systems and in particular how they are related to big businesses and political parties. We will have to (again!) fix our eyes on the growing economic inequality. We will ask questions from multi-national companies and wonder how exactly their future in South Africa should look. The list goes on.

But if we are serious about saying that “never, never again”, and about going beyond finding a guilty party so that we can go on with our lives, happy that someone will pay the price, then it will require that we also see how we participate in keeping aspects of society which lead to further violence in place. This is not merely the work of social analysis, it is an act of spiritual discernment. This week, I believe the text which should lead us might be “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). From such a spirituality we might be able to engage in a process of public social analysis and critique, something which is too important to merely leave in the hands of official committees, but which is too sensitive to allow the continuing throwing around of wild theories which merely implicate our favourite guilty party. We cannot speak of lament if we continue to act as if this tragedy might merely give us the final evidence for what we have been saying all along.

So we mourn this week. But our mourning involve more than sorrow, it involved the prayers “let your kingdom come, let your will be done” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Only in this way can be prepare ourselves to insist on and contribute to an uncovering of the injustice of Marikana and a more peaceful future.

A number of Lonmin posts have made it into my drafts. But I struggle to press the “publish” button.

I’ve spent some time re-reading parts of my dissertation handed in earlier this year, which focused on public responses to violence (or rather, to a very specific subset of this genre), and it stops my from pressing that “publish” button even more.

There is no shortage of attempts at finding the “true perpetrators” of this horrific event. Unions. SAPD. Sriking miners. Mining bosses. However, there is a sense in which it is just too easy to find a scapegoat. The comparisons to Sharpeville, although undoubtedly problematic, is a reminder that we have to take a broad historic view in interpreting the event. The London-listed company, an employer responding to the death of its employees from thousands of miles away, a reminder that this horrific local event cannot be disconnected from a global interpretation.

When writing on this last year, two aspects which I (following others more knowledgeable) considered key to understanding violent crime  (and for the moment I’ll refrain from commenting on which part of the event should be considered as “crime”, and simply insist that we focus on violence in general) in South Africa was the culture of violence established over decades, a culture tied specifically to the mining industry in South Africa, and the effect of economic inequality on violence. I summarized it in the following words:

Although final answers to why South Africa has such a high level of violent crime is difficult, no coherent explanation can be given without recognising that it is not a post-apartheid phenomenon. We have to connect it to a long history of violence in South Africa. South Africa has been exceptionally violent throughout its history of colonialism and apartheid. Extensive (often foreign) military power was utilised in the control of indigenous groups and the use of the police as an excessively violent force during apartheid is well documented. Urban violence connected to gang culture can be seen from the late 19th century around mining cities (particularly Johannesburg), with pass laws, migrant labour and the criminalisation of black labourers creating a constant flow trough prisons, many times the place where a violent culture was strengthened rather than defused, contributing to a culture of urban violence. Although developing later and to a smaller extent than in Johannesburg, a gang culture and a growing culture of violence also developed in other mining towns along with migrant labour and the cycling of African and Coloured males through prisons. […]

The history of colonialism and apartheid further affects the continuing problem of violence and crime through the peculiar levels of economic inequality in South Africa. It has been recognised internationally that economic inequality (rather than merely poverty) leads to higher levels of violence and crime. While this might at times be attributed to the fact that crime is a more effective road to generating income than the legal route of participating in the economic sphere, or at times the only possible option available to someone, this does not provide a sufficient explanation, since much of the violence and crime in South Africa do not lead to any economic gains. Rather, the psychosocial effects on the excluded individual and group, such as feelings of exclusion, resentment and anger, can sometimes translate into violence.


This is not sufficient, but sets the tone against which I would want to start thinking through the events of the past week.

This event must result in a thorough analysis of violence in South Africa, both historically and geographically broad, forcing us to go beyond finding a scapegoat to crucify. Our scapegoats tend to merely continue the stereotypical analysis which reflect the South African public discourse, with the choice of blaming unions or police or striking miners or multi-national companies seldom coming as a surprise.

Yes, many moments around Marikana contributed to this horrific event, many small signals found in the bodily movements of strikers and police, many split-second decisions. But the event was in the making for decades. It is an event resulting more from decisions made slowly, at times when its implications might not have been clear, and decisions made unconsciously, the implications of which we have to take note of in hindsight. While police, lawyers and courts will slowly work through the event in the months and years to come, and while this is indeed necessary, the ethical challenge facing us lies in insisting that such a focused analysis cannot provide us with a way forward. We have to take on the broader challenge of transforming the South African culture of violence and exclusionary economic systems (or whatever the other insights is that we come to when doing our analysis as broad and as deep as possible) which provide the background against which specific incidents erupts.

Am I a racist?

May 24, 2012

The article started appearing on my timeline last night sometime. I use facebook’s subscription options generously, which helps me to see that which I actually want to see. This allow me to bypass most of the blatant racist rhetoric on news24 comment sections.

It’s an article which I usually would have skipped, were it not for the friends who shared it. I know these people. They are not the right-wing type. Many of them aren’t even the “good-ol’ middle-of-the-road, let’s love our neighbours and not get involved in all this political mumbo-jumbo Christian”-type. Many of them are active voices for the acceptance of Belhar. They are people for whom church unity is non-negotiable. They are the people whom I want to spend the future of this church with. So when they share an article titles “I am a racist”, particularly if 3, 4 or more of them start sharing the same article, I follow the link.

My father had a fascination with etymology. He has one of those “Etymological dictionaries” next to his computer, and like to check random words in it. My Greek lecturer told us etymology cannot really provide you with the meaning of words (if I remember that class correctly), since meaning is constructed by how words are used in the present, not by finding some pristine untainted past meaning. Nonetheless, sometimes etymology is interesting. And when someone claim that, mostly due to the actions of the ANC, “the word racist has lost it’s original meaning and now only get’s used to describe a white person doing something a black person doesn’t like”, one have to wonder about etymology and the meaning of words.

What exactly is this “original meaning”. Truth be told, few people walk around with etymological dictionaries wondering about the “original meaning”. And I doubt that the author is actually concerned about the fact that the word ‘recently’ started moving away from its Nazi roots, insisting that ‘racism’ should remain used only as it was originally intended: as a system of scientific thought which had the intent to proof that those of European descent were superior due to biologically reasons.

Truth is that, although this kind of scientific racism was active in South Africa, that was never the most dominant approach and sometimes actively rejected (read Samual Dubow’s brilliant analysis on this topic). Apartheid and Nazism might show certain similarities, but they were not the same.

But I don’t think that the “original meaning” the author refers to is apartheid either. Making racism and apartheid synonymous (something which is not uncommon in South Africa), imply that racism is a legalized system of classification and exclusionary laws privileging those who are categorized as “white”. Is that the problem, that we dare use “racism” in any way apart from such a definition?

Many who are comfortable with the author’s thoughts, will shout out against DJ’s and FHM models who dare call someone a “kaffir”. Although derogatory names is obviously not the same as a legalized system like apartheid, we easily recognize their use as “racism”.

Here is our problem, I think: Beverley Tatum tell the story of the response of a white teacher when she was asked how it would feel if someone called her a racist: “She said it would feel as though she had been punched in the stomach or called a “low-life scum.”” We have found a general consensus that racism is wrong. In particularly more liberal circles (and I think also most Church circles regardless of theological position), we have found a general consensus that racism is not only wrong, but that it is like calling someone a “low-life scum”. For those white people who actively oppose Nazism and apartheid, who like Obama and Mandela, who might even have had a black person sleep in their guest bedroom (or even been in the Black Sash and written the first article on the death of Steve Biko) to be called a racist is like being punched in the stomach. But we don’t know what the word mean.

The author doesn’t really define racism. Or does she? It seems like the author concern racism to be any kind of action which someone doesn’t like in which the one doing it clearly stated that aspects of these categories which we call race influence this action. So if a company states that they will hire a black person rather than a white person, because they want to get their BEE scorecard right (not a very good reason in my mind, I would prefer if people do stuff for ethical rather than legal reasons, but let’s leave that for today), then it is “racism”. When UCT set different standards for entry into courses depending on race, then that is racism (honestly, the comparison between the white student who had 8 distinctions and was refused and the black student who barely passed is getting a bit old, the UCT example is somewhat more realistic). I do believe the author would agree that if someone actively states that they refuse to hire black people that would also be racism.

But if me and my black boss, who frequently travel together, and have both read one or two books on racism in the past, point out patterns in how security personnel at airports treat us differently, can we call it racism? The personnel are mainly black, and most probably not aware that their is a pattern where he has to show proof of identification more often than I have to.

And if I continue to have a sense of fear when I get the impression that I’m trailed by a black person in Sunnyside, but I don’t even recognize when I’m trailed by a white person in Hatfield, is that racism?

And if I have different emotions when looking at photos of white squatters than I would have when looking at black squatters, is that racism?

And if I find myself listening more intently to the white speaker than the black speaker, somewhere deep inside myself assuming that the white person know what she/he is speaking about, assuming that they did their research with the required precision etc, is that racism?

And if police (also black policemen) just have a tendency to assume that black people was responsible for a crime, and therefore end up finding more of the black criminals because that is where they look, is that racism?

And when a global economic system and educational system is structured so that is “just happens” that white people tend to have more capital, more businesses, more degrees, is that racism?

One response in a context such as this is to refuse any talk about racism. To insist that any reference to race is not allowed. The article took a different route. Irritated with the difficulty of discussion this topic, the difficulty that we don’t understand what is meant by the term, and the perception that it has become a “political card”, or a vague reference used when no other critique can be brought into an argument, the author attempt to make it absurd by presenting certain situations which would then be “racist” under this absurd understanding. Perhaps its just another attempt at saying: “let’s stop all this talk about racism, it’s absurd” (although their is a message in the article that the biggest problem or racism today is reversed racism against white people, not an uncommon thread in white rhetoric).

Given the fact that their is no real biological grounds for grouping people into the races we do, and even less grounds for pointing out qualities which is inherently connected to these biological markers, some prefer to say that we should rather just stop any reference to race. It doesn’t help us to speak about race at all (says these voices that heard some vague Marxist critique on the topic somewhere).

I believe two things should guide us:

First, what we have as “races” today is something that was constructed historically over the long period of time. Its development is complex, and is intertwined with class, gender, culture, language and many other aspects. I am stuck with constantly being given an interpretation of what it would imply to be “white”. I find myself in a community which consist primarily of those who reinforce this same racialized ideas. To break with it is not impossible, but will take generations of hard work on various levels: on our minds, on our societal structures, on the language we use, on the images found in the media, on the habits deeply ingrained on an unconscious level.

Second, we will have to learn to use the word “racism” responsibly, and to define what we mean when we use it. I think it is am important word. It is a word which remind us of a history to which we never want to go back to. But it is a dangerous word. It is a word that can be misunderstood. And it is a word which the popular use of has lead to various reductions, various attempts at scapegoating while portraying others as innocent.

What is racism? Racism is that which cause me to see that which I identify as “white” as more important, more correct, more trustworthy or more moral, than that which I identify as “black”. Racism is that which cause those who are identified as “black” to suffer more through the structuring of society than those who are identified as “white”.

Am I a racist?

The image which help some of us, is to say that I am a racist like a recovering addict.

I am a recovering racist. I struggle with the ideas I have internalized. I struggle with turning a blind towards, justifying, or even supporting policies and systems which end up harming black people more than white people. I struggle with assuming that a white life is worth more than a black life. I struggle with sometimes revolting when I see black and white people in romantic relationships. And my struggle at times become most visible when I want to convince myself and the world that “I am not a racist”. I don’t have a problem.

So I am a racist. A recovering racist. It’s a painful process. And sometimes I need a support group where I can share my struggles, because without this, I find myself either denying that I’m struggling with this, or making jokes or absurd statements about this.


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