Because of our past, we avoid discussion of racism when we should be encountering it head on so that we can rid ourselves of its pernicious influence on our lives. Racism did not disappear on the day that Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa. It could not. We were born into racism, were socially conditioned to accept it and lived our lives looking at people primarily in terms of race. And we still do.
I grew up in the Asiatic Bazaar in Marabastad where I learned that:
i) people who were not of Indian origin were either superior or inferior to me.
ii) I should not mix with people who were not of Indian origin.
iii) White people could insult me with impunity.
iv) I should not extend ordinary human civilities to other Black people who were not of Indian origin.
I became a racist. Now, like an alcoholic at an AA meeting, I stand up and say, I am a racist.
As a child, I accepted racism as normal even though I was troubled by little incidents in encounters with other races, incidents that would not disappear into the sub-conscious. But, as I lived among Indians, my consciousness was not greatly challenged.
Then in 1948, my family moved to Durban. It made little difference to me that the Nationalist Party had come into power. Being among the voteless who endured government, I had no interest in the power play of white people. But in Durban, we came into close contact with my father’s siblings. (We were originally from Durban. My father’s work had taken him to Pretoria and we had lived in Marabastad for about ten years.)
My father’s brothers, M.D. and M.J. were frequent visitors to our home. Both were very politically aware. M.D. was a communist and a member of the Natal Indian Congress. He challenged my narrow racist understanding of our situation and introduced me to the idea of evolution. I was about twelve and treated evolution as totally improbable. But I was suddenly being made aware that my existence extended beyond the closed space of Indianness. Then in 1949, with the race riots and experiencing the frustration of the Zulu people, I became open to new influences.
At school, I had a teacher, Esther Nursoo ( I have forgotten her maiden name) who totally rejected racism. She moved in the liberal circles associated with the International Club and she reinforced what I was learning from my uncles and the race riots. And I began to grow up.
But I had been socially conditioned into racist norms and values. And social conditioning, which we need in order to be able to function in society, is not easy to throw off. It is the basis upon which we build our lives and we take for granted our modus operandi. Our reactions, therefore, become automatic and we don’t even question our attitudes, values and behaviours. A revolution forces us to acknowledge new attitudes and behaviours. And we do but it does not change our basic conditioning. So though we become aware of racist attitudes, norms and values, and though we publicly reject them, they were ingrained in us through our upbringing and we find ourselves paying lip service to some extent to notions of universal brother- and sisterhood.
Children born after 1994, have a chance to be conditioned in a different way. But as long as we still live in a segregated society, as long as there is dire poverty and unemployment, especially among African people, even the so-called “born-frees” grow up in an environment in which discrimination still plays a strong role. As long as we have politicians and entrepreneurs who are corrupt and negligent of their mission to serve, people will continue to adopt attitudes that relegate Blacks to inferiority.
And we will continue to struggle to overcome the social conditioning that turns us into racists.