On Racism, Apartheid, and the demons within (Part 2)
By Klasie Kraalogies
We are not born racist. But, as we are molded by family, religion, culture and society, one can almost state that in most cases, racism is absorbed along with our sugary breakfast cereal. In my own case, I was much more exposed to non-segregated environments. From early on (9 years onwards) I went to church in a majority black church, listened to black preachers, sang choruses in multiple languages. My parents were missionaries in the then Northern Rhodesia, later Zambia, before my birth, and had a much more open attitude than most.
But I also attended school in the “Christian National Education” system. We were taught some non-colonial history and were taught basic Sepedi. Of course nothing in the history class was said about the Nazi-connections I discussed in Part 1, nor of the struggle against apartheid. All the enemies of the state were ‘evil Communists’’. It did help that the ANC was in an Alliance with Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and the South African Communist Party. It also helped that our young men went off to the borders to keep out the communists – even if a lot of that border was between “Southwest Africa” (now Namibia) and Angola. There they were fighting SWAPO (Southwest African People’s Organisation) and their Angolan and Cuban allies, while supporting the Angolan UNITA rebels under Jonas Savimbi.
The picture was complete. Continuing apartheid was made easy by using the argument that dismantling it would give the opportunity for the Communists to take over. The government of P.W Botha (1978-1989) came up with the evocative terminology – “The Total Onslaught”. The world was against us, liberals, and communists who all hate God. Like all totalitarianisms, simple yet powerful ideas can keep the machinations of the State running. And so, every Wednesday in High School, we donned military style uniforms, raised the flag, practiced marching, sang a patriotic song or two. That is what good Christian boys and girls did – prepare for war against the evil world, under the banner of apartheid.
The connection between faith, ethnicity and political domination was secure. Yet there were voices from within the ranks of the privileged. One of the important ones was Beyers Naude, theologian and erstwhile Broederbond member who started questioning the status quo after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre.
The Sharpeville massacre happened because police got trigger happy during a peaceful protest. The death toll was 69. Beyers Naude, who was a provincial Synod moderator for the NG Kerk resigned from the church and the Broederbond, and then spent more than two decades as a pariah. A significant amount of that time was also spent under house arrest.
Then the heart of the alliance started to crumble. In 1986 the NG Kerk, the leading Dutch Reformed denomination in South Africa, turned around and said that religious apartheid was wrong, opening its doors to all races. And in 1989 the church went further – and declared apartheid a sin (https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-03-14-me-500-story.html ). As an aside, much of this change was brough about by the actions of one man – Johann Heyns, who was viewed by some as a dangerous liberal. In 1982 he shocked many by saying that apartheid is not necessarily the will of God. In 1986 he became moderator of the church and the changes noted above started in earnest. Then in 1994 he was assassinated by persons unknown, although strong clues pointed towards the radical Afrikaner right wing.
Less than 11 months later, the dismantling of apartheid began in earnest.
I am not covering the much more significant struggle by the anti-apartheid movement within and without South Africa. Of the immense role played by Mandela, the heroes of the struggle, of Archbishop Tutu, and the Black consciousness leaders like the martyred Steve Biko, much has been written by people more qualified than me. They sacrificed much, and the real credit belongs to them. However, since this essay is on racism within, it makes sense to look at apartheid, racism and the internal struggle from within the bosom of racism so-to-speak. From the vantagepoint of the “perpetrator class”, and the internal collapse.
During this time I was in High School. The “communist objection” started crumbling with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990. The church my folks attended swivelled in became deeply enmeshed in Culture War thinking, struggles against sex education, abortion, and towards a theocratic solution. The drug replacing the fear of communism was a drive towards a theocratic state. We went on marches, held banners, signed petitions – yet it was so strange that all these other matters could rile up the “faithful”, but the horrors of racism made no-one bat an eyelid. So, it was no surprise that within this environment there were very noticeable things, such as the lack of multiracial families in the church. That, in the end of the day co-religionists only occasionally visited across the colour line. Close friends were almost always of the same colour. This was explained by calling on cultural differences, for instance. Though the real reason was always skin colour. In private, many of the white folks would make comments indicating that they still viewed their Black brothers and sisters as the other. Some of this was race, a lot of it was class. But the intersectionality I noted in Part 1 pretty much ruled the day. The culture war hides injustices. It is what it is designed to do.
So how does one break that down? It is now two decades since I left that church, and nearly a decade since I left religion altogether. But the issue is not religion, present or absent. The issue is us and them. The issue is recognising the thought patterns engrained from childhood. The little behaviours. The “Micro-agressions”. The simple assumptions. Recognize them– and then go to war with them. Educate yourself. Slam the intolerance you find in yourself. Not in the name of being enlightened, or modern, or whatever – but in the name of defeating the wrong. It is easy to make a confession, or like those ridiculous folks a week or two ago that went and “rejected their white privilege”. What nonsense. You cannot reject privilege given to you from outside. However, you can find the source of that thinking and behaviour in yourself – and throttle it. Otherwise you become a hypocrite like the church members I grew up with – some of whom made great outward sacrifice, but inward the stench of racism did not go away.
The reality though is that this is likely going to be a lifelong struggle, especially for us who live in transitional generations. Maybe in a few centuries things like this will be largely something of the past. Maybe.