South Africa’s core racial problem is not prejudice, it is power – which is why some of the worst bias comes from people who don’t believe they are prejudiced at all.
Former leader Tony Leon has become the latest member of the Democratic Alliance (DA) establishment, past and present, to alienate politically aware Black people, this time by labelling fellow former leader Mmusi Maimane “an experiment gone wrong”. As is now customary on these occasions, Leon insists his comment was not a racial slur.
So does Leon really not know that calling a former leader of the opposition “an experiment gone wrong” is sure to be seen as racial bias? Does Helen Zille not know that praising the upside of colonialism or claiming that there are more racial laws under majority rule than under apartheid sends a similar message? Surely the DA member of Parliament who claimed ANC members liked singing because they didn’t like thinking knew this sounded like an attempt to demean Black legislators?
The short answer is that no, they don’t – which is precisely the problem. This does not mean the comments are not prejudiced, or that their attempts to justify them make sense. Leon’s explanation actually made matters worse. He said that what he really meant was that Maimane was a latecomer to the DA and that he had not voted for the party before he joined it.
Party leaders are surely meant to believe that they owe their position to majority support among members. Leon implied that Maimane was there because insiders wanted to find out whether someone different to them could be of use to them. Zille gave the game away when she tweeted: “That mad experiment, which crashed badly, was cooked up by three white males, one of whom was American.” So, the “clarification” says that a Black person only became DA leader because three white men thought this was a good idea. It is even more demeaning to Black people than the original.
It is hard to find a rational political motive for these attempts to disparage nine-tenths of the electorate. The common explanation is that the DA is desperate to win back votes from the Freedom Front Plus, which is gaining white support at its expense. It is not clear how strong a factor this is but, if it is the reason, it would only make the irrationality worse: to state the obvious, risking alienating up to nine-tenths of voters to woo one-tenth severely limits party support. The DA leadership’s racial utterances are such obvious self-harm that the only reasonable explanation is that they say these things because they express what they believe and they don’t know that they are being insulting.
To understand why, we need to recognise how the DA leadership sees the world. They are suburban folk and so comfortable only if the party remains the party of the suburbs. The suburbs are not for whites only and the DA leaders readily agree that anyone should be allowed to live in them. But they were created by whites, who shaped the unspoken rules that govern them. Black people are welcome (or at least tolerated) as long as they stick by the rules. But – and this is crucial – the suburbs do not believe there is anything racial about this. In their world, their rules are not white, they are what “normal”, “decent”, “civilised” people think, say and do.
So people who say they have no race prejudice embrace a very racial view which assumes that white suburban thoughts, words and actions are the standard to which everyone should conform and by which Black people should be judged. Many who hold this view do believe they are free of prejudice. But precisely because they assume that their values are “colour blind” because everyone should conform to them, they are deeply biased against 90% of the country. Anyone who points out that what they believe to be for everyone is really a white preference is “playing the race card”, making a racial issue out of something which isn’t.
This broadly described what happened in the DA after Maimane became leader. The “experiment” was the hope that he would conform to the expectations of the suburbs. When he didn’t – infamously, when he spoke of “white privilege” and “Black poverty” at a rally – the “experiment” had failed and he had to go. In the suburban view, neither privilege nor poverty have a colour because to acknowledge that they do is also to accept that suburbanites are not civilised role models, but people who benefit from racial power.
Crucially, this is all about power – and not only the power which those who have led the DA use to decide how it should be led and who should lead it. “The suburbs” are short-hand for where power outside government is exercised in this country: the power of wealth and of deciding which ideas and opinions are acceptable rests with people in the suburbs. It is not only in the DA that people who believe firmly that they are entirely free of prejudice ensure that their racial biases decide who and what is worthy of respect.
It is not hard to see why people should hold these views. If you are brought up in a world in which what is “normal” and “decent” is decided by whites only, you come to assume that this is the way things should be – for everyone. It is true that, as Nelson Mandela once famously said, no one is born prejudiced and so bias must be learned. But, if the people who hold private power have spent their entire lives assuming that their world should be everyone’s world, and that only people like them meet the (entirely non-racial) standards to which everyone should conform, real racial tolerance is possible only if people are willing consciously to unlearn years of thought, action and behaviour. Since they don’t believe they are prejudiced to begin with, there is no reason to expect them to try.
Nor is this restricted to this country. The key reason for a rising tide of racism in the world is the sense by those who are used to deciding what goes and what doesn’t that they are under threat. Because they assume that their prejudices are non-racial values, the problem is never them. It is anyone who points out their bias, who are then accused of inventing the problem.
It should be obvious by now that this is a far more insidious prejudice than the bigotry of the white person who uses digital media to complain that there are too many Black people on beaches – or to celebrate that they are on a European beach where only whites hang out. Because it is the worldview of people who not only believe that they are free of prejudice but that anyone who points out that they are not is a bigot, it is far harder to shake. And, because its job is to justify and defend power, it does far more damage to people’s lives.
How this might be changed is a discussion for another day. But it won’t change until we realise what it is.