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Africa

South Africa's anti-racism week 'a drop in the ocean'

"TakeOnRacism" is an anti-racism campaign taking place this week in South Africa. It aims to change attitudes and curb racial incidents. What lies at the root of the emerging racism today, 22 years after apartheid?

Racism is still deeply rooted in modern South African society. Racial incidences occur almost every day, especially on social media platforms. This week, an anti-racism campaign under the banner "TakeOnRacism" wants to raise awareness and fight against what is seen as re-emergence of racism.

Tackling racism together

Human rights and civil society groups are concerned about the current socio-political climate in South Africa. In the last few months alone, a number of protests against poor delivery services took on a racial line. At universities, black and white students clashed openly about the use of Afrikaans as a teaching language in classrooms. Some 80 civil society organizations launched the Anti-Racism Network South Africa (ARNSA) to tackle racism on a national level.

The initiative, spearheaded by the Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela Foundations, aims to fight racism and related forms of discrimination – using a collective weight of multiple organizations.

Protests against racism and xenophobia in South Africa.

Protests against racism and xenophobia in South Africa.

"We are confident that through this network we will see a more coordinated approach to addressing racism, so that we will now have the kind of institutional capacity to tackle the problem nationally," said Sean Moodley, convener and representative of the Kathrada Foundation. The events around this initiative will lead up to March 21, recognized locally as Human Rights Day, and globally as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Race a critical fault line

The Mandela Foundation reiterated that race relations remain "a critical fault line in South Africa" and that the network aims to "respond to, and better understand" these relations. A host of activities are not only made to educate the public on issues of racism but will provide a platform for South Africans to openly speak on their experience of racial prejudice.

But how much can this week's anti-racism campaign help to change attitudes in South Africa? "The anti-racism week is very important. But we are worried that it will be stuck in talk shops," said Mienke Steytler, spokesperson of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in Johannesburg. "We do support this week of action and the need to have open debates around this topic. But politics needs to change," Steytler said. "There's a leadership crisis," he added. According to Steytler, this leadership crisis is fueling increasing social protests and in reality the unequal society is at the root of this dangerous scenario that is playing out in day-to-day life.

Flames of unrest continue

According to Steytler, the latest IRR-poll shows that most South Africans do get along well, but the main concerns are rather about crime and unemployment. Only 4.7 percent felt that race is an issue. "But we live in a pressure cooking environment that is all connected to the weakly growing economy. 65 percent of young people are unemployed. We will continue to see these flames of unrest and as a result also more xenophobic incidents if the majority of South Africans are not empowered and if they continue struggling to find jobs and find it hard to put food on the table," said Steytler.

Wealthier less racist

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, a young student leader, Siyabonga Zulu, believes that those who have made economic and material progress over the past 22 years react differently to the question of racism. "The wealthier who are more advantaged have no problems, while those who are still poor and disadvantaged have different views," he said.

Südafrika Siyabonga Zulu, Studentenführer an der Universität in Durban

Siyabonga Zulu (l), student leader at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban.

The views among students at the university differ and some do not experience racism as much as others. Lubna Nadvi, a campaigner against racism, said: "We are a country still very much focused on race, for example when you go to a government department you are expected to fill in forms and indicate your race. And I think what we actually need to do is to remove racisms from our bureaucracies, we need to remove racisms from our systems because as long as we maintain race as a category of identification in this country we are going to have problems."

Politicians play race card

Former President Thabo Mbeki highlighted the failure of overcoming racism in post-apartheid South Africa when addressing a Human Rights Commission’s anti-racism conference in Johannesburg this week. "It is obvious that the strenuous efforts our country has taken over two decades to eradicate colonialism, apartheid and material racism has not succeeded as fast as we and the majority of the population expected and hoped for," Mbeki said.

According to IRR-spokesperson Mienke Steytler, politicians are using the current state of the country to divert people’s attention from the real issues. "Instead of paying more attention to the economy, government spending, and job creation politicians are using racism as playing card in the political game," she said.

"The situation is worrying, and unless the black middle class is not growing, there can be many more anti-racism weeks for the next few years, it will be a drop in the ocean," Steytler said.

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