Looking beyond racism to the lived experience of millions - Businesslive

4 July 2021 - The richest irony of SA in 2021 is that turning a blind eye to the plight of the bulk of the country’s black majority is about the easiest and most acceptable thing to do.

Michael Morris

The richest irony of SA in 2021 is that turning a blind eye to the plight of the bulk of the country’s black majority is about the easiest and most acceptable thing to do.

This is shocking for two reasons.

The first is that the record of that plight is plain — its victims measurable in the tens of millions — and is every day reflected in the media, on the streets, in the workplace, in classrooms, in school and university data, income tables, vulnerability to crime and abuse, and quality-of-life scores.

The second is that despite the overwhelming evidence of what the real problems (and solutions) are, a nauseating glut of time, energy and resources is squandered not only on obscuring the wholly avoidable failures of SA’s democratic era, but on cynically pinning the blame on those who expose them.

Not unsurprisingly, most South Africans aren’t fooled.

We can be honest and acknowledge that there are those — history’s also-rans — who do cleave to racism to justify their intellectual and moral bankruptcy, and who, in their impotence, probably always will. (They dwell at both extremes, but uncomfortably, and it is to South Africans’ credit that such racists get short shrift.)

But we should also be honest enough to say, loud and clear, that this enfeebled fringe is not the problem — the thrust of the Institute of Race Relations’s (IRR’s) “Racism is NOT the problem” billboard on Johannesburg’s M1 South.

The real problem is the combination of policies that are hostile to investment and the job-creating private sector, and institutions that are corrupt, mismanaged, and failing — and the absence of any serious-minded effort to remedy either.

Among the results are a crippled economy and chronic unemployment. Take the plight of young South Africans. The jobless rate among people between 15 and 24 is a staggering 75%. The 6.8-million young people unable to find jobs make up about 60% of the 11.4-million South Africans now unemployed and destitute.

Even if the economy were thriving, it is doubtful these millions would thrive. Fewer than 40% of the pupils who start school in grade 1 manage to pass matric, with only 14% qualifying to go to university. Just 4% get 50% or more for matric maths. It is not surprising that those living this reality see things differently.

This is what makes the furious reaction to the IRR’s billboard so ironic, an irony that radiates from political scientist Ongama Mtimka’s judgment that, against our history, “you cannot ... minimise the pain in the manner the billboard was doing”.

The billboard is actually a url — www.racismisnottheproblem.co.za. The site is candid: “SA is a failing state in which most youth are unemployed, crime is terrifying, corruption is widespread, basic services are undelivered, and public education amounts to child abuse. These are exactly the major problems topping most people’s agenda, not racism.”

Detailed responses to a survey late in 2020 on what South Africans regard as the biggest, unresolved problems since 1994 show that only 3% think racism is one of them. A full 95% think we have much bigger issues.

Ultimately, making the case that racism is not the problem is a real problem only for those who profit from trading on the divisive delusion that all we have to do is rout the scattered pockets of ragtag racists and we could rest easy, vindicated in callously continuing to turn a blind eye to the damning reality that is the “lived experience” of millions of South Africans.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.