The advent and boom of social media has unearthed the sort of racism we’ve always known has been bubbling away under the lid of the pot of the rainbow nation’s stove, but we previously struggled to get a closer look at.
“Get into the coffin, I want to close!” shouted one of two of Victor Mlotshwa’s attackers. Mlotshwa was visibly aghast at the possibility of being burnt alive in a coffin by two Middelburg farmers. Regardless of his cries, the men kept shoving him inside the small coffin and threatening to burn him alive. His crime was allegedly walking past or through their farm, the JM De Beer Boerdery, at which they allegedly said that they did not want to see any black people.
In the same month Mlotshwa’s ordeal made national headlines, I experienced a racist incident myself, and this time it wasn’t in some rural backwater in Mpumalanga, but on the mean streets of Ekurhuleni.
On my way to Bonaero Park in Kempton Park earlier this week, I witnessed the driver of a taxi I was in getting into a brief altercation with an Afrikaner bakkie driver, who was driving with his two black construction employees. At issue was the supposed bad driving of the taxi driver. What should have been simple road rage, however, soon escalated into a full-blown racist attack.
I’ve never in my whole life heard the K-word mentioned so many times in one minute to a black person, and I was one of the first people to watch that Vicky Momberg video, mind you.
The taxi driver calmly advised all his passengers to close the windows so that we could survive the barrage of abuse. After all the windows were shut, we drove off. But before we could reach the first robot, about six more bakkies appeared and quickly drove past us to block the road. The taxi driver had to make an abrupt stop.
I was in the front seat, basically wondering if we were going to make it out of this one alive.
“And now!?” I asked the taxi driver, waving my hands.
Before he could answer, a group of about 10 big white guys got out and marched towards us.
“Are they going to burn us inside this taxi?” I wondered. Upon reaching our taxi, they demanded that the “f***ing uncivilised k***ir” open the window, while one man started punching the windscreen with his enormous fist.
Yes, this dude was PUNCHING THE WINDSCREEN.
The black guys who were working with (or shall I say for these big chaps) apparently saw nothing wrong with their bosses calling a black man an “uncivilised k***ir”. They even joined their bosses in insulting and trying to assault us.
Luckily, there was a tiny gap between their vehicles our driver spotted and used to escape. This posse then gave chase, but eventually decided to give it up and go back to whatever they’d been doing before.
I could understand (though not condone) the racism of this “bakkie-powered militia”, but what actually causes a black man to participate in an act of racism against his fellow black people? Could it be that they didn’t think that, even if their bosses saw us as “k***irs”, they somehow saw them differently?
There was only one conclusion for me. Racism involves power, more especially economic power. This is not to say that one is not able to hate or prejudice a person of another race if you don’t have power, be it economic or political, but it’s not automatically racism.
In economics, a consumer is not just a person who looks at a product and feels a need to purchase it. You also need to have the means to buy it. Likewise, when it comes to racism, as much as we all have the ability to be racist regardless of race, we need to acknowledge that racism involves having the power to carry out systematic discriminatory practices. In other words, racism is only effective when you have economic power.
And in the case of the bakkie driver and his two black employees, it is clear why they supported their racist boss in the attack. He pays their salary and that’s what matters most to them. The racist truck driver has economic power, and he uses it to advance his racism.
This kind of situation is similar for all economically disenfranchised people in the world, regardless of their race. They often have to endure unbecoming behaviour at the hands of a group of lunatics that have the economic power.
As I watched Mlotshwa plead for his life at the hands of those merciless racists, it got me thinking. Mlotshwa may have survived the physical coffin by being freed out of it. However, he, like all economically disfranchised people in South Africa, the majority of them black people, metaphorically still live in a racist coffin. They’re alive, but already dead in many important ways.
They have to choose between two brutal realities. First, trying to free themselves of poverty, and secondly, being careful not to offend those who have the money to help ease their poverty, regardless of how they are treated. In this way, the vicious cycle of poverty, racism and desperation persists.