Speech at the Opening Session of the
National Conference on Racism
Johannesburg, August 30, 2000.
Issued by: Office of the Presidency
On behalf of our Government, I am happy to welcome
you all to this important Conference and to wish you
success in your deliberations.
I would also like to thank Dr Barney Pityana and the
rest of the Human Rights Commission, most sincerely,
for the work they have done, first of all to ensure
that this Conference is held and that it becomes the
success it surely will be.
The public discussion that has taken place in our country
in the last few months on the issue of racism, demonstrates
the point unequivocally that in this area, we are faced
with one of the most contentious issues on our national
Its discussion does not lead to the national feel-good
atmosphere we all experience whenever our national sports
teams score a victory over a foreign competitor or when
other benign events occur that help us to forget the
persisting racial divisions in our society.
Arguments are advanced honestly that such a discussion,
about racism, can only lead to the division of our country
into mutually antagonistic racial camps.
It is also said that it might very well encourage racial
conflict, destroying the progress we have achieved towards
national reconciliation, towards the birth of a happy
It has been argued that those who point to the persistence
of racism in our country are themselves racist. Those
who propagate affirmative action are accused of seeking
to introduce reverse racism, or, more directly, of resort
to anti-white racism.
Some assert that the description 'racist' is merely
an epithet used by bad people to insult others, as well
as a means of intimidating and silencing those who hold
views critical of the government.
Alternatively, it is said that the issue of racism
is brought up by unscrupulous politicians, in an effort
to mobilise black constituencies to support them. After
all, so it is said, we ended apartheid and therefore
racism, when we became a non-racial democracy in 1994.
On the other hand, others within our society argue
that those who are most vocal in seeking to suppress
discussion of this issue are those who benefited from
centuries of colonial and apartheid racial domination.
These will go on to say that the privileged do not
want this discussion because they want to maintain their
privileged positions at all costs.
It is also said that in order to achieve this result,
the privileged work hard to convince both themselves
as well as the rest of society, that what is being complained
of does not, in fact, exist, except for isolated incidents.
This is categorised as the denial mode, in terms of
which the dominant instruments of propaganda, which,
by definition, are at the disposal of the privileged,
are used to obstruct recognition of reality.
The aggrieved will go further to argue that the privileged
sectors of our society, accustomed to setting the national
agenda, continue in the effort to set the national agenda,
regardless of what the majority of our citizens might
Of course, by this time, the latter have been empowered
by the establishment of the democratic system to believe
that they have the democratic right, openly and legitimately,
to set this national agenda.
The point is also made that our process of national
reconciliation has been somewhat of a charade. In this
regard, it is said that only the victims of racism have
responded to the call to forgive and to let bygones
The charge is made that the perpetrators and beneficiaries
of racial oppression and exploitation have acted merely
to defend their interests, refusing to extend their
own hand towards the victim, in a true spirit of reconciliation.
Among others, the response of certain sectors of our
society to the request to them to make submissions to
the TRC helped to reinforce the view that the beneficiaries
of white minority rule were unwilling to contribute
to the process of national reconciliation. The same
can be said of the initial response of sections of the
media to the decision of the Human Rights Commission
to hold hearings on the issue of racism in the media.
It is of course obvious to all participants at this
Conference that colour and race would, essentially define
the two schools of thought represented in the remarks
I have just made.
Necessarily, this adds to the acrimony, the unpleasantness
and, therefore, the difficulty of conducting a rational
and even-tempered discussion on the question of racism.
With all these problems, some might legitimately pose
the question - why not abandon this discussion until
some later date, when we can discuss all these matters
in a more propitious atmosphere! The Government is firmly
of the view that this would be a very serious mistake.
The postponement of this discussion would sharply exacerbate
the danger of the social instability implicit in the
racial divisions that continue to characterise our society.
Nevertheless, as we enter into discussion, it is clear
that all of us will have to make a supreme effort to
allow all points of view to be heard and discussed in
an atmosphere that permits of the free exchange of views.
As we begin to engage one another at this Conference,
I would like to believe that there are some basic propositions
on which we would all agree. Let me state some of these.
First: the practice of racism is both anti-human and
constitutes a gross violation of human rights.
Second: as it has been practised through the centuries,
the black people have been the victims of racism rather
than the perpetrators.
Accordingly, what we have to deal with is white, anti-black
racism, while giving no quarter to any tendency towards
black, anti-white racism, whether actual or potential,
as well as anti-semitism.
Third: racism is manifested in a variety of ways, these
being the ideological, existing in the world of ideas,
and the socio-economic, describing the social, political,
economic and cultural power relations of domination
of and discrimination against the victims of racism.
Fourth: for many centuries racism has been a fundamental
defining feature of the relations between black and
white, a directive principle informing the structuring
of these relations.
Fifth: the legacy of racism is so deeply entrenched
that no country anywhere in the world has succeeded
to create a non-racial society.
Indeed, a deeply disturbing resurgence of racism and
xenophobia constitutes part of the current social and
political reality in some of the developed countries
of the North.
These countries pride themselves, perhaps justifiably,
as the home and repository of the ideas and practice
of human rights, democracy, equality and human solidarity,
and leaders whose example we should emulate.
Sixth: global experience stretching over a long period
of time, demonstrates that the creation of a constitutional
and legal framework for the suppression of racism is
a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to end
this violation of human rights.
Accordingly, a constitutional and legally guaranteed
right to equality and non-discrimination is very important
in the fight against racism. Similarly, the legal possibility
and right to redress in case of such discrimination
is also critical.
At the same time, the creation of the socio-economic
conditions enabling such equality to be achieved is
fundamental to the realisation of that constitutional
and legally guaranteed right to equality.
The American scholar Alan David Freeman has written
" The concept of 'racial discrimination' may be
approached from the perspective of either its victim
or its perpetrator. From the victim's perspective, racial
discrimination describes those conditions of actual
social existence as a member of a perpetual underclass.
This perspective includes both the objective conditions
of life (lack of jobs, lack of money, lack of housing)
and the consciousness associated with those objective
conditions ( lack of choice and lack of human individuality
in being forever perceived as a member of a group rather
than as an individual.
" The perpetrator perspective sees racial discrimination
not as conditions but as actions, or series of actions,
inflicted on the victim by the perpetrator. The focus
is more on what particular perpetrators have done or
are doing to some victims than on the overall life situation
of the victim class."
(Legitimising racial Discrimination through anti-discrimination
law: A critical review of Supreme Court doctrine).
Whatever else we may disagree about, I would hope that,
at least, we would agree about these propositions.
Let me address our own situation more directly. Once
more, I would hope that we would agree on most, if not
all, the observations I will make.
Racism has been a fundamental organising principle
in the relations between black and white in our country,
ever since Dutch immigrants settled at the Cape of Good
As the dominant group in our country, the white minority
worked to structure all aspects of our national life
consistent with the objective that the whites should
always remain the dominant group and the black majority,
Throughout this period of over three hundred years,
this work, focused on the deliberate construction of
a racially divided society, was done explicitly on the
basis of a racist ideology, legitimised by its open
and consistent adoption as official state policy.
The destruction of the Nazi and Fascist regimes in
the world was one of the principal outcomes of the Second
The apartheid system constituted a latter-day manifestation
of the crime against humanity that Nazism and fascism
had imposed on the European, Asian and wider world,
more than a decade earlier.
Accordingly, as a country, bearing in mind the post-war
process of de-colonisation and the advances achieved
as a result of the civil rights struggle in the United
States, we became the epicentre of the state-approved
ideas of racism, to which all humanity could legitimately
attribute such anti-human phenomena as racism and anti-semitism,
slavery and colonialism.
Our own specific history has created a situation that
constitutes a common legacy and challenge.
The social and economic structure of our society is
such that the distribution of wealth, income, poverty,
disease, land, skills, occupations, intellectual resources
and opportunities for personal advancement, as well
as the patterns of human settlement, are determined
by the criteria of race and colour.
An important part of this legacy is that the imposition
of the ideology of the dominant group has led to the
weakening of the self-respect, pride and sense of identity
of the dominated.
This results in the incidence among some of the dominated
of self-hate, denial of identity and a tendency towards
subservience to a definition of themselves as would
have been decided by the dominant power.
Clearly, it will take time for us to wipe out this
legacy. The struggle waged by the black majority against
colonialism and apartheid, supported by some principled
white compatriots and the rest of the world, has, in
the first instance, been aimed at ending the relationship
of dominant-and-dominated, as between white and black,
and achieving equality among all South Africans, in
all spheres of human life and activity.
However, the incorporation in our Constitution and
national statutes of the objective of the creation of
a non-racial South Africa has placed an obligation on
our society as a whole to strive to achieve this outcome,
as an agreed national task that transcends all narrow
Our constitutional and legal framework and regime provide
us with a strong legal base to confront the scourge
of racism. That base includes:
international law, such as the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights and the International Convention for
the Elimination of Racial Discrimination;
domestic legislation such as the Promotion of Equality
and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination as well as the
Employment Equity Acts; and,
our jurisprudence, as represented, for instance, by
the Constitutional Court decision in the City Council
of Pretoria v Walker matter.
Our transition to a non-racial democracy in 1994 and
the subsequent creation of the constitutional and legal
framework we have just described, have not ended the
inherited racist, discriminatory and inequitable divisions
of our country and people.
Despite our collective intentions, racism continues
to be our common bedfellow. All of us are therefore
faced with the challenge to translate the dream of a
non-racial society into a reality.
Fortunately for all of us, we have the advantage that
the overwhelming majority of our citizens, whether we
are white or black, or black or white, we are South
African and African.
Almost all of us do not have the option to uproot ourselves,
to resettle ourselves and our families in other, wealthier
countries, happy to assume another nationality and proud
to denounce our former homeland, South Africa, and continent,
Africa, for their failures and brutalities.
Whatever the negatives we feel ourselves to be subject
to, most of us take the view that we should address
such negatives, rather than respond to them by packing
our belongings and leaving.
Those of us who do not leave stay because we take the
decision to fight for the emergence of a society that
would enable us and our children to lead secure, comfortable
and happy lives.
In a sense, this constitutes a prayer to the future.
It also represents a confident confirmation of our conviction
that we are capable and willing to participate in determining
what that future will be.
Accordingly, what happens to South Africa, as a result
of policies and practices originating from the government
and other decision-makers in our society, is of direct
concern to all our citizens.
This includes the most lowly and those most marginalised
from the centres of social power, regardless of race,
colour, gender, age and geographic location.
Consequently, what you will decide at this Conference
is of the most fundamental importance to the millions
of South Africans whose interests all of us in this
hall claim to represent and speak for. I will therefore
make bold to advise - please bear in mind that we are
a multi-racial and multi-cultural society, born out
of and conditioned by policies and practices that sought
to emphasise our differences as these racial and cultural
groups, rather than our commonalities as human beings
who have lived together for many long years.
We must also recognise this, that all of us are products
of what the intellectuals have described as a process
of socialisation. Accordingly, all of us are even conditioned
to understand South Africa, our common home, in different
Even at this Conference, the apparently simple question
- how would you characterise present-day South Africa
- will produce responses as varied as the colours of
As we try to determine what is best for us as a people,
our intelligentsia will have to consider a wide variety
of important matters. These include:
the interconnections between the abstract and the empirical,
between the ideal and the actual;
social organisation, scientific inquiry and the impact
of property relations on the integrity of the process
of the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge; and,
empirical evidence that we are actually succeeding,
or not, to end the disparities that define some as the
racially dominant and others as the racially dominated.
As I have said, hopefully all of us present here can
find it within our possibility to agree also with these
assertions about our own specific reality.
Needless to say, we are also perfectly at liberty to
disagree with any and all of them.
Such an honest response is surely an inevitable and
necessary part of the kind of discussion we need, that
will enable us, collectively, to confront the challenge
All of us at this important Conference will have to
answer the question -how do we respond to all the general
and specific propositions we have presented to you,
This might very well include the response that all
we have said constitutes the most unadulterated rubbish
that you have ever had the pain to listen to.
Naturally, the delegates are perfectly entitled to
arrive at this conclusion, having rationally argued
that this is the only rational conclusion that any reasonable
person would reach.
Having heard the charges that the government acts in
a manner that seeks to intimidate those who differ with
it, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage
all our people to break through the barrier of fear
and to speak their minds.
At the same time, they must understand that true intellectual
discourse presumes the vigorous contention of ideas.
By this we refer to the concept put forward at some
time in the history of China when, for better or for
worse, the political establishment advanced the slogan
- let a hundred flowers bloom! let a hundred schools
of thought contend!
Given the difficult solutions we have to find to the
hundreds of problems that confront all of us, with none
of us occupying a privileged position of being the exclusive
domicile of wisdom, we cannot but agree that, in our
instance as well, let a hundred schools of thought contend!
We speak here of a contention of ideas and not the
reduction of ideas to persons, such that intellectual
debate is reduced to skirmishes, battles and a war among
individuals, however much any idea might be identified
with a particular individual.
I make these observations because I believe that as
we discuss among ourselves at this Conference, it will
be important that we do not transform our rejection
of any views that might be expressed into hostility
towards the individuals who might express such views.
Whatever our protestations and our elevated views of
ourselves, many of us are still immersed in a learning
process of how to handle open and vigorous debate.
I would now like to request your indulgence to state
what our Government believes that we, as South Africans,
can and should do to respond to the common challenge
One of the critical national and international challenges
that confront us as a country and a people, is to succeed
in the objective of creating a truly non-racial society.
Many across the globe believe, with good reason, that
because of our specific history, we have the possibility
and will make an important contribution to the universal
struggle to defeat the scourge of racism.
Whatever the problems we face today, our Government
is convinced that, as a people, we have the capacity
to achieve this historic and epoch-making objective.
We are convinced that as a people, both black and white,
we have the wisdom, ingenuity and sensitivity to the
human condition that will drive and enable us to overcome
the demon of racism.
Correctly, much has been made by people around the
world about the 'miracle' of our transition from apartheid
rule to a non-racial society.
At the heart of the sense of wonder and relief among
the international community was the fact that, contrary
to many expectations, we avoided a racial war, despite
the racial brutality of the apartheid system and the
racial antagonisms it generated.
The international community responded with a similar
sense of wonder and admiration at the formation of,
and the work done, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
reinforced by the morality and humanism of that outstanding
son of our people, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Unfortunately, we have not done the necessary work
to assess what it was that made it possible for the
miracle to happen, being seemingly content merely to
bask in the universal praise.
But this we all know, that what we achieved was the
product of conscious and purposive human efforts and
the outcome of the understanding by the millions of
our people that all of us, regardless of race and colour,
are interdependent members of a common neighbourhood.
It was the result of the effort expended over many
years to entrench the understanding among the millions
of our people that black domination was as evil as white
I am convinced that precisely because we can rely on
the same factors that made our peaceful transition possible,
we can say, with confidence, that we will, indeed, defeat
the demon of racism.
The first step we must take towards the realisation
of this goal is the common recognition by all of us,
black and white, that racism exists and that it is indeed
a very serious problem, without whose solution it is
idle to speak of a new South Africa.
Secondly, we must abandon any notion that the problem
of racism has nothing to do with me and is the responsibility
of another. We have to treat racism as a problem that
challenges the black people. We must treat racism as
a problem that challenges white people.
It is obvious that it makes no sense whatsoever to
argue that the responsibility to end racism resides
with the victims of racism. Another step we have to
take is to make the common determination that, precisely
because this issue is so fundamental to our future,
we have to ensure that it is discussed frankly, freely
and openly. We must be ready to take the pain that will
be an inevitable part of this open discourse.
None among us should seek to suppress this discussion.
To suppress it is to guarantee the perpetuation of racism,
with the destructive consequences of which all of us
must surely be aware.
These requirements place a particular obligation on
the white section of our population, itself voluntarily
to recognise the reality of racism, not to propitiate
any sense of guilt, but to make a contribution to the
bright future of our country which they legitimately
It is not possible to over-emphasise this particular
imperative, so central is its place among the panoply
of initiatives we must take in the common struggle to
We will never succeed in the struggle against racism
if the white section of our population does not join
with its black fellow-citizens in common effort to transform
ours into a non-racial society.
Naturally, I am aware of the justified feeling among
many of our white compatriots that they were not responsible
for racism and apartheid.
Accordingly, they argue that they feel insulted when
the crimes of the apartheid system are blamed on them.
From this, it becomes an easy step to take to the conclusion
that these compatriots have no particular obligation
to heal a wound they did not cause.
Correct as this argument may be, nevertheless we have
to respond to the actual situation that faces us in
This actual situation is that racism organised our
society in such a manner that the black oppressed could
not possibly have a way of distinguishing between those
who elected to enforce a racist system, and those who
were the involuntary beneficiaries of racism.
Explained in other words, racism constitutes the practice
of uniting people on the basis of race, even by statute,
as in our case, and presenting them as a united entity
relative to those who are the victims of racism. It
is to such a united entity that the victims of racism
must necessarily respond.
In this context, we must also recognise the fact that
throughout a very long period of struggle against racism,
very few of our white compatriots broke ranks with the
system of white minority rule to join the black millions
who were in rebellion against racist rule.
In this situation, it becomes easy to argue that -
you may not have been against us, which we only know
from what you say, but you were not with us, which we
know because you were not with us in struggle!
It serves little purpose to take offence at a perceived
attribution of guilt and therefore to decide to take
no responsibility to help solve the challenges our country
faces. In reality, such a position only serves to make
it more difficult to end racism in our society.
If I may I would like to refer briefly to what the
distinguished President of our Constitutional Court,
Justice Arthur Chaskalson said last year when he addressed
the Congress of the Jewish Board of Deputies.
He says that by the time he entered the legal profession,
discrimination and humiliation of Jews in South Africa
because of their religion "had ceased to be a significant
factor in our lives." He continues:
" Then, the dominant defining characteristic of
our family, within the broader context of South African
society, was not our ethnic or religious origins, but
the fact that we were white. Because of that, we were
entitled to all the benefits then accorded by law to
people who were white. We prospered, as so many of the
Jewish community did, not only because of our work,
but also because of the opportunities offered to us
as whites. We were no longer part of a marginalised
group within society; we had become part of a privileged
group, and part of a society in which others were subjected
on a daily basis to the discrimination and humiliation
which had been the lot of so many of our ancestors."
As we engage the challenge of racism, it is also clear
that we have to address the seemingly two-sided phenomenon
of 'white fears and black expectations'.
Many within white society harbour fears that our country
will slide into the abyss, if it has not already begun
that slide. They fear that they will be the worst and
perhaps the express victims of the impending catastrophe.
In her book, Country of My Skull, Antjie Krog says
that General Constand Viljoen told the Truth and Reconciliation
" The Afrikaner can in no way detach himself from
the past. But we must be allowed to make for ourselves
an honourable role in the new dispensation. The Afrikaner
feels disempowered, unsafe, his language is threatened,
his educational structures are in pieces -in short,
the Afrikaner feels flooded by the majority and he has
nowhere to turn."
In this situation, the many negative things that do
happen in our country, as they do in any other, are
easily read as confirmation that the expected dismal
future is on its way.
It is in this context that even the discussion of racism,
aimed at ending racism, itself generates the fear that
it will provoke black violence against our white citizens.
Out of all this comes the advice - move gently with
your transformation processes lest you worsen white
fears about the future!
For their part, the black people watch and wait in
expectation that real change will come sooner rather
They, too, are fearful that sensitivity to the reality
of white fears might translate into insensitivity about
their expectations speedily to end the pain they have
endured for centuries.
If white South Africa is fearful of the future because
of what it might lose, black South Africa looks forward
to the future because of what it will gain.
In the end, what it expects it will gain is, fully,
its human dignity, based on an end to poverty, ignorance
and inequality, and based on the creation of a society
in which its blackness will no longer be a badge of
Out of all this comes the advice - move speedily with
our transformation processes lest we lose confidence
in everything that has been said about, democracy, non-racialism
and national reconciliation!
Peter Rule, with Marilyn Aitken and Jenny van Dyk have
written a biography of Mrs Nokukhanya Luthuli, the wife
of Chief A.J. Luthuli, entitled Nokukhanya: Mother of
Light. At the age of 90 years, they quote her expressing
this simple but profoundly humanist and African wish:
" My wish before I die, is to see blacks and whites
living harmoniously in a united South Africa."
To answer her prayer, we have no choice but to act
together to address both the fears and the expectations,
without allowing that these fears are used to perpetuate
racism, without allowing that the justified expectations
are addressed in a manner that will create new crises.
The very act of getting together in pursuit of a common
cause would both reduce the fears and remove any confrontational
attitude attaching to the expectations.
It would surely confer a universal benefit if those
who might despise and fear others because of their race,
our history and its legacy, no longer had cause to do
so; while those who might carry anger in their hearts
against others because of their race, our history and
its legacy, also no longer had cause to do so.
Thus shall we have a future of hope for the black and
white children of our country, to whom we must bequeath
an adulthood as free of hate and fear as they were free
of hate and fear when they were born.
In the speech I have already cited, Judge Arthur Chaskalson
says that what is demanded of all South Africans is:
" That we commit ourselves completely and wholeheartedly
to the transformation that has to take place. This calls
for more than pious statements or resolutions at the
end of a conference
(It means) seeking solutions
and not recrimination. Pragmatically (as the Jewish
people) this is what we have to do; ethically, this
is what we are obliged to do, and in good conscience
we can do no less."
In 1967, a group of experts convened by UNESCO issued
a "Statement on race and racial prejudice".
The statement begins with these words:
" All (human beings) are born free and equal both
in dignity and in rights. This universally proclaimed
democratic principle stands in jeopardy wherever political,
economic, social and cultural inequalities affect human
group relations. A particularly striking obstacle to
the recognition of equal dignity for all is racism.
Racism continues to haunt the world."
That world includes our own country.
You have convened here, distinguished South Africans
and valued foreign guests, to help our country answer
the question - what shall we do to end the nightmare!
This urgent question deserves an urgent answer.