The police officer who killed George Floyd in Minnesota on May 25 made Floyd yet another Black American to die needlessly at the hands of the law.
Floyd’s death has, however, ignited a fire that has quickly swept across the United States, and the rest of the world, as people march in their cities and towns to demand an end to systemic racism, including police brutality targeting Black people.
Systemic or institutionalised racism essentially puts the rights of one group of people above others, using race to determine all aspects of life from access to quality education, health care, and economic opportunities, to how much is spent developing and maintaining communities, as well as art and sporting programmes.
In other words, just by virtue of their race, Black people earn less, have a lower quality of life, and experience the burden of poverty more than any other population group in the United States (as well as in other parts of world, including South Africa).
Systemic racism is a universal experience for Black people. It’s also a multigenerational experience; just as Black people have been fighting for centuries against slavery, Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation, colonialism, and apartheid, the fight continues.
The fall of apartheid in South Africa 26 years ago is reminder that it is possibile to end institutionalised racism. We spoke to the CEOs of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation — Sello Hatang and Neeshan Balton — about non-racialism, racial justice, and what it takes to honestly confront systemic racism.
Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada were comrades in the fight against apartheid. The two icons — along with Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, and Andrew Mlangeni — were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island for their political activism in 1964.
Thinking about the young women and girls who led and were a part of the Soweto uprisings today back in 1976 — about the connections between masculinist histories and how the emphasis on cishetero men shapes the contours of struggle and leaves black women deeply vulnerable. pic.twitter.com/JFnnwmFZvZ— Zoé (@ztsamudzi) June 16, 2020
The foundations that honour their legacies advocate for causes including non-racialism and justice.
Balton and Hatang say, as the world grapples with these issues, it’s worth remembering that racism is not an American problem. It’s a global one, and as the fight against apartheid shows, it will take a global effort to end racism.
Here are four things that the fight against apartheid can teach the world about racial justice.
1. The world needs to rally behind the movements aimed at ending racial injustice
“Global responses are necessary in dismantling systems of oppression,” Hatang says. “It was clear that without global support from the rest of the world, apartheid would have entrenched itself further.”
Balton adds: “Global solidarity action is what kept the issue [ending apartheid] top of mind for movements, many governments and multilateral organisations, as well as for millions of individuals. It forced foreign leaders to exert pressure on the apartheid government. It hurt the apartheid government economically.”
There have been 707 people killed by the police or reported missing since 2007. Of all the cases identified only 26 have been charged. This must end!— Amnesty Kenya (@AmnestyKenya) June 9, 2020
Venue: US Embassy
Time: 12:00 PM #PoliceBrutalityKE#BlackLivesMatterpic.twitter.com/7ul3RwzrPB
In the case of apartheid, global action included cultural boycotts that saw some musicians and artists refusing to perform in South Africa.
There were also economic sanctions that stopped some governments and multinational companies from having an economic relationship with South Africa; measures that ultimately made the apartheid government buckle to pressure.
Hatang adds that global solidarity also includes frontline action. The fight against apartheid was also a military one, and peaceful protests like the Soweto Uprising held by school students on June 16, 1976 were met with violence.
“African countries housed activists and provided security, as well as those countries such as Cuba who were there from the start,” Hatang says.
“Similarly, we should also remember that after his release [from Robben Island in 1990] Mandela travelled to Cuba to thank Fidel and the Cuban people for their efforts, which was also a military effort," he adds. "This was replicated across the continent of Africa.”
The fight against racism in the United States, and indeed elsewhere around the world, is not an armed struggle. However, there have been widespread expressions of solidarity, from citizens and celebrities using their platforms to amplify the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to calls from other nations and prominent global figures.
On Wednesday, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) debated police brutality and racism after African nations, led by Burkina Faso, called for the debate.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, said following the debate that former colonialists and slave masters need to pay reparations.Meanwhile, Scotland has suspended exporting riot gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets to the United States after police started using force against Black Lives Matter protesters.
2. Don’t deny the unjust legacy of racism and how it still impacts the oppressed
South Africa became a democracy in 1994, with Nelson Mandela becoming the country’s first Black and first democratically-elected president. From the onset, the “new South Africa”, as it was called, started working to correct the past.
This included a constitution that’s still considered one of the most progressive in the world, free primary education, and increased housing developments aimed at lower income earners.
There were also corrective economic policies like Affirmative Action and Black Economic Empowerment, which insisted on the previously segregated corporate South Africa to hire Black people, and invest in their development.
Even so, South Africa today is still one of the most unequal societies in the world. However, this doesn’t mean that non-racialism doesn’t exist.
“Real non-racialism is anti-racist in nature as it recognises that racist structures must be brought down. In this regard, non-racialism exists,” Hatang says. It’s the kind of non-racialism that’s not colour-blind.
Balton explains: “Core to the attainment of this kind of a non-racial society would be equality and respect for the dignity of all. Race as a marker for access into privilege will not exist and in fact would no longer have any relevance to day to day life.”
Hatang adds: “[We] should not consider non-racialism to be the same as a colour-blindness. Rather, non-racialism recognises our differences and embraces the beauty of cultures and stories.”
3. Anti-racist laws and policies are needed
Balton says even though 1994 was an important year in South Africa’s history and fight against racism, the moment was not supposed to end racism.
“All that 1994 did was to afford us the opportunity to tackle the problem. A lot of emphasis was placed on dealing with the effects of apartheid in terms of the provision of infrastructure and services, as well as the repeal of racist apartheid legislation,” Balton says.
He adds: “Understanding and tackling systemic racism is something that we need to develop the tools for. This will enable the dismantling of racism within institutions and sectors of the economy through policy change, as well as advocacy campaigns.”
Balton says there should also be laws to deal with racism and inequality, such as legislation around issues of hate speech and freedom of speech as well, and that the ongoing work of dismantling and challenging racism cannot be left to a few individuals, organisations, and political movements.
Hatang says to end racism, the effects of inequality need to be considered. “The most glaring is in financial inequality which is pervasive across the world. However, there is also ‘between country’ inequality which is most notable in the inequality between Africa and the rest of the world.”
Hatang adds: “Similarly, we see inequality and racism in policing and imprisonment. In South Africa, we see places like Camps Bay [an affluent suburb in Cape Town] filled with professional police. In townships, where there is endemic crime, they remain under policed and unsafe. The police in these areas also often display the brutality and criminalisation which is not felt in wealthy areas.”
4. Change laws, but also invest in social programmes
Laws that criminalise racism, and those that promote inclusion and equity are important. However, “laws will take us so far”, says Hatang. There should also be an internal change within individuals to ensure that laws are effective in ending racism.
“[Racism and police brutality] exist due to our social systems. If we fix the social systems we begin to reduce the hate,” Hatang adds. Balton says education and training are needed to make anti-racist laws and policies most effective.
“It is a sad reality that one can become a doctor, engineer, public servant, CEO, or even a politician without having had to go through programmes on racism and anti-racism,” he says.
“Making our schools and universities anti-racist in terms of content and practices will go a huge way in tackling this problem," he says.
He adds: ”We also need to understand what keeps racism alive and enables its growth in the 21st century.”