It was as if I were feeling the Charleston, S.C., massacre in my bones. I had been in the United States as a guest of the Brown University International Advanced Research Institute. I was scheduled to go back on June 21, but I insisted on going back as soon as I finished my talk on June 16. This was by no means a reflection on my hosts or the exciting program they had put together. Throughout the deliberations, I expressed a sense of vulnerability as a black man in the United States in a way that I did not feel in South Africa.
This is not to say there is no racism in South Africa. Quite the contrary.
I recently made headlines when I was chased out of the posh Haas Coffee Collective restaurant in Cape Town because I insisted on having an omelette the way I preferred. The white owner of the store came up to me and said, “I believe you don’t like the way we make our omelettes.” Before I could utter a word in response, he said, “Get out of my restaurant; people like you don’t belong in my restaurant.”
When I inquired what he meant by that, he said, “Criminals like you don’t belong in my restaurant; I am calling the police.” I challenged him to do just that, which he never did. Instead I went over to the nearest police station to lay a charge of crimen injuria against him. I also called the local newspaper, the Cape Times, to report the incident and laid a complaint with the mayor of Cape Town.
I told my hosts at Brown that although I could do something about racism in South Africa, I felt helpless in the U.S. Maybe the sense of agency in South Africa has to do with being a well-known newspaper columnist and academic. But that did not protect the distinguished Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates Jr. from a racist cop in Cambridge, Mass.
Perhaps I feel a greater sense of political empowerment because black people run the government in South Africa. But I would have expected a similar sense of empowerment among African Americans in the U.S., given the presence of a black president. But this does not seem to have been Barack Obama’s impact on African-American political culture.
African Americans are justifiably proud of having the first black president in the White House. Pride, however, is not the same thing as power. The president’s cautiousness may have rubbed off on the rest of the African-American community. It may well be this cautiousness that emboldens racists in America.
And so I jetted out of the United States several days before my original departure date. No sooner had I arrived in Cape Town than white supremacy reared its ugly head in Charleston, leaving in its wake nine lifeless bodies. While I respect the decision of some of the bereaved families to forgive this monster, I also know that the discourse of “forgiveness” has done very little to improve race relations in South Africa over the past 20 years. Instead it has yielded a tendency to instinctively present the very perpetrators of evil in a sympathetic light.
That is why the judge presiding over the bond hearing saw fit to privilege the feelings of the perpetrator’s family above the experiences of the black families in the room. In every discussion of racial injustice—whether in South Africa or the United States—the first consideration is to white feelings.
South Africa is in the midst of a national debate about affirmative action. My own university, the University of Cape Town, did away with race-based affirmative action on the grounds that qualified white students were being excluded in favor of unqualified black students. The mobilization of sympathy for these “poor” white kids is blind to the structural exclusion of black kids not only by the admissions process but also by a culture that says these institutions properly belong to whites. White supremacy reproduces itself by a combination of an entitlement to privilege and forgiveness and an entitlement to black lives as whites present themselves as victims of reverse racism.
I am told by those who know better that forgiveness is liberating to the persons involved. I don’t question that. I just worry that this expectation of instant forgiveness reproduces racism in the white community and places a denialist salve over the wound in the black community. But does the wound ever really heal because we forgive, because we tell ourselves we have forgiven? I am not so sure. In South Africa the results have been a combination of racist denial on the part of whites and intense anger among young black South Africans.
I wonder, then, if there is no other language beyond the discourse of forgiveness. Given that forgiveness has not produced the results of reconciliation that were expected of it, in South Africa or the United States, we should perhaps consider giving accountability a chance in the fight against racism. Making accountability only the work of the courts is a form of self-absolution that leaves attitudes unchanged, until they blow up as they did in that church house in Charleston.
Xolela Mangcu is associate professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and author of Biko: A Life, recipient of the 2015 UCT Meritorious Book Award.