What will it take to bury white racism?
It seems as if 2016 is going to end very much as it started – with horrific racial incidents. Shortly after new year’s day Penny Sparrow’s racist tweet about African people on the beech in Durban hit the headlines. Now, as the year is drawing to a close, another unspeakable act, this time by two farmers close to Middelburg, came to light.
It took me a long time to summon enough courage to watch the video on YouTube showing the two men, Theo Martins and Willem Oosthuizen, forcing Victor Rethabile Mlotshwa into a coffin. Apparently his “crime” was that he took a shortcut over the farm and therefore trespassed. Just reading about it filled me with an emotional cocktail of intense fury and sadness. Fury at the despicable deeds of these men and sadness for Victor Moltshwa’s fear, pain and humiliation. Eventually, I watched it ... and I felt physically sick. Watching and listening to Victor’s fearful whimpers as the lid of the coffin was pushed down on him with threats of a snake and setting the coffin alight, my feelings of fury and sadness reached new heights.
“How is it possible that a human being can see someone in such fear and just continue to inflict more pain and suffering?” I wondered, not for the first time. “How does humanity get so lost in some people that it gives them such sadistic pleasure to humiliate, hurt and scare another human being?” Of course the answer is that they do not see the other person as a human being or at least not as a human equal to themselves. It would be impossible to continue with such cruelty if they did – because then they would have seen the eyes or face of a brother or father or uncle in the the eyes or face of people like Victor Mlotshwa.
And this is where race comes into it.
Some (white) people have argued during this past week that it is wrong to mention race – that this was merely a criminal deed (as in assault) and should be treated as such. There is no doubt that these were criminal deeds that should be punished severely, but we all know there is more. We all know that if Victor was not black Theo and Willem would not have responded the way they did. In fact, if it was a white man that took a short cut over their farm, they would have almost certainly assumed that his car had broken down and would have offered help.
There were so many things that disturbed me about this incident, but one of the questions I cannot get out of my head, is why they had a coffin at hand? I know there are stories of farming people who in times gone by bought their coffin in advance and stored it in the attic, but surely this is not the case here? Did they plan these acts or had they done it before?
What made things even worse is that their sadism and cruelty did not stop after they let Victor Moltshwa go. They got some sick pleasure in videoing it and then without any remorse put it on YouTube.
I am aware that this column will again provoke angry letters to me by Afrikaners. I suspect I will be accused of not understanding the safety threats that white farmers in our country face. So let me immediately get that out of the way and say: “I do.” Both my paternal and maternal grandparents were farmers. My paternal grandparents had a big farm close to Zeerust and my maternal grandparents a small farm close to Fochville. In both cases they eventually had to leave their farms because of attacks. My happiest memories are of the days spent with my grandparents on their farm outside Fochville. My grandmother was born on the farm and it was all she and my grandfather had. Eventually after eight decades of back-breaking subsistence farming, they were forced off the farm after repeated attacks over a short period of time. And it killed them. Not being able to adjust to town living, they both died within a year, their hearts broken. They were the people I loved more than anyone – so to the farmers, I want to say, I get it.
Yet, it was these same grandparents who taught me what it meant to be a good human being. To be compassionate and giving. They were dirt poor and still no hungry person of any race would ever leave their tiny farm without getting bags of food. And their Christianity demanded of them to treat all people with dignity. They would have been totally horrified and ashamed of what these two farmers did – as I know many other farmers and all decent Afrikaners are. Because nothing, absolutely nothing can in any way be served up as a justification or an explanation for these actions.
As the days went by this week, I also experienced a deep level of despair about what this incident is doing, yet again, to race relations in our country. I hope that political leaders will show true leadership and like Madiba ensure that this does not escalate. But somehow with the heightening of populist racial talk from the EFF and increasingly also the ANC, I am not sure this will happen.
To Victor Mlotshwa, I want to say: “Mr. Mlotshwa, I am deeply, deeply sorry for what happened to you. Please know that many people of all races, but specifically also white Afrikaners like me, are furious and deeply ashamed about what these two men did to you.”
And to Lonea Mltoshwa: “Ma’am, I cried when I saw you break down in court this week. As a mother I know how it must have hurt to see what happened to your son, how angry it must have made you and how helpless you must have felt for not being able to have protected the man who you gave life to. I am so sorry.”
As we approach the end of this year, I hope that we will all re-commit to the core value of our Constitution – i.e. that we are all equal and should treat each other with kindness, respect and dignity. Although this is of course true for all the people in the country, there is and will remain a bigger obligation on us as whites, to understand and also respond to the fact that we have all, directly or indirectly, benefitted from Apartheid. Yes, we have a right to live in this land of our birth, but only if we are willing to accept the intergenerational responsibilities we carry to correct the pain of the past.
*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA Ambassador to Ireland.
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