by Russell Pollitt SJ

Unsurprisingly, racism reared its ugly head in South Africa again.

Firstly, two University of Pretoria students were recorded using appalling racist language after one of them had their cell phone stolen. Instead of condemning theft, they immediately spewed racial slurs. They were both suspended and one lost funding from the Ramaphosa Trust.

Secondly, earlier this week the #BlackMonday protest reignited racial tensions, as whites protesting farm killings claimed things like “under this flag [pointing to the old apartheid flag on a jacket] we were protected”. In some places, it was reported, that Die Stem was also sung by protesters. Angry responses followed. How can someone suggest that a system which only protected a minority (racially) was in anyway defensible? How can anyone walk around displaying the very symbol (old SA flag) of oppression, atrocity and racism imprinted on their clothing?

If #BlackMonday was in response to the shocking crime statistics that were released last week then, no doubt, many more South Africans would have supported it. The fact that it focused on a single race meant that it was always going to be divisive. Some have suggested that #BlackMonday was a mask for the resurgence of right-wing nationalism. It’s happened in other parts of the world already.

South Africa is debilitated by racism. In the current political climate where there is a vacuum of leadership, race is a divisive tinderbox. We need to be vigilant lest this evil destroy us.

In 2016, the Catholic bishops issued a Pastoral Letter – The Call to Overcome Racism. Unfortunately, the letter has not been widely read and discussed.

The letter is prophetic and we would all do well to take it for discussion, reflection and prayer in our parishes. The bishops urge a “candid conversation on racism and its manifestations to adequately and seriously address racism and racial divisions in our country.” An awareness of the manifestations of racism needs urgent attention.

The letter is forthright: “We realise that this is not an easy conversation, one that many of us may prefer to avoid. Our invitation to such a dialogue may in itself evoke a range of emotions, including self-justification and self-righteous feelings; or, guilt and denial; on the other hand, feelings of anger and sadness.  Dialogue, rational and respectful, is necessary so that we open ourselves to receive God’s healing.” The bishops acknowledge racism in the Church too.

The bishops issue a challenge which we can no longer afford to ignore. “We challenge ourselves as your pastors and we call upon all the faithful and all people of goodwill to do all in our power to address the problem of racism in our society and in the Church.” Honesty, dialogue and prayer are the tools we, the Church, must use to face this demon which lives in and runs through all our hearts.

In his book, Faith and Courage, Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba says we need to talk about “the abscess of our history… because just naming the facts brings catharsis.”

If we do not seek a way forward together, the abscess will burst and things will only get worse. We are a racially wounded nation. We must act now, lest the gaping wound becomes septic and destroys us all.