Racism: an open wound in humanity's side

2012-03-20 Vatican Radio

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed annually on 21 March.

On that day, in 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa, against the apartheid "pass laws".

Proclaiming the Day in 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

Since then, the apartheid system in South Africa has been dismantled. Racist laws and practices have been abolished in many countries, and an international framework for fighting racism, guided by the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has been drawn up.

However still, in all regions of the world, too many individuals, communities and societies suffer from the injustice and stigma that racism brings.

Linda Bordoni spoke to South African lawyer Mike Pothier about the significance of this annual observance.

First of all, Pothier, who works at the Cape Town-based Catholic Parliamentary Liason Office, explains that the office is a unit of the Southern African Bishops Conference. It was set up in 1997 in order to provide a mechanism of communication between the Church in South Africa and the country's governing bodies.

Pothier remembers the terrible events that put Sharpeville on the world map on that March day back in 1960, during which - he says - the apartheid regime perpetrated the single worst massacre of civilians during the apartheid struggle. This led, he continues, to the decision on the part of the liberation movvement to take up an armed struggle against apartheid, and of course it led to a great crackdown by the apartheid government against the liberation movement.

And today, in 2012, eighteen years since the beginning of democracy in South Africa, Pothier says that in his work at the Parliamentary Liason Office he still deals with issues that are connected to racial issues.

He says there are still deep seated racist attitudes in South Africa and this for example gives rise to criticism of the government based on racial prejudice. And he explains that one aspect of the Church's tasks is to try to educate people in that respect : that people are not competent or incompetent according to their race, but according to education, experience, and so on.

From the other direction there are hints of a kind of counter-racism with the the policy of affirmative action - because it makes use of racial categories to qualify people for jobs, positions,admittance to university and so on.

Pothier says the Government says this is a way to redress the balance. "We had well over 100 years of institutionalised racism in our legal system and before that more than 200 years of colonial racial discrimination. The Governemnt says that through affirmative action we are trying to undo some of that damage".

Pothier says the Church in South Africa broadly supports that policy. But it is also critical when necessary or if it feels it s being exceeded or is being applied in an unjust way.

Of course there are ohter areas across the world where there are examples of racial discrimination and racial thinking. Pothier remembers the document issued by the Pontifical Justice and Peace Commission back in 1988, in which racism is described as "a wound in humanity's side that mysteriously remains open".

He says that is a very good way of describing it, maybe we don't understand why "it mysteriously remains open", but, Pothier says, "if we look in the Middle East we can see examples of it. If we look elsewhere in Africa, in the newest nation South Sudan, as it struggles to get to its feet we find what we can call tribalism or ethnic divides but they are also racially based: people are finding reasons to discriminate against each other, even to the point of killing each other, based on the the characteristics of language, geographical origins, of tribe, etc". In the US recent studies show that how that in the economic downtown African Americans were predominantly, or worst affected".

So, in South Africa, Pothier continues, "we have made great strides". But we shouldn't think it was only in the systematised apartheid era that racism existed. It exists in a less systematic, less legalised way all over the world".

Regarding the Internation Day Against Racial Discrimination, Pothier says it is a public holiday, and it has been so since 1995. It is known as Sharpeville Day and commemorative events take place all over the country.

He says that if the very "acute manifestation of racism that occurred at Sharpeville 52 years ago can help people around the world to see that that kind of massacre of 69 people is the ultimate end of racial thinking and racial government, then hopefully it's a message that will serve some purpose all over the world."

Pothier speaks of the new generation of South Africans - the "Born Frees" - the generation born after 1994 - that generation that is now entering its early twenties has not known institutionalised discrimination and it makes a huge difference and one can see how easily young people mix with one another. the situation is much much better, the only question is "why did it take us so long to reallse that?"

listen to the interview...