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Opinion piece by Gerhard Papenfus

Without condoning the remarks by Penny Sparrow, she’s done this nation a huge favour. Depending on your background and where you find yourself, you may also think that in various areas of society our nation is in severe trouble. Penny’s remarks have set a process in motion which has shown us where we stand in the area of race relations, South Arica’s Achilles heel.

There is merit in not leaving the remarks made by Penny and those who (understandably) responded viciously, unchallenged. However, prosecuting her, and the others, will at most only succeed in concealing South Africa’s most threatening disease – racism. It’s like refraining from breaking the uncomfortable news to a patient suffering from aggressive cancer.

How can we expect people not to be racist? During apartheid ‘race’ defined us. ‘Race’ still defines us. It controls every aspect of our society. We’re obsessed with it, but apparently that’s acceptable, as long as we don’t say the wrong things in public.

Since the criminal charges have been laid and complaints lodged, social media has gone somewhat quiet on this issue. However, the underlying anger, from the various perspectives, whether justified or not, continues to build up steam. The charges and complaints against those who made all sorts of remarks, only serves to put the lid on the steam cooker, but its doing nothing to reduce the ever increasing pressure.

Calls are being made to criminalise racism. To do that, we will have to seriously jack up our criminal justice system and build a prison which can contain at least 50 million people. Or will only those who say the wrong things be prosecuted, leaving the underlying attitude, which is plaguing this nation, unchallenged. Is there anyone who can honestly say that, as far as this cancer is concerned, he/she is ‘without sin?’ Unless healing as a nation is achieved, South Africa will be one big prison.

The sooner it is realised how sick the nation is, the better; it is the symptoms, including racial remarks, that indicates the nation’s feverish temperature regarding racism. However, since we don’t like what we hear, we want to silence the messengers.

On many occasions I’ve made myself guilty of racial intolerance. I’ve become wiser, I’ve grown in this area, but I’m not ‘there’ yet.  I can honestly say that I love all South Africans, that I love South Africa for its diversity – the very thing that’s causing tension. However, it doesn’t take much to expose dark areas in my heart, something which doesn’t creep out unless I’m under pressure, when things don’t go the way I like it, when I feel insecure.

I haven’t met Penny, but there is at least one similarity between us: by way of historical events and government classification (past and present) we are, broadly speaking, of the same race. Because of what she said people want to kill her, murder her; not only her, but also all those of the same race, so-called ‘whites’. That, off of course, includes me. But I honestly don’t mind people threatening to kill me. To go so far as to desire to commit a murder, to set in motion mass murder (genocide), must be the result of unbearable bitterness and anger. I wish I can meet my murderer, for the sake of his/her healing, and mine.

It is time that the racists meet and talk. It has to be honest, unfiltered and uncensored. It’s better than not talking at all, even if it gets messy. Reconciliation can only take place once that which is needed to be said, is actually said, regardless of what it is. That’s where reconciliation, forgiveness and healing begin. It is not for the over sensitive and fainthearted.

South Africa needs this true fundamental healing. In the absence of this every aspect of our society is prejudiced. Our economy is not growing because of the lack of confidence, and racism is at the root of this uncertainty. It is the cancer of our nation, and nobody is without guilt. And even if you are an unlikely exception, it is still your problem. This is the biggest challenge facing us as a nation, and there’s no way out, there’s just no alternatives: get this right or perish.