Experiencing American Racial Tensions – As South African Immigrants

The entrance to Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

By Elan Burman with Dayan Gross

I benefited significantly and materially from the political system globally reviled for its sustained and calculated subjugation of millions – Apartheid. Few could lay claim to as much privilege as a white South African male before the advent of democracy in that country. Whether wittingly or not, I enjoyed access to exceptional education, healthcare, safety services, and more, while these same resources were denied to my fellow human beings of a darker hue, just down the road.

I try to console myself with the knowledge that I am old enough to remember the “old” South Africa while I am young enough to have been effectively precluded from doing something about it. (I was in my early teens during the first democratic elections.) I relish the stories of family members who played even the slightest role in standing up to the abusive regime. I cleave to the Jewish icons of the anti-apartheid movement as if their efforts can assuage my guilt. But, deep down, I know that I am the beneficiary of a brutal system – whether I like it or not.

It is a hefty burden to bear, and I have debated for years what role is incumbent on me because of my circumstance. Too often, the complexity of the question has paralyzed me or caused me to force it from my mind. Though recognizing a profound moral obligation, it has been too easy to get on with life, turning a myopic eye to issues that call for crystal clear thinking.

Living as I now do in the United States, the drastic focusing on racial issues of late has lulled me from my stupor. In many ways, contemporary America has rekindled those internal struggles I know all too well. And in many ways, the two situations feel so dissimilar. The American context seems so much more grotesque and sinister – and I am trying to understand why. (I say this recognizing that I do so from the privilege of not being the one subjugated.)

Perhaps it is a function of my age – I am now of an age where I share liability for the society of which I am a part, in a way I could not as a child during Apartheid. Or, perhaps, one is more comfortable with the racism you know than the one you do not know. But I think the answer lies beyond me.

The racial oppression in South Africa was overt, systemic, and legislated to an absurd degree. One was either an advocate for this racism, opposed to it, or working hard to blind oneself to it. But no credible actor could lay claim that race was not the issue. Despite a preponderance of evidence to prove it, the United States of America has not yet achieved a consensus that race has an undue bearing on one’s circumstance in life – as in the case of George Floyd’s death. There is something so nefarious in the thin veneer plastering over racial inequities in this country.

Beyond the overt legislative element, Apartheid presented the absurdity of an absolute minority exploiting a majority. The extreme plight of millions became impossible for a minuscule element of the society to mask or condone. Conversely, the fact that racial discrimination in the United States of America is against a minority renders it far “easier” to obfuscate.

Additionally, the anti-Apartheid movement came of age before the concept of intersectionality was in-vogue, as it is today. The building of grassroots coalitions is useful in elevating the power of the oppressed, but it also has the effect of muddying issues. It is all too easy in contemporary America to point to all the reasons you are opposed to Black Lives Matter (especially within the Jewish community) while avoiding the fundamental issue of race entirely. Legitimate though some of these gripes might be, and this article makes no attempt to adjudicate these claims, they do not abrogate one’s responsibility to address racism in all its forms.

For these reasons and more, race issues in the United States seem so much more complicated than those in South Africa.

But at root, Jews in South Africa and Jews in the United States of America are at best within societies that are brutalizing, tormenting, and eviscerating other human beings – for no reason other than the color of their skins. (At worst, they are complicit in perpetuating these systems.) The existence of oppressive systems is a flagrant violation of that oft-cited, too often ignored, Jewish dictum extolling that every human being is in the divine image.

While the lasting changes in institutions, governance, philosophy and mindset that emerged post-Apartheid should not be undervalued, it would be absurd to suggest South Africa is today a beacon of racial harmony and success. The country is beset by problems of which the USA couldn’t even contemplate. It is also an egregious mistake to cast false equivalencies between situations, each of which bears unique characteristics. Yet, the transition from racial oppression to a democratic society in South Africa presents lessons from which other societies ought to learn.

The ONLY antidote to violence is CHANGE:
One can abhor violence, as a foundational principle, but simultaneously recognize that it becomes a tool of last resort for many who feel powerless and alienated. It is ironic that calls for non-violence are often issued by those who have so often ignored the very non-violent protests, which they advocate. Did each person who has denounced the violence of the current protests, support Colin Kaepernick when he took a knee? Did they pay attention? For too many, the answer is a resounding no! This very fact proves the efficacy of this tool of last resort. If one has disdain for violence, as the author does, the remedy is not the denunciation of violence; it is CHANGE. Condemnations of violence are a luxury too expensive for the most oppressed in society.

South Africa’s transition was not the bloodless coup it has become in its mythical telling. Nelson Mandela, who early in his career renounced violence, went on to found the armed wing of the ANC when it was evident that change was too slow in coming. But, the wholesale slaughter that was anticipated by many at the fall of Apartheid never began. In fact, the day of the election there were no incidents of violence. When people feel empowered they don’t feel the need to act out in destructive ways. The systemic change was the ultimate antidote to violence. Again, this is not to suggest that all violence perpetrated during the protests is the product of legitimate societal gripes – in certain cases it is just wanton lawlessness. However, in many cases, it is a natural response by an oppressed person to a sense of powerlessness borne too long. Calm is conducive to the preservation of the status-quo, and the status-quo seldom favors the marginalized.

Create platforms to hear the other:
One of the most studied tools in South Africa’s arsenal for change was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Victim and violator shared a national platform to tell their stories, and forge human understanding. Especially in systems that denigrate whole groups of people, it is essential to hear individual voices and confront our wrongdoings head on; this begins to shed preconceived notions and biases. Statements of support are tiny first steps but has every signatory to such statements invited African American individuals to address their constituents? As much as we need to talk race in this country, it is probably one of the most difficult social issues for us to discuss. Have we heeded Martin Buber’s call for the I-Thou experience (which establishes that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships and asks of each person a participatory intimacy)? It is only in hearing, truly hearing, the plight of the other that we can begin to mobilize for change.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a highly compelling TED talk, speaks about the way in which the empowered tend to cast monolithic narratives about the “other” – and the tremendous injustices perpetrated through these singular narratives. It is imperative that society creates mechanisms to break-down the monolithic, so that we appreciate the multi-vocal and multifaceted elements in different people’s narratives. Until such time as every person is the author of their own narrative, and has the power to live their own narrative, society will continue to suffer strife.

Identities, not identity:
While the shift to individual and inalienable human rights is now well entrenched in most progressive legal frameworks, societal consciousness has not kept pace. Like the issue of hearing personal stories, one has to recognize that each individual is about far more than one of their multiple identity elements. And, under certain conditions, any of their identity elements might find dominance. Again, Nelson Mandela deployed this insight with unparalleled skill.

Rugby (think American football without the pads and incessant stoppages) was the favored sport of Afrikaaner society. Since, the Apartheid government was led by Afrikaaners; the sport was eschewed within black communities, who viewed it as the sport of the oppressor. In 1995, South Africa secured the right to host the Rugby World Cup. Nelson Mandela seized the opportunity, spending highly publicized time supporting and meeting with the team, and even appearing in their uniform. When South Africa won the tournament, a sense of euphoria overcame everyone. For at least some time, society was no longer fixated on being white and black; they had a shared and proud identity of being South African – the world champions.

Reconciliation is achieved when your narrative and my narrative are suddenly infused with moments that speak to our narrative.

Recognize your power:
The Late Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Cyril Harris, created opprobrium within the South African Jewish community when he apologized on public television for the role of the Jewish community in the ills of Apartheid. The community readily pointed to the Jewish activists who had fought Apartheid, pointed to their own vulnerability as a minority as an excuse for inaction; and, the many social justice projects undertaken by the Jewish community. Yet, Rabbi Harris understood something that took years for many others to appreciate – the Jewish community did not exert the full potency of its power to achieve change. Many organs of Jewish life were silent, notwithstanding the efforts of some. If one is earnestly committed to transformation – one has to take risks for change. Have we as a Jewish community exerted anywhere near the levels of activism we display in pursuing our communal needs in fighting for racial justice in this country? Have we spent our social capital?

Exercise compassionate leadership:
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela could have focused his energy on being right or ending right. The former is often about ego and focuses solely on the historic wrongs which have been committed. The latter focuses on the end goal. Madiba (Mandela’s clan name), as he was affectionately and respectfully called, was imprisoned for 27 years and then vindicated. Who could endure that kind of oppression and not feel some desire for revenge? Yet, Madiba reached across enemy lines and extended a hand because ending right was more important than being right. By inviting his captors to work with him to bring about positive change he demonstrated an incredible level of integrity for the cause and a remarkable capacity to forgive. A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end s/he and the other side must become closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial and uninformed. He taught us about the power of civility. Whether it is a family member, friend, employee or in the context of work or community organization, do we engage in a debate to become closer? To have both sides emerge stronger?

For many reasons, racial tensions in the United States of America are dissimilar to those that plagued and continue to haunt South Africa. While each country’s circumstance and history impact the nature of its racial tensions and its resolution, at root, both contexts see individuals who wish desperately to shed the notion that their skin color defines their lifelong trajectory and status within society. Fundamentally, both nations and systems have created stratification of people unjustly. While systematic change is imperative, as occurred in South Africa, equally fundamental is the profound human work, each of us must do to elevate one another as human beings. In this regard, South Africa offers some tools.

Elan Burman grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. He earned an undergraduate degree in politics, philosophy, and economics from the University of Cape Town. He then completed an MA in Jewish Communal Service through Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program, where he focused on Jewish pluralism and fundraising. A self-professed “data nerd,” Elan recently completed a Masters in Information Systems through Northwestern University. He is a current participant in the Wexner Field Fellowship. Over the past fourteen years, Elan has worked in senior fundraising roles within the Jewish communities of both South Africa and the USA.

Dayan Gross grew up in Pretoria, South Africa. He earned an undergraduate degree in International Relations and Industrial Sociology from Rhodes University. He then completed an MA in Jewish Communal Service through Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program, where he focused on Jewish Advocacy and Fundraising. He was active in many roles in the struggle against Apartheid and transitioning the Jewish community to the “new” South Africa. Over the past twenty-four years, Dayan has worked in senior community relations and fundraising roles within the Jewish communities of both South Africa and the USA.