Race In SA

By Adriaan Groenewald

Let’s address the elephant in the room in a simple analogous manner.  Please read to the end – this article is not just for white South Africans – I’m also writing it from a position of my own personal experience.

We all know what a Recovering Alcoholic is.  And we all know that such a person will always have a weakness or propensity towards alcohol – it takes just one drink to suck them back into that hell hole.  Hence the belief that once an alcoholic always an alcoholic.

In South Africa whites can be categorised as follows:

  • Racists.
  • “Recovering Racists” – will explain more.
  • Those that believe they are not racist and have never been, but they are wrong.
  • Those that simply aren’t racist.  I am hesitant to list this as a category, for obvious reasons – offering too many an easy escape.  For now let’s say this is a small percentage of the white population.  It is growing, but mostly amongst very young children.

Let us not talk to or about the racists, for now.

To be a Recovering Alcoholic one would have had to recognise the problem, confronted it head on and then realised the battle is never over.  One must always be alert and vigilant, disciplined.

A fully fledged Recovering Racist is a person that recognised their problem and confronted it head on, worked at it for some time and consciously and actively did what was necessary to overcome it – including proactively exposing themselves to fellow black compatriots; challenging their own belief system and upbringing; and much more.  And now they are on that path where they realise or need to realise that the propensity towards racial prejudice is and may always be there.  Drop your guard and one incident pulls you right back into a hell hole.  Once a racist always a racist?

24 years after 1994, many white South Africans have, as a matter of course, been exposed to black compatriots over many years, with consistently good experiences that convinced them of the deceptions of the past.  They would also have rubbed shoulders with proactive Recovering Racists and either learnt from their example or changed their beliefs based on deep, meaningful and sometimes confrontational discussions.  Therefore it is possible that many whites progressed towards Recovering Racist status without proactively identifying it.  I do not believe that this portion of the population is as “recovering” as the first proactive portion, but we can work with them.  And it doesn’t help as much when these individuals naively believe they are fully recovered.

The challenge is that third category.  They too were reared in an environment where racism was acceptable, common place and everyone was doing it – “everyone was drinking a lot; were alcoholics” – it was institutionalised and ingrained in their very way of being, their belief system.  If everyone is always drinking and drunk it would be more difficult to realise and admit that one had a problem.

Category three white South Africans must get to that point where they realise, admit and then start actively working on eradicating their racial prejudice.  These people have a way to go before they can be classified as Recovering Racists. How do you recognise one?  A fairly accurate way to identify such a person is this: Which white person denies he was ever a racist and believes he isn’t one today?

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe that there are white South Africans that are not and never were racist, if I am to believe one is taught to hate, or taught to believe one is superior.  It means some white people were reared in a remarkable way with no racial prejudice.  But please realise these individuals are few and far between.

I was raised in a family where we weren’t taught to hate.  The belief system taught was that all human beings are created equal and are God’s children.  I was taught to love my neighbour as myself.  Despite being brought up in this fashion, I became a racist.  Fortunately, because of my upbringing, I was never a hard core racist and today I am a Recovering Racist.  Through certain affiliations I occupied lay leadership positions that took me into black communities where most whites haven’t been, even today; that allowed me to serve next to, under and with magnificent black individuals whom I grew to love.  I can go on about my journey that fortunately took me to that magnificent yet ever alert place of being a Recovering Racist.

Even my privileged – in terms of belief system – open upbringing wasn’t enough to counter the domineering, legalised, institutionalised, racially charged environment in which I grew up. Having a fantastically close extended Afrikaner family who initiated both the AWB and the Freedom Front (today known as FF+) didn’t help at the time.  Undergoing national service and then going into the Police Service where senior colleagues openly told me they would  teach me to hate black people, also didn’t help.  I resisted as much as I could, which made a difference , but it wasn’t enough.  As a policeman from 1986 to approximately 1990 I saw the bad side of townships; as a community leader I saw the beautiful side of the same places.

To be honest, I am sceptical when a white person tells me they have never had a racist tendency in their life.  I will feel almost the same when a white person tells me they are a Recovering Racist.  They would have to explain carefully what road they walked to get there.

Now, my dear black friends and compatriots, you do not come off so lightly in this discussion.  If the above scenario is remotely accurate and you agree with it, then there is a default ripple effect because of it.

I think black South Africans can be categorised as follows:

  • “Inferiors” (my own word I believe) – they feel inferior all the time.
  • Recovering Inferiors.
  • Those that believe they were never and still aren’t Inferiors, but they are wrong.
  • A very small percentage doesn’t feel inferior; never did.  Again, I am very hesitant to list this as a category, for obvious reasons – offering too many an easy escape route.  To be fair, let’s say this is also a small percentage of the black population.  It is growing, but mostly amongst young children.

Do you get the picture?  Must I continue?  Indulge me a little longer.

Decades of institutionalised superiority rule and propaganda causes damage to the proponent – resulting in them becoming racist, and damage to the recipient – resulting in them feeling or becoming inferior.  One could argue damage to the former is socially less acceptable while damage to the latter is more acceptable.  Or put more directly, being a Racist is illegal whereas being an Inferior is not. But it is damage nevertheless.

Being an Inferior results in unassertive and sometimes subservient behaviour.  Or, in some cases it leads to being offended easily, followed by aggressive retaliation to over compensate for the inferiority complex deep inside.  An individual who is an Inferior but won’t admit it may over compensate in innumerable ways, of which some behaviour may be aligned to acceptable societal norms (studying degree after degree) and others not (hating and actively propagating aggressive behaviour towards white compatriots).

A Recovering Inferior will mostly function normally and feel equal to all colleagues and the task.  But when extraordinary pressure builds he may buckle and resort back to those former feelings of inferiority – “give in and take that one drink”.  And then he sinks back into that hell hole of depression, victimisation, distrust and an all-out downward spiral, unless he gets back onto the recovery path quickly.  Not knowing one is a Recovering Inferior does not help and makes one more vulnerable.

The one portion of our population suffers from a Superiority illness, labelled as Racism, in varying degrees and the other from Inferiority, in varying degrees (and I am not even touching on the superiority illness of Misogyny and its counterpart of Inferiority).  Do these opposites make for a success recipe, a successful nation?  Can you imagine an environment of clear communication and trust, of unity?  One certainly doesn’t and never can, if we don’t see this suffering for what it is and then deal with it in an appropriate manner.

Think for a moment – how do we assist and attempt to heal confessed alcoholics?  How do we engage a confessed recovering alcoholic?  And how do we handle an unrepentant alcoholic that simply does not admit and continues to destroy so much in their path?

Can we not learn from this and apply it to how we handle confessed Racists, confessed Recovering Racists and unrepentant Racists, or even in some way confessed Inferiors, confessed Recovering Inferiors and unrepentant Inferiors?

In which category do you fall?  Be brutally honest with yourself.  Now act accordingly. Move forward.

Finally, I confess again that I am a Recovering Racist.  I am ever alert to the danger of falling back into old habits.  As I work harder and harder at changing as a person, and as society changes structurally, with more Recovering Inferiors around, it will become easier for me to be and remain that changed person.  All this and more is needed if we as a nation are going to evolve these weaknesses into strengths, moving forward in a vigilant and disciplined way, while realising our own propensities towards our weaker parts at all times.

And what do we do when we do fall back; let slip on that one racial and condescending statement; or overreact because of the inferior bug?  We humble ourselves, apologise sincerely and re-embark on the recovery journey as fast as possible.  And as we do this, may those that we offend forgive and assist us to get through it.  Of course this is easier to do when the recovering individual has been open about their weakness or illness all along.

I plead with the white South Africans of the older generation, my generation (I’m 50), and even the next younger generation, to aim towards becoming a Recovering Racist, then own it, declare it openly if you must (I think we should all do this – we should start a movement of Recovering Racists).  And if you have changed over the years, please don’t declare victory too soon, or ever.  Just own the fact that you are a Recovering Racist and build on it.

And, even though I haven’t earned the right to appeal to my fellow black South Africans, I will go out on a limb.  I challenge you to work towards becoming a Recovering Inferior.  I can’t tell you exactly how to do it as I am not a qualified professional.  But please try.

To category three compatriots I say, in this extremely open and interconnected society you will have less and less room to hide.  You will be caught out and we may have to implement tough love, formally (legal processes) or informally (society through mediums like social media).   

After writing this article I asked black and white friends, colleagues and partners to share their views. Comments varied from uncomfortable to deeply touched.  Someone who enjoyed the article nevertheless asked whether it will build a bridge or enlarge the divide?
For me this journey of overcoming Racism or Inferiority is first a personal one, which if successful opens the way for building bridges, relationships, businesses, jobs, an economy and country.
If my black partner is a healthy Recovering Inferior and I am a healthy Recovering Racist the chances of our relationship succeeding increases exponentially, which means a successful, growing business, maintaining and growing employment opportunities.  The same applies to relationships within the corporate environment and on school governing bodies. In short, more Recovering individuals on both sides contribute to more mature interactions, leading to higher trust, less misunderstandings and stronger relationships.


Do you recognise some areas in yourself as a leader or areas in your team that need improvement?

Contact Adriaan Groenewald for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside you as a leader and your organisation.

Adriaan Groenewald is an Authentic Leadership Activist


CONNECT WITH LP  :    Twitter:   Adriaan  &  Leadership Platform

                                                       Linkedin:  Adriaan  &  Leadership Platform

                                                       Facebook:   Leadership Platform




Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

Follow Us

Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


By subscribing you will be updated with the latest insights and news from us. We never spam.