Twenty-six years into democracy, black South Africans still find themselves as pariahs and very much on the receiving end of prejudices that were institutionalised during the apartheid era. The very core and engine of the apartheid regime was built around the entrenchment of laws and policies aimed at the economic, social and political oppression of the black population. It is undeniable that the very same systems historically aimed at placing black people at a disadvantaged position are still sustained today through institutional racism. Loosely defined, institutional racism can be thought of as a system of racial discrimination that has become established and largely accepted as the norm.
The institutional racism brought about by apartheid has penetrated deeply into black people to an extent that they discriminate against and view each other with suspicion. This is largely attributed to decades of programming, ensuring that all attributes attached to blackness are held to a low standard. Though we are still a long way to go in altering people’s mindsets regarding racial inequalities in South Africa, it is a fight that society must not relent on. Wherever acts of racial discrimination rear their ugly head, deliberately or otherwise, they must be called out as such and tackled head on. That is the only way to effect change, through words and actions.
In South Africa, a black person is guilty until proven innocent. The country’s criminal justice system unduly discriminates against black perpetrators and victims alike. Research conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation found that black criminals are often given harsher sentences than white perpetrators of the same crime. A study conducted by the People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) shows that black women who are the survivors of sexual violence are less likely to have their cases investigated than cases where white women were survivors.
It is an open secret that black customers are sometimes profiled, viewed with suspicion just for entering a bank and questioned over most basic transactions. A broadcast by the SABC’s Special Assignment in March 2019 exposed the existence of racial profiling and discrimination within the banking sector. Black people were found to be charged higher interest rates on loans than white people with similar credit profiles. The underlying belief, in this case, is that black people pose a significantly higher risk by virtue of their blackness. Time and time again, the banking sector has been accused of placing harsher conditions on black people during periods of financial difficulties while their white counterparts are afforded more legroom.
Black professionals also face great hurdles in advancing to higher positions and in most cases, companies have an unwritten ‘there can only be one’ posture towards the promotion of black people to positions of authority. In 2019, the BBC reported that although black South Africans make up nearly 80% of the economically active population, they hold just 14% of top management jobs. In comparison, 67% of these top positions are held by white employees. It is not only private companies that exercise this bias against black professionals. In July, 2017, the Black Lawyers Association (BLA) marched to the Union Buildings to highlight their displeasure at the treatment of black and female lawyers by government institutions. Their grievance was the preference of white lawyers and firms over their black counterparts in litigation cases involving the state. Most black professionals have at some point felt like token hires and this is due to the range of economic and political incentives companies stand to gain from having black faces.
South Africa has some of the most progressive laws and policies aimed at redressing race-based inequalities. However, implementation remains the country’s Achilles heel. For as long as there are no serious consequences for those perpetuating racial discrimination, we will find ourselves lamenting the state of affairs in millennia to come. Wherever instances of racial prejudices are spotted in institutions, they need to be pointed out and dealt with in a manner that will compel others to all change their ways. Institutions will not change by themselves, especially if the status quo serves them well. Institutional racism is a result of years of indoctrination and it can be undone in the same manner through deliberate efforts by government and all sectors of society.