Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) 21 March is the date chosen by the UN in 1966 to commemorate one of the most tragic pages of apartheid in South Africa, when the police opened fire on a group of black demonstrators, killing 69 and wounding 180. A massacre that led to protests and a harsh fight in South Africa. Soon afterwards, Nelson Mandela was arrested. He was only released from prison in 1990, after becoming the symbol of the anti-racist struggle in the world and in 1994 he became president of South Africa, the first person of African origin in history. In the same year one of the worst genocides in history took place in Rwanda, between Hutus and Tutsis, with about one million dead during a few years of bloody war. Seeing Mandela as president might have been a sign of hope for some, but a few thousand miles away a terrible civil war was being waged on an ethnic basis.
When Barack Obama took office in 2009 as the first African-American president of the United States, many looked back and thought of Mandela and his story, his 30-year struggle from prison to being elected president. Had a certain racism at the institutional level in South Africa, as in the United States, ceased to exist? Some people perhaps had this impression or illusion. Certainly, something had happened that nobody dreamed possible in the 1950s.
In reality, the journey of Mandela and Obama, of these two very different figures who also knew and respected each other, is only a small part of the story, perhaps also a way in which Western democracies have reassured themselves of their ability to overcome the ghosts of discrimination. Genetics has long taught us that races do not exist; therefore racism actually activates the same polarising mechanisms as nationalism, class and caste discrimination, religion, politics, even personal beliefs, sexual orientation, age, geographical origin even within the same country.
At the regulatory level, the European Union and individual member states have made considerable progress in combating racism. However, it takes nothing to bring out discriminatory behaviour. Laws to combat racism are important, at all levels and we have to apply them carefully. Attacking the weakest, finding a scapegoat, is a brutal and ancestral practice that lurks in our social constructs. If we do not study and highlight the similarity between all discriminations, we will never be able to decode the unconscious prejudice and psychological weakness of those who use discrimination as a weapon.
It takes a lot of perseverance to defeat racism and discrimination. As Nelson Mandela taught us by example.