The now infamous coffin assault case which saw two white men torture a black man by forcing him into a casket, left me feeling ill.

I felt ill for several reasons amongst them the fact that I – like many others – have often had the dreaded nightmare associated with being buried alive. It is a fate too horrendous to contemplate. This man can only have feared the worst as this heinous act was being committed. That was obviously before they began taunting him with the possibility of placing a snake in the coffin with him to finish him off before his burial.

I also felt ill because in a way that I shudder to admit, I participated in this hateful assault fueled by racism. No, I was not there. And no, I have never personally enacted physical violence towards any person let alone a harmless man doing no wrong. Yet, in a deep sense – and certainly in terms of the repercussions of such actions – what is done to one is done to all and what is done by one is done by all. We are inextricably connected.

If you need evidence of this reality you have only to listen to the language people use in expressing their rightful disgust at such incidents. A close black friend of mine can often be heard saying: “what is wrong with your people?”. The “you and I” quickly becomes the “us and them” when people are giving expression to their pain.

On a very practical level, if I am to disassociate myself too far from these attackers, I am simply denying the reality that I advertently or inadvertently participate in the daily incarceration of other harmless black South Africans. Forget racist thoughts and words – I have become good at hiding those – my very existence as a white South African represents a coffin in which I unwittingly, daily place people.  

The point that I am making is that this violent, act of racism can and should be viewed as a powerful metaphor for the subtler, often unsighted ways that black people are entombed in our nation.  Of course, it is easier to direct my outrage at these men from Middleburg (and of course I do). But if that’s where I stop, then I have failed to learn the lessons of the parable that this man suffered so greatly to provide me; I have failed to interrogate my culpability in keeping scores of ordinary black people entombed by racism. And what are these tombs? Yes, they can be brazen and obvious; the Penny Sparrow tomb of indignity for example. But they are usually far subtler: my denial of my white privilege, my wish that we could “move on” from blaming apartheid; my subtle satisfaction at black people who say life was better before democracy, my intimation that whites ran the country better; my denial of white influence and supremacy especially in business.

In case you feel that I am being unnecessarily hard on myself, think again. As a white person living in South Africa, if I stubbornly insist on not doing the hard, humbling and often harrowing inside work that will radically unseat my “white in shining armour/white-is-right” attitude (I am steering clear of using the r-word here – though I am a racist in recovery – so I can avoid my all-too-easy “I am not a racist!” retort) from the very core of who I am, it will sooner-or-later be done for me. Will this be enacted violently by Julius Malema and his supporters? Could be. But it will more likely be in the form of a slow but deliberate erosion of the everyday supremacy and power of the white person; a certain squeezing into a coffin of our own if you like. If you are white, you are probably feeling this squeeze already. Is this a good reason to adjust my attitude and behaviours? Well, it is one good reason.

I am not trying to incite fear here – in fact, quite the contrary. I am suggesting that if I intentionally, actively address my own inherited racism and white superiority and, dare I say it, my white entitlement to that superiority through, firstly, admitting it, then I will cease to lock people in coffins.  I am suggesting that as a white person living in South Africa, I have an opportunity to answer a case against me well. If I do this daily and diligently, loving wholeheartedly until love breaks my arrogant, stiff-necked self, then I can be as great a catalyst for healing and restoration as I have been for suffering and division. Only then will we find the harmony and peace we so need and long for.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency

This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.