Debates around race and its role in undoing the ‘rainbowism’ of our early democratic era have attracted much attention of late. It is not surprising. What is baffling though is how the bigotry of an East Coast realtor would be the straw that would break the proverbial camel’s back and set social media and society alight. The suggested solutions to the problem, ranging from the signing of pledges to the criminalization of racism are as surprising in their naivety.
Many who watched the developments of the early 1990s in South Africa tell us that they expected the kind of debates we are having now; but not this soon. Why? My sense is that we expected the legitimacy of the negotiated settlement, Constitution and social pact that was made then, to withstand the first twenty to thirty years of democracy. Perhaps if we achieved that, we may have thought, we would have resolved the great challenges that two great thinkers, each on different sides of the continental divide, engaged with. The first of these thinkers, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the founding President of Tanzania had prophetic words to the ANC on its last visit to his nation, in gratitude to the Frontline states ; ‘as much as the apartheid regime has not defeated the liberation movement, neither has the [liberation] movement defeated the white minority regime.’ Nyerere suggested that the ANC factor this reality into their negotiating position. What Nyerere was saying is similar to a characterization of societies in transition from divisive and violent histories, made by the great Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci , as formations he described as Caesarist.
‘Caesarism can be said to express a situation in which the forces in conflict balance each other in a catastrophic manner; that is to say they balance each other in a way that a continuation of the conflict can only end in their mutual destruction’
What has this got to do with race? The answer is that it has everything to do with race. If one accepts that the ‘Caesarist’ situation in South Africa in 1994, meant that the ‘balance’ found between the contending forces would retain key features or ‘inheritances’ of the old order undisrupted, then race is unavoidable. How we understand the disruptions to and continuities of the Apartheid system, which the 1994 moment brought about, is crucial to how we resolve questions of race in South Africa.
An exchange between a young Afrikaner Rehandre Landman (RL) and black counterpart Aphiwe Pasiya (AP), both born post 1990, in response to a previous article written by the author in the Daily Maverick further illustrates the point;
RL : I have lived in the rural areas worked with its people, my most trusted friends are so called black and I am according to you a so called ‘white’, you see I am colour blind ‘indoda’, if I am why can’t you be?
AP: You may have been to the “rural areas” but you do not face the same realities that your ‘most trusted friends face on [the] daily. It’s a reality your forefathers created for ours, and that was our inheritance. The notion of being ‘colour blind’ won’t fix the inequality, it’s taking bold and uncomfortable steps towards making right what your forefathers did wrong
The observation that Aphiwe highlights around the black inheritance of the ‘reality’ that Rehandre’s forefathers ‘created’ is a contemporary one that many a politician is evasive in confronting. It is also a reality which, depending on your position in South Africa’s racial and material reality is acknowledged in different ways. For many in the white community it was the reassurance of some measure of continuity; ‘we could keep the economy and Mandela wouldn’t kill us after all’. For blacks, the politics of patience: ‘wait a little longer’, ‘You like any other representation of a large colonial problem; will take a long time to fix’. Confronting the question of this ‘inheritance’ of privilege and its materiality in post Apartheid South Africa is a pivotal concern. While many would rather focus on the publicly communicated ‘acts of prejudice and racism’, it is the more subtle, pervasive and institutional forms of racism which require greater public scrutiny.
If it was the symbolic and publicly reprehensible acts of racism we were looking for before, it’s clear that the Reitz incident at the University of the Free State in 2008 was not enough. Or do we hop from one shocking incident to another, in defence of a ‘reconciliation project’ under predictable threat? Contrary to the ANC’s strongly held view, that institutional racism was defeated in 1994, racism in South Africa continues to have institutional features that go beyond individual acts of bigotry. What do I mean? If one were to look at the question of racism from an institutional perspective (understanding the social, legal and ‘learnt’ norms that underlie the relationship between the exercise of power and race), it’s clear that the intersection of one’s lived experience and subconsciously accepted norms is the driver of institutional racism. Let’s take both of these issues in turn.
Firstly, the lived experience of the majority of white South Africans (born pre and post Apartheid) is one of engaging with black people in subservient roles (as maids, gardeners or petrol attendants; ever at their service) in numerous settings. So, in the main, a ‘typical’ white youth will have to only engage with blacks on an ‘equal footing’ from the age of 7 when they start grade 1, for some even later. I use ‘equal footing’ in parentheses, because there is nothing ‘equal’ about the extrication of many black children from townships to enter multiracial schools, an alienating experience common to many model C products, as student leader Vuyani Pambo observed;
You move around with a permanent sense of exile… You don’t belong… In your neighbourhood [or] at school… you try and negotiate two worlds which don’t come together, set apart geographically, economically
Secondly, as of all colonial societies, South Africans black and white have historically accepted the ‘West’ as the marker of progress and development. As Steve Biko argued it was the intellectual arrogance of the white community, which made both blacks and whites believe that ‘whites are the divinely appointed pace-setters of progresses’. It is not only through persuasion and indoctrination that such views are ingrained, it is through the nature of South Africa as a colonial experience, and its associated plunder, dispossession and untold violence (structural and physical) against the black body. The outcome of this experience is an emaciated black psyche with an associated inferiority complex, and its converse; white superiority and material (or cultural) privilege. Such historic events create a path dependence, which generations and centuries on, is accepted as self-evident truth. Thus it is not surprising for many whites from the ‘Oom’ who served in the Security Branch to the born-free white youth enrolling at university, that the plight of blacks as hewers of wood and drawers of water is a divinely created situation. Better yet, ‘blacks must work hard for transformation to happen; it’s not about bringing whites to ‘their’ level’. Viewed in this way, the project of ‘transformation’ becomes an aspirational climb, towards a system, whose apex of white values is accepted as the universal marker of progress.
It is therefore not surprising that the articulation of ‘transformation’ as a solution has found its most fervent critics among the youth, who are calling rather for ‘decolonisation’. The project of decolonisation pursued by the youth is a project rooted in a particular understanding of racism and the colonial enterprise. It is an acknowledgement that the individual acts of racism occur in a world that affirms white superiority in private and social spaces as a norm. Such ‘superiority’ is a direct outcome of the economic and cultural dispossession of black people the world over. Remedial action involves not only deterring people from being racist, but actually subverting the power relations that allow for such a situation in the first place. Such subversion requires at a minimum, the resolution of the historic antagonism between blacks and whites in South Africa; the land. It is also an understanding that the resolution of the skewed property relations in South Africa, including but not limited to land, without a political, cultural and pedagogic project centred on pan Africanism and black consciousness will not suffice. Therefore decolonisation is as much a cultural as it is an economic and political project. Rather than dismiss it as ‘an outdated PAC (Pan Africanist Congress of Azania) concept as Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande does, we would do well to take heed of what the students are saying.
As a society, we are confronted with the decision of whether what we wish to deter are interpersonal acts of racism, or the entire structural organisation and design of society which makes racism an inevitable outcome. If we confine our solutions to the interpersonal and public, we risk overlooking the structural and private. Decolonisation presents a compelling possibility and alternative to the defeatist and teleological conclusion of the far Right: untold Armageddon and mutual destruction. It may also be the only way to restore the dignity of the black majority which for centuries has suffered under the heel of a society ordered on white supremacist logic.