Norma Craven explains why she thinks whiteness is seen as the norm and blackness as the “other”.
The struggle against racism has again taken centre stage in the South African political discourse. Most of those who will be amazed by this are those white people who claim that they are not racists; they have asked their maids not to call them “madam”, they make tea for their gardeners. They are pleasant to cashiers in shops.
It is nigh on impossible to discover any white person who benefited from apartheid. Racism is dismissed as the actions of a few individuals who sing songs about dead Afrikaner heroes.
And 1994 resolved all the problems of the past, so why can’t “they” just move on as we have done?
However, the 1994 negotiated settlement, followed by a constitution which enshrined the rights of the wealthy and the property-owning elite, which were sold to the majority as a new dawn of opportunity, has not ended racism.
It has become fashionable to trace the history of racism from 1948 and the victory of the nationalist government, but it actually arrived on the shores of South Africa with the first settlers.
It was intensified as each new wave of immigrants landed, as epitomised by the above quote, which exposed the economic basis for the racial oppression of the indigenous population, with the rush for colonial expansion and to exploit the diamonds and gold.
Laws were passed forcing mineworkers to carry an early version of the pass book. Black workers were already being told where they could live and work. The 1913 Natives Land Act reserved 93 percent of the land for whites and the majority were forced into “reserves”, precursors of the apartheid Bantustans. Poll-taxes ensured a ready flow of workers from these reserves to the mining areas, as migrant work was the only way of paying it.
The 1923 Natives (Urban Areas) Act limited the number of black workers moving into towns and cities, which whites believed should be reserved for them. Africans had become “guests” in their own land.
During the 1920s, black Africans were banned from forming trade unions and denied skilled work by an unwritten colour bar which would be developed and refined by the apartheid government.
“Job reservation” was enforced not in the main by law but by making it impossible for Africans to pass the necessary tests.
By 1948 the “British” had already set up a system which the apartheid government refined and developed into the total oppression of the black, coloured and Indian populations.
What becomes obvious from our past is that racism is about the domination of one class by another. Colonial capitalism required a docile, low-wage working class to extract as much surplus value as it could.
This legacy lives on – 1994 did not free South Africa from the control of that colonial capitalism. White monopoly capitalism is still in control.
White South Africans forget that most of them are descendants of economic migrants who became colonisers and think it is natural that they should rule the world.
That is why whiteness is seen as the norm and blackness as the “other”. Most have no conception of the inequalities and indignities that black South Africans still suffer every day.
They have little understanding of what brought students on to the streets of our cities.
Many see little need to transform education in terms of language or curriculum. Often supported even by black parents, they resist attempts to introduce indigenous language teaching; after all, doesn’t the whole world speak English?
Most would not understand that instead of simply teaching engineers to build roads and bridges we should at the same time question where these are going and who they will serve.
Most do not understand that studying a complex science subject in a language that is not your own is a huge obstacle, before you even start.
Racism, however, is not just something in people’s heads – who you like or dislike – but the exercise of power. It is not the same as prejudice, which is arbitrary and illogical. It has its origins in class, colonialism and imperialism.
It is about believing yourself to be so superior in attitude that everyone else must adapt to and adopt your way of living and thinking.
It was a surprise therefore to read Aubrey Matshiqi, normally a very sober and astute analyst, write in a financial daily that he is “sick physically, psychologically and emotionally by racism”, that he is exhausted and the end of his tether is nigh.
While anyone who has been in this struggle will sympathise with him, his frustration is born of seeing racism purely as ideas in an individual’s head. But even if you could clear the heads of all of the racists it would not change much. Racism is based in the system of capitalism and the fight against the one is inseparable from the fight against the other.
Racism, just like corruption, is inherent in capitalism, which Numsa understood when it approached Nedlac for a section 77 strike on corruption.
For a government official to be corrupt there is a business person doing the corrupting. There are others, however, who would be appalled to be called racists, but who only see corruption in government and in particular in a black government.
The saddest part about the race debate is that those who are often the most virulent racists have no wealth or privilege to protect – white workers who are being told that all that stands between them and poverty is maintaining the status quo in relation to blacks in the workplace.
There are also black African capitalists who are happy to feed off the crumbs of the colonial table.
Frantz Fanon wrote that there are always those for whom the colonial mindset is not a backward step but a positive one for the comprador bourgeois who are part and parcel of imperialism.
We should not call them “coconuts”, because they are not a joke but can play a destructive role in society.
For racists the best outcome is for more black South Africans who see themselves as aspirant entrepreneurs to become the police force of white monopoly capitalism.
Comrade Aubrey, if you are right then there is no hope for us.
Socialism is our only answer to racism and without it there is no hope for any of us and for this small planet which is our home.
Rejoin the struggle against racism by attacking the capitalist system that breeds it.
I choose to remember the words of a great poet, whose life is celebrated each year from Scotland to South Africa, from Ghana to Russia and many points in between.
With a slight change to the first line,
Then let us fight that come it may,
(As come it will for a( that)
That sense and worth o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an a’ that,
For a’ that an a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That man to man the world o’er,
Shall brothers (and sisters) be for a’ that.
The immortal words of Robert Burns, written in 1795.
*Norma Craven is the head of Numsa’s Movement for Socialism