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Race is skin deep, humanity is not

Neville Alexander

2011-05-03, Issue 527

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In the wake of the ‘furore about the racist remarks attributed to Mr Jimmy Manyi’, Neville Alexander discusses the challenges around creating a ‘raceless society’ in post-apartheid South Africa.

The furore about the racist remarks attributed to Mr Jimmy Manyi and to a few other would-be pacesetters in the aspiring leadership cadre of the new South Africa is without any doubt one of the defining moments of our country’s history.

Enough has been written and more than enough said in ‘jest’ or otherwise about what these people actually said or wrote, about why Solidarity, with its not-so-hidden agenda, suddenly sprang this revelation on an ‘unsuspecting’ South African middle class public, and about the positions taken by various professional politicians, especially those in and around the ANC.

I shall therefore spare myself the agony and the embarrassment of commenting on the disgusting crassness and the latent brutality of the utterances and passages attributed to Mr Manyi, Ms Kuli Roberts and the others.

This is all the more justified since the general sense of outrage, cathartic as it might be, is not the real point. Whether some, or all, of the critics and commentators are more or less ‘racist’ than Roberts, Manyi and Co is not worthy of serious discussion.

The very fact that ‘race’ and racial labels can become a point of contestation in what is no more than a rather childish name-calling exercise is indicative of the profound ironies of the ‘new’ South Africa. Indeed, I intervene in this matter with a sense of shame.

Shame, because all of us who have advocated and fought for so many decades and even generations for the goal of a non-racial South Africa have so patently failed in our mission. Shame, but not defeat! This ‘debate’ merely underlines the fact that the struggle for the total liberation of the people of South Africa continues.

In my view, we need to restate the underlying issues involved in ‘the race debate’ and stop making things worse by dwelling on what are no more than superficial features of actual and potential conflict deriving from vested economic and political interests.

Let me begin by saying again, as I have done a thousand times in many articles and speeches on this issue: race thinking is real and it has real consequences, which will not disappear overnight.

Most South Africans will continue for a very long time to see themselves, and see one another, as ‘Africans’, ‘Indians’, ‘Coloureds’ and ‘Whites’, simply because these identities were constructed in terms of ruling class agendas and interests over decades and centuries.

These people have a right to see themselves as such but, given the history of racial conflict and inequality, it is the duty of those who have the power to do so to create conditions in which the need to identify in this way becomes unnecessary and undesirable.

While there are many things we can do in the short to medium term to create a more tolerant and tolerable social climate, it will take generations of consistent and patient work to alter the underlying structures that cause and entrench racial prejudice and all the awful expressions of hatred and ignorance that inevitably go with racial stereotyping.

I want to deal briefly with three fundamental issues involved in this debate. Many South African scholars, starting from different points of view, have written on these issues and anyone who is seriously concerned about understanding the complexities of the racial order could do worse than to go back to these sources.

First and foremost we have to confront the question: is a raceless society possible? Should such a society be our desired destination? Is this what we all mean when we speak about a ‘non-racial South Africa’? If, when using these and related terms, we mean minimally the kind of society where the colour of one’s skin, the texture of one’s hair, etc is irrelevant in terms of one’s human dignity and life chances, we have to face a few stubborn facts not only of South African society but of all racist societies.

Given the tenacity and the apparent solidity of the colonial-apartheid social and economic structures and their ideological underpinnings that have shaped all our lives, how realistic or feasible is a non-racial South Africa? Is it not an even more utopian notion than the ‘classless society’ that many of us continue to carry around with us as our political GPS?

The short answer to this question is that if you can believe in heaven and other notions of a life of perfect harmony after death, it ought not to be difficult to conceive of the possibility of a raceless or a classless society here on earth.

If you cannot envision such a society, you are saying to all of us, among other things, that biology is fate and that there is nothing much we can do about improving our conditions of life, depending on which ‘race’ or ‘class’ is on top.

Such fatalism is antithetical to any society that is bent on social transformation.

The longer answer to the question is that because we are human beings, we create meaning for ourselves, and a social goal such as a ‘non-racial South Africa’ is not only conceivable but eminently feasible.

To make it happen, we have to do many things in the short, medium and very long term.

What Roberts, Manyi and Co seem to have done, or seem to be doing, as far as I am concerned, points in the opposite direction, ie the kind of South Africa from which we thought we were ready to escape in 1994.

The second issue we have to confront is that of human worth or dignity. If Mr Manyi has been quoted correctly, he has done no more than take to its logical conclusion the implications of any human capital theory, ie a way of seeing people as assets and in terms of their exchange value.

Once you are on that road – and most capitalist business ideologues are on that road – it is very easy to fall into the kind of discourse where one or other group of people is considered to be ‘superfluous’, ‘over-concentrated’ etc.

The Hitlers and the Fronemans of the world eventually forced these people into railway trucks or lorries and transported them to their death in the gas chambers or to their last graves in the many Dimbazas of our beloved country (Frank Froneman was the former deputy minister of Bantu administration who referred to the wives and children of black workers as ‘superfluous appendages’).

The dehumanisation of language and discourse corresponds to the dehumanisation of stigmatised persons. Once the commodity value of people displaces their intrinsic human worth or dignity, we are well on the way to a state of barbarism.

Unless and until we bring back into our paradigms, and thus into our social analyses, the entire human being and the ways in which human beings can live fulfilled lives beyond their mere economic needs, we will continue to promote anti-human philosophies and policies that ultimately tend to work to the benefit of those who have, and to the detriment of those who do not have.

Thirdly, and finally, it is time that we admit publicly and without any qualifications that you cannot fight racial inequality, racial prejudice and race thinking by using racial categories as a ‘site of redress’.

Among many others, I have written about alternatives to affirmative action policies; so I shall not repeat those points here. Suffice it to say that fighting race with race is bad social science and even worse practical politics

Besides tackling the structural economic and social inequalities that we took over without much modification from the apartheid state, we have to do the hard work of exploring, researching and piloting alternative approaches to those based on the apartheid racial categories to counter the perpetuation of white and other social privilege.

It is a fundamental theoretical and strategic error to try to do so by perpetuating racial identities in the nonsensical belief that this will not have any negative or destructive social consequences.

The Employment Equity Act and all related legislation should be reviewed, not in the direction that the Department of Labour seems to want to do but in a totally different direction, one that moves away decisively from any notion of ‘race’ and looks specifically at ‘disadvantage’.

Seventeen years into the new South Africa, we can afford to interrogate even our most dearly held views about things. In South Africa, because we do live in a liberal democracy, we can actually ask these questions without fear of losing our limbs or even our lives.

The Manyi affair is much larger than the few individuals involved. It is a matter that, unless we look beneath the verbiage, may ruin any future of peace and prosperity our children may hope for.


* Dr Neville Alexander is director of the project for the study of alternative education in South Africa at the University of Cape Town.
* This article was first published by the Cape Times.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

I agree with many of Dr Alexander's statements, and am trying to understand those I don't fully grasp yet. I look forward to more commentary from him on issues affecting South African politics - for example the 2011 SA Municipal elections. I hope they will be published here for comment.

Michael Arendse, City of Cape Town

Dr Alexander is right. If you have people like Gauteng ANC spokesman Nkenke Kekane saying things during a press conference like the “DA is a party of white people” then its pretty sad and distressing because it only reenforces racial cleavages and divides people further. It also indicates an increasingly racist element growing within the ANC.


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