Monday, August 17, 2009

Debating race is not ‘backward’

I was not unsurprisingly taken aback when I heard that the latest occupant of the Union Buildings expressed his opposition to a national debate on race. Being from the school of thought that views deliberation as the cornerstone of a democratic society, the president’s opposition to it sits quite uneasy with me. Equally disconcerting, if not more so, is the justification and reasoning behind advocating for a moratorium on discussing something so fundamentally a part of our history and so deeply entrenched in our society.

With President Jacob Zuma having so vehemently defended the institutions and traditions of his ethnic and cultural background, I had, perhaps naively, hoped that this would ultimately usher in a new culture of debate and discussion around issues of race, ethnicity and identity. It seems apparent that I have incorrectly assumed that the president — unlike his predecessor — had a much more syncretic understanding of the politics and psychology of identity. Having hoped for an era of meaningful deliberation on the state of race, race relations and racial identity to transcend the racial nativism of Thabo Mbeki, it seems I have set myself up for disappointment.

The time is/was ripe for a new government with a new president and a fundamentally different leadership style (and more “people skills”) to position itself as the leader in championing a vibrant democratic society characterised by open and honest debate. Having established himself within the first 100 days of taking office as the “people’s president”, Zuma can take up the responsibilities of a truly transformational leader and provide inspiration and motivation to a nation in dire need of a new vision.

Unfortunately he has instead chosen to block a debate on race and transformation as suggested by Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, arguing that such an initiative would take the country backwards. Debating race has become retrogressive, and according to the president we must instead deepen our understanding of non-racialism, a policy that the ANC has apparently defended even at a time “when apartheid was killing people”.

Anyone vaguely familiar with the history of the ANC and the struggle for liberation would immediately spot the historical inaccuracy that probably has Biko and Sobukwe spinning in their graves. Zuma’s ignorance in this regard is perhaps forgivable — I don’t know whether he was at any time intensely exposed to the tenets of the Black Consciousness Movement — but he does need to be reminded of why the PAC broke away in 1955 when the Freedom Charter was adopted. Although the difference between multi-racialism and non-racialism is readily ignored, the Freedom Charter and Chief Luthuli’s message to the Congress of the People gathered at Kliptown completely omitted a commitment to non-racialism advocating instead for a celebration, affirmation and foundation of a society premised on multi-racialism. In simple terms, the ANC opted for a position that celebrated “unity in diversity”, as opposed to the Black Consciousness Movement’s commitment to emancipating and reclaiming a “common humanity”.

Although a minor historical inaccuracy to some, it is not at all acceptable to let it slip. The ANC’s attempt to lay a claim to the sole ownership of the struggle for liberation should be resisted precisely because, as George Orwell put it: “Those who control the past, control the future; those who control the future, control the present; those who control the present, control the past.”

I am not too sure who the “we” is when Zuma says “we have never looked at things in terms of race and ethnicity but, rather, in terms of people being South Africans” but I am sure that it must exclude the former president. Even beyond this it is idealistic and naive to believe that race, for all South Africans everywhere, is not factor or a part of their social gaze. Maybe the president and I live in two fundamentally different countries. In my South Africa, race and poverty is intricately intertwined, as is race and riches — large racial inequalities remain, with white people accounting for just 9% of the population but 45% of the country’s income. In my South Africa, racism is alive and kicking, with incidents such as the Reitz men’s residence at the University of the Free State and racially motivated attacks, slur and crime being prevalent (this is pretty weak - the Reitz incident should NOT be first in line when it comes to discussing racism in South Africa). I live in a South Africa in which racial prejudice and ignorance is internalised and socialised, lying dormant and waiting for the right moment to rear its ugly head.

This is exactly why we need a national debate on race and transformation: to expose and emancipate ourselves from the deep-seated, socialised ignorance and prejudice about race, ethnicity and racialised privilege. The political education apparently offered by the ANC on non-racialism is not sufficient or broad-based enough to combat and uproot years of socialisation that has produced not only a remarkably racial identity and politics, but has had far-reaching ramifications in terms of the psychology and socialisation of this identity. I hope the president reads or revisits the work of Steve Biko and discovers what true non-racialism means. Deepening an understanding of non-racialism is useless if we don’t pro-actively pursue it, which does mean we are required to discuss race and transformation to truly know what non-racialism is and should be. (As long as its a two way discussion, boy. Your comments are far too glib. I don't know if I'd trust you to represent whites in a discussion about race.)

While the president may place a moratorium on a debate on race within his own party and within the executive branch of government, it is unconstitutional for him to interfere with and block initiatives that pursue a national debate on race within the broader state institutions. Spearheading a national debate on race is pivotal and must be engaged in, not only at an individual level (in which we all have a responsibility), but also by the Chapter 9 institutions — specifically the Human Rights Commission, among others — along with research institutions and think-tanks like the South African Institute of Race Relations, the Human Sciences Research Council and civil society more broadly. Parliament as the pre-eminent deliberation body of a democratic society cannot fail the people of South Africa again by toeing the party line and refusing the debate an issue so central to understanding and navigating the modern South African social landscape.

The state of race relations in South Africa demands that we organise a meaningful, broadbased and representative debate on race. The president specifically has a responsibility towards the people of the country to support initiatives conducive to an honest, open discussion. Moreover, the president and his government has a responsibility to reverse the legacy of Mbeki’s modus operandi, exactly because “it is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle it without debate”.

5 Opinion(s):

Islandshark said...

Off-topic: Congratulations to Doberman with ILSA moving past the 500,000 visitor mark.

Viking said...

500,000? that's amazing- congrats indeed :)

Viking said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doberman said...

An otherwise worthwhile sentiment destroyed by the underlying premise that it is whites only that need to be confronted about race issues, note the word "privilege" popping up. Typical liberal twaddle. I'm with Zuma on this one if "talking about race" means whacking whitey.

Anonymous said...

There is no race debate.
WHITE is RIGHT...
The rest... Well just FUCKEMALL.

There is no point in debating race at all. Those who do not think it means anything will NEVER be swayed by any argument. Believe me, I've tried.

Make your plans to survive the coming civil war and dig in. Create small networks of like-minded people and dig in. Get off the grid and dig in. Feed yourself and dig in. Evade taxes and dig in.

DIG IN ! ! ! It's going to be WILD.