South Africa

South Africa

Conversations: Crain Soudien on SA’s identity politics

A hundred years after philosopher and activist WEB Du Bois declared that the colour line would be humanity’s great problem, South Africa still wrestles with racism and transformation. Our universities should be places that challenge and change outdated attitudes to race, but policy and practice are poles apart. That’s why a permanent committee has been appointed by the Minister Blade Nzimande to oversee transformation at universities, even as some academics aren’t enthusiastic about the idea. MANDY DE WAAL speaks to UCT’s Professor Crain Soudien, who first mooted the idea of this transformational task team.

In 1903, an American sociologist, Pan-Africanist and civil rights activist called William Edward Burghardt (WEB) Du Bois would pen a seminal work on race called The Souls of Black Folk. In it, he would make a prediction: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colo(u)r line.”

Du Bois’ prediction is playing out again in South Africa, this time as the academic community rents itself in two over what is the denouement to the infamous Reitz residence race video that shocked SA, the world, and traumatised the University of the Free State, where the event took place. The video depicted students putting five workers through a series of humiliating rituals which formed part of a mock hazing ceremony.

In the wake of the public rage following the 2008 event, an enquiry was ordered by the then-minister of education into transformation at universities. The enquiry wanted to expose the nature and extent of racism and racial discrimination at these higher places of learning.

The results of the investigation, published at the end of 2008, were disturbing, and found that “discrimination, in particular with regard to racism and sexism, is pervasive in our institutions.” The report identified that there was a massive gap between transformation policy and practices, and one recommendation was that a “permanent oversight committee to monitor the transformation of higher education.” Education minister, Blade Nzimande, announced this transformation team a week ago. Malegapuru Makgoba, the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s vice-chancellor is the head of this permanent body

Makgoba comes with some history. In October 1994 he took up an appointment as deputy vice chancellor at Wits, and fairly immediately began decrying the university’s “dominant euro-centrism” calling the institution’s leaders a “small inbred elite”. The said elite were obviously not that thrilled about the outpourings of their first major affirmative investment, and put together a dossier that discredited Makgoba’s credentials. The deputy chancellor hit back and charged that his accusers were allegedly guilty of under-qualification themselves as well as nepotism, tax evasion and promotions that weren’t justified.

Makgoba “arrived full of enthusiasm, defining his job as the Africanisation of the university with more black students, staff, and governors,” wrote the UK’s Times Higher Education. “But even in rapidly transforming South Africa, universities are slow to change and the establishment had much to lose. Many white academics were shocked by the difference of Professor Makgoba’s vision.”

Mail & Guardian reports that when Nzimande made the announcement he said Makgoba “has scars, by the way, like many of us…” Later the newly-elected head of the university transformation commissariat would tell the investigative weekly the “scars” refer to his own battles “that go to the heart of change in South Africa.”

Unsurprisingly the academic community didn’t exactly meet Nzimande’s announcement with arms wide open. “Deeply antagonistic rifts that mirror long-entrenched conflicts in South African higher education opened up immediately following Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement this week of a permanent committee to ‘oversee’ transformation at all 23 universities,” wrote Mail & Guardian.  The paper stated that responses to the appointment were polarised, with some academics assessing that the body was nothing more than “a permanent commissariat to police transformation that will no doubt massacre some universities” whilst others called it a “welcome and long-overdue move”.

The purposes of this new “oversight committee”, Nzimande says, is to “monitor progress on transformation in public universities and to advise the minister on policy to combat racism, sexism and other forms of unfair discrimination.” Nzimande adds that the body will advise on policy to promote social cohesion with the idea of recreating universities as “an institutional environment where every student and staff member can live, work and flourish free of unfair discrimination”.

But do we really need bodies to police transformation in this country? To get an understanding of the complexities of the race issues and what bedevils transformation, Daily Maverick spoke to Professor Crain Soudien, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town. Soudien chaired the body that investigated race, racism and transformation at universities and recommended that a permanent oversight commissariat be set up. Soudien believes that race and racism is a debate that needs time, space and patience.

“You can’t talk about race quickly, because there are many dimensions to this discussion,” he says on the line from his office in Cape Town. For Soudien, who alerted Daily Maverick to WEB Du Bois’ prediction on “colour” reductive sound-bites conflate issues in what is already a muddled and muddied debate.

“We are in a complete conceptual muddle in this country around the idea of race. What people are doing with the idea of race emotionally is the under-articulated dimension of this particular conversation, because a dimension of our discussion currently is all about solidarity, connectedness, affinity, exclusion and all those other very affective things about who we are,” says Soudien, referring to the way race is used in the discourse to declare who’s in or who’s out. Soudien believes what we should be doing is deconstructing the race discourse so we can all understand how race is being used to serve self- or selfish interests.

Speaking to Soudien, there’s a realisation that when it comes to race the first question we all should be asking ourselves is: “What is race, and does race really exist?” “This idea of race is has comes to denote and refer to who someone is in a broad, catch-all kind of way.” That’s the first part of our problem, the root of our race muddle.

The word “race” has come to mean many different things over time and in different places. The origin of the word is said to reside in Middle French, with the word “razza” which connoted “people of common descent”. Half a century later, in about c.1560, it was said to mean a tribe, a nation or people of “common stock”. A notion of “othering” arrives in 1774 when the word comes to be understood as “one of the great divisions of mankind based on physical peculiarities”.  Interestingly enough etymological dictionaries point to an old English word, “þeode” which also means “race” and “language”, but when used as a verb means “to unite, to join”.

“Over the last five thousand years this word, this short-hand that is used for who you are has shifted quite dramatically,” explains Soudien. “Up until the end of the 19th century, this word race would have been used coterminously to mean nation or people. Here the meaning implied a mix of culture and biology, but essentially it connoted behaviour. But we have come a long way since there and now when you talk about race, people infer it to mean something biological. This is because of the mass of work that has been done to give the world the idea that looks matter. That the shape of someone’s face and the texture of their hair… that this matters.” That tremendous work, of course, is the stuff of some capitalist constructs, politicking, magazines, advertising, Hollywood, television, and everything else that would use mere looks as a metre for dividing humanity, and ranking the aesthetics of intelligence or values..

Soudien talks about how in the 1930’s, scientists were questioning established theories of race. In the forties, American anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish published a pamphlet called “The Races of Mankind”  that declared racial differences superficial and said they did not justify prejudice. British anthropologist Ashley Montagu would go one better, and in 1942 he’d damn the thinking that whites and blacks evolved along separate paths and publish a book called Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race.  Montagu (who also wrote The Elephant Man) sought to forever break the connection between culture and genetics by declaring that race was a product of perception, a social construct.

But even though there was growing awareness of the flaws using looks or biology as racial markers, universities were still teaching and using unsound texts on identity politics. “It took the important work of Richard Lewontin in 1966 and 1974 and the work of Stephen J Gould in 1981 to show how insignificant ‘race’ and its supposed markers were in explaining human variation to put to rest the notion that intelligence and ‘race’ were connected,” reads the Understanding Race project , which includes a study on the history of race.

“This work laid the platform for the human genome project which provided repeated confirmation that the levels of genetic variation within populations were much greater than they were between population groups (Jorde and Wooding, 2004). Genome mapping emphasized the hazards around the use of ‘race’ as a concept. In the social sciences, stimulated by the anti-essentialism of the post-structuralist movement, work was emerging which came to situate the idea of ‘race’ clearly within its ideological frames,” the project states.

“This contribution, building on Gould’s Mismeasure of Man and the deeply important work of Louis Althusser (1971) and especially his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ which showed how the reproduction of ideology was essential for systems to survive, effectively brought the social sciences to the point where it could confidently assert the insight about the social constructedness of ‘race’. Brett St Louis announced in 2003, as a result, that, “…(w)e have long been aware that ‘race’ has no sustainable biological foundation, and convinced of its socially constructed basis, we instead recognize the racialization of different groups that are culturally, socially and historically constituted….” Significantly, he went on to say, “it is clear therefore at least for much of the academy, that the inviolable sanctity of race is under fire… under erasure” (Leonardo, 2010: 677-678).”

Does race exist? Soudien echoes the scientific view when states emphatically: “Race is nonsense!” But then why, Daily Maverick asks, is it so frequently flung around in politics, and why doesn’t someone like Soudien correct the politicians who are using it to their own advantage? “It is not my business to prescribe to others how to self-identify. I refuse to accept others definitions of who I am – I am not that which you say I am.” The message is clear – identity politics isn’t a dictate, but a self-elective.

South Africa, of course, is still stuck in that mire where looks and race matters. “Most of us look at each other and sum each other up immediately. People make immediate inferences and those inferences normally have everything to do with biology. People look at me and say: “When did your forefathers leave India?” I mean – what the heck? That’s got nothing to do with me, but that’s how it works here. That’s how these meaning making practices of our discourses operate in everyday South Africa.”

Like most parts of the world, South Africa has become so habituated to “looks mattering” and to race being the default definition of another human. WEB du Bois was spot on. The problem of this mythical colour line is our modern day curse.

“We are living in that crudity of everyday meaning. It is as if we haven’t gone through intense processes of education around the world because education has made little difference to the way our everyday behaviours has worked,” says Soudien. Globally the laws have changed and for the most part are blind to race and gender, but there’s a massive gap between law and practice. And then there’s the confusing matter of local law, where some of our law is blind to race or gender but other law is based on race and gender. We have politicians who talk about non-racialism while equity laws are racially based and government leaders use racial epithets to slander each other.

So how do we move forward? In part we need to be sensitive to where we’ve come from. “An important point to make is the defending of the notion of race. A few people, like Xolela Mangcu and Eusebius McKaiser, have been writing about this in the press in a very defensive way. Where this comes from is a history of being discriminated against, and in a sense trying to protect a black aesthetic. There are lots of issues here. There’s a real issue going on about black people not feeling valued and black bodies not feeling valued. In that sense I would almost support Mangcu and say that the issue he raises is serious enough to perhaps require that we do this consciously correct thing to say that black is beautiful as a response to the denigration of what it means to be black. I can understand all of that, but it remains a problematic argument because it ultimately what it comes down to what I look like, and to this black body.” Soudien’s philosophical argument is based, of course, on the scientific proof that race is a myth, so while he has empathy for Mangcu’s perspective, he can’t applaud it for being based on an accurate or empirical premise.

Soudien appeals for the framework of analysis to move toward new ways of understanding and creating meaning. “I am not my outward appearance. I am not what I look like. I am not that, but this is a difficult concept. There is a lot of making up, catching up and recovery that we have to do. What we need to do is remind ourselves of the fact that we have hard, hard work to do. And that it is every day work about our everyday lives.” Soudien says there is no magic bullet, no sudden epiphany, and no miracle. “It is a matter of confronting this thing of race and saying that which I see as ugly might be the most beautiful thing that exists – it is about confronting that possibility.”

The challenge is that our entire history and popular culture conspires to tell us the opposite. That looks matter. That race matters. “It is hard because emotionally it is your whole history which is in a sense drawn on; it is your whole emotional history that is at play here. It is hard self-reflection that is called upon. But the outcome of it is wonderful – it is an absolute liberation in my opinion.” DM

Read more:

  • Conversations: Jane Duncan on race, identity and racism in Daily Maverick 


  • Understanding Race 
  • Download  – The 2008 Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions.

Photo: Professor Crain Soudien.