South Africa has experienced deteriorating levels of race relations to alarming proportions. Sociologists tell us that it is not unusual in times of such intense social turmoil for ethnic minority groups to be singled out, and homogenised into a single bloc of unitary thoughts, prejudices and intentions.
Our desire is not to respond one by one to Dali Mpofu and the EFF’s lengthy arguments about the EFF’s claim that the majority of Indians may be grouped as racist – clearly, our positions are too far apart for there to be much realistic chance of constructive debate or understanding. Rather, we feel it appropriate to point out the resultant effects of such thinking on societies, however well-intentioned or “frank” they may be believed to be by their speakers.
There’s a well-known metaphor employed by the Parsi community about how they had moderated their behaviour over several hundred years of their existence. The Parsis originated in modern-day Persia, and over centuries this small and tight-knit band would know only persecution and the pain of exile. In response, the community developed a description which they would use to show the rulers of new lands to which they ventured that they would pose no threat there.
“We will be like the honey in a glass of warm milk. Invisible, so that our form can never be found nor threaten anybody. But sweet, so that the goodness of our presence may be felt to those whom we’ve come to live among.”
The fear of the Parsis to remain invisible is a manifestation of the fear of ethnic minorities the world over – a fear of being singled out as the “other”; of not being “native” enough, of constantly having to be on the defensive as to their worth and intentions.
South Africa is a country rich in human potential. Culturally we’re endowed with diversity and when viewed in this light, the language, religion and customs of all our peoples must surely be acknowledged and celebrated. With the advent of democracy, the hope with us was that, unlike the Parsis, there would be no “other”. We are uncommon among nations in the extent of our heterogeneity, from Pondo to Venda, from Zulu to Portuguese, and this composite picture ought to be framed by feelings of national unity without resorting to polarisation. However with intermittent racial and ethnic tensions it would appear that our rainbow nation has lost its short-lived hue.
Indians in South Africa are presently under the spotlight following provocative comments about them as a racial group by Julius Malema and the EFF. To this has been added a lengthy piece laying out the EFF’s position by Advocate Dali Mpofu, the party’s national spokesman, on the “Indian question” in response to criticism from an array of the country’s finest journalists and academics, from Ferial Haffajee to Ranjeni Munusamy, from Sikonathi Mantshantsha to Eusebius McKaiser.
We’re not sure if Mpofu’s usage of the term “the Indian Question” was deliberate or ironic; the same term, after all, was that employed by the Natal colonial administrators a century ago in trying to determine whether the descendants of Indian indentured labourers could be repatriated back to India against their will because of the economic dangers they were deemed to bring to colonial Natal.
Either way, when a leading legal mind succumbs to xenophobic sentiments towards a minority group one questions the maturity and integrity of such a professional. Yet our desire is not to respond to Mpofu’s lengthy arguments one by one about the EFF’s claim that the majority of Indians may be grouped as racist – clearly, our positions are too far apart for there to be much realistic chance of constructive debate or understanding. Rather, we feel it appropriate to point out the resultant effects of such thinking on societies, however well-intentioned or “frank” they may be believed to be by their speakers.
Mpofu’s main arguments are that Indians as a collective have historically always seen their political struggles as being distinct from those of the native black African majority, that they have a history of treating African labourers oppressively, and that they exhibit their racist tendencies through their voting patterns. This may or may not be narrowly truthful, broadly untruthful or wholly absurd. That is not the point of our argument.
Our arguments are framed in terms of psychological and sociological theory. Sociologists tell us that it is not unusual in times of intense social turmoil for ethnic minority groups to be singled out, and homogenised into a single bloc of unitary thoughts, prejudices and intentions. In South Africa, we’ve witnessed the steady deterioration of race relations in recent times. There are even empirical studies making the argument that since the advent of democracy, we have not assimilated to any great degree – we simply live alongside each other, not along with each other. So we are definitely in a period of intense social anxiety, which would create the conditions necessary for Mpofu’s words to be aired.
Sociologically speaking, such talk is often couched in terms of nativism or religious grounding – “taking back” what is ours, for example, or quotations from Scripture as justification. The idea being that if only “they” would mend their ways, then “our” society could progress.
Additionally, such talk is also crafted as being fearless, and of speaking truth to power, in order to give it a form of legitimacy. In Mpofu’s column there are quotes from Amilcar Cabral about “hiding nothing from the masses… claiming no easy victories” as well as the exhortation to the EFF that “revolutionaries always have an obligation to speak the truth, even when the truth is not comfortable for powers that be”.
But an inevitable consequence of such talk is the tendency to lose individual features of the targeted group in this rush to generalisation and fearmongering. The very real danger present is that of judging individuals on the basis of group stereotypes. In this way, the individual loses his identity, all 1.1 million of them, in the case of South African Indians. Nowhere in Mpofu’s reasoning is an understanding that the 1.1 million people are comprised of different religions, different languages, different socio-economic outlook, even different political views. To him, they simply represent a monolithic bloc.
A racist is one who cannot see the individual outside of a group stereotype. Accordingly “all Greens are the same and I hate all Blue people unequivocally”. The Nazis treated Jews in this manner and were hell-bent on exterminating an entire group.
Historical evidence is replete with other examples of the effects of when ethnic minorities are singled out as worthy of vitriol, as being harmful for those societies rather than benefiting them. In South Africa we are still fresh from the xenophobic atrocities unleashed on, among others, Somali, Malawian and Zimbabwean immigrants which occurred as a direct result of them being singled out as the source of rural problems.
There’s also the infamous example of the expulsion of Gujarati Indians from Uganda, which followed from Idi Amin’s charge that “even though we gained independence from the British, we are not yet independent until… I want to see the whole Kampala street free of all the Indians”. Most narratives speak of the economic impact to Uganda from losing the Asian workforce and capital, but what was no less tragic was the destruction of Kampala civic life and the social fabric of the capital which was forever frayed.
This of course is not to suggest that we shouldn’t debate coherently about the state of race relations in the country; that the choice is a bleak one either between Mpofu’s viewpoint or of “shoving things under the carpet”, as he puts it. Twenty-four years into our democracy with the abolition of institutional racism South Africans are still struggling with interpersonal racism, and so these discussions must be had. But how they are had is as important as having them. And if they lead to racial stereotyping and racial profiling, then the dangers are clear.
In his book Race and Racism, the sociologist Pierre van den Berghe outlined the psychological dynamics and social morphology of racial prejudice prevalent ubiquitously in all societies at some point or the other in history. (Van den Berghe had conducted his research in societies of upheaval such as Mexico, Nigeria, Israel and Lebanon as well as in South Africa.) Among the most frequently cited theories of racism are the Frustration/Aggression and Authoritarian Personality theories.
In simplest terms the Frustration/Aggression theory argues that denial of certain goals or gratifications leads to frustration which is easily resolved through displacement from the causal agent of the frustration to an unrelated scapegoat. The scapegoat then becomes the object of aggressive behaviour and this expression has the cathartic effect of relieving frustration. When the choice of scapegoat becomes culturally stabilised on members of a certain group, racial or ethnic prejudice results because the expression of aggression is rationalised in terms of the alleged undesirable traits of the scapegoat. We believe such psychological dynamics are evident in South Africa at present.
In line with Frustration/Aggression theory, the Authoritarian Personality theory seeks to explain racism from a psychoanalytical point of view which predisposes certain individuals to become prejudiced against members of ethnic and racial groups. Among the traits characteristic of the authoritarian personality are respect for force, submission towards superiors, aggression towards subordinates, lack of self-insight, acceptance of uncritical ready-made ideas, intolerance of deviance, destruction and cynicism. These traits are developed early as a function of socialisation and family environment.
Despite their differences South Africans seem to share one ineluctable similarity. They all cry “racist” at the drop of a hat and each points a finger at the other. Depending on the composition of the gathering, the racist can take on the hue of the absent other. Another characteristic of racist thinking is the use of “ranking” where one race is preferred over another at a given time in history.
So when Julius Malema says Afrikaners were better towards African people than Indians he is using the process of dividing his opponents into categories of social acceptance. Sikonathi Mantshantsha in the Financial Mail this week reminds us the powerful poem by Martin Niemoller during World War ll which addresses the perils of not standing up for each other when one group is targeted against another:
“First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Tackling racism is not an easy task as it is a multi-headed creature that affects its victims differentially. Also its layers run deep with chameleon-like veneers of confusing hues. At one time it may appear a sickly green, at others bright red. It is not easily knowable by the victim and the oppressor and when the oppressor becomes the victim does the victim become the oppressor?
Unlike other countries in the world, South Africa was a product of organised institutional racism. We grew up in a laboratory where racism was cultivated and nurtured in Petri jars of hatred. Now as much as there is a will to change and as much as there is a need to repent by washing feet and saying sorry, we can never get rid of the remnants of institutional racism for as long as we retain those structures.
Ultimately, to come to grips with Dali Mpofu’s statement, one has to ask, what sort of society does he envisage? From where we stand, it appears to be a monolithic one, with all South Africans conforming to a single social identity and clinging to a particular vision of what it means to be African. This, however, is idealised fantasy, as hopelessly out of touch with the realities of our complicated society as AfriForum’s apocalyptic vision of an impending race war.
South Africans deserve better methods of approaching race relations. DM
Dr Devi Moodley-Rajab trained as a clinical psychologist and is a former dean of student development at UKZN. She is a former Vodacom Journalist of the Year recipient.
Kalim Rajab is an occasional contributor to Daily Maverick.
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