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Where does the call for greater complexity in public discourse take South Africa?

Where does the call for greater complexity in public discourse take South Africa?

Two recent articles make the same poignant plea: as a prior condition to addressing South Africa’s whirlpool of problems is the need for the best possible understanding of what those problems are. Above all, they argue, this means immunisation against dogmatism, simple slogans and mindless binaries.

Judith February’s “The search for new ways of seeing that free us from the toxicity of current public discourse”, in Daily Maverick, is one of these articles. The second is an editorial in the Mail & Guardian, “How are we complicit in the structural racial issues such as Stellenbosch University? (both on 10 November 2022).

Both articles also appeared in the print editions of the two publications, with different headlines. The media exposure given electronically and traditionally to both articles is well merited. Yet…

Guided by February’s quote from the artist Zadie Smith, “I have long believed that critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté,” I will seek to show that the critical thinking in both articles needs still further critical thinking.

The Mail & Guardian editorial was inspired by the recently released report of the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of Racism at Stellenbosch University, also known as the Khampepe Report. The report was triggered by a white student urinating on the belongings of a black student. The editorial refers us to a paragraph in the report that it says, “should make all of us think”. This is because, despite the “majority of previously white-dominated spaces” having benefitted from Stellenbosch University’s “fairly comprehensive transformation apparatus”, change still won’t come.

The editorial notes: “Most previously white-dominated rooms, such as the private sector, say they are transforming, pointing to a growing number of black faces on their boards and among employees. But these numbers do not speak to fundamental transformation. … Change is slow and we refuse for it to be radical. Why? Why, as a people, no matter our colour, will we not make racial transformation and an equal society top of mind in everything we do? 

“Because we benefit.”

The editorial ends with the impassioned plea “… Thuli Madonsela and several other witnesses… explained that sometimes the only way to cleanse a toxic environment is with radical change.

“When will we all, black and white, make that radical change?”

Alas, still waiting to be explained is the “what”, the specificities of the content of radical change. However, the obstruction to this needed change having been identified as “because we benefit” — who are the “we” in this intriguingly obscure reference? This, along with the unelaborated importance given to inequality in the print edition editorial’s headline which read “Our subtle complicity in inequality”, suggests that still more complexity is needed. Much more.

‘Don’t keep it simple, embrace complexity’

Wanting to “think about race differently”, February uses three artists — Amy Sherald, William Kentridge and Zadie Smith — to do so. She writes:

“We need to find ways to talk about race, especially to the next generation, which are truthful and constructive and which are not simply platforms to transfer the anger and trauma of one generation to the next. … This must surely be the message to the next generation of South Africans — that there are different ways of seeing which bring no less discomfort or complexity, but allow for conversation which broadens our perspective.”

Amy Sherald’s artistry, according to February, shows that this broadened perspective can “powerfully articulate the black experience, while at the same time speak volumes about systemic injustice and past oppression”.

Yet, it must be said, the solid reality (of implicitly) racial “past oppression” bestows credibility to the fuzziness of the (implicitly) racial “systemic injustice” of the present. South African poverty, in late 2022, does undoubtedly still have a black face. Left unsaid, however, is how this poverty reproduces itself year after year after year.

Yet, despite inequality being part of the headline the Mail & Guardian gave to its print edition editorial, the editorial’s focus is universities and boardrooms, both of which are the exclusive preserve of a multiracial elite. This isn’t to say that racial injustice doesn’t happen at this elite level. It does, even though racism is sometimes mistakenly identified and at other times deliberately used for self-advancement or as a cover for corruption or incompetence.


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Universities, especially those with old and honoured traditions and institutions, reflect their elitism, often deliberately so. This is by no means unique to South Africa. But for many students from townships, small towns, or rural areas this very celebration of elitism is daunting. Seeing it as somehow “white” and/or colonial is probably to be expected.

An idea, often repeated in various ways, is for Africans to see themselves as the majority in a South Africa that is theirs. These sentiments were explicitly expressed by the Black Business Council, to give but one recent example. Whether consciously or not, such sentiments predispose people to see racism when feeling insufficiently recognised, for whatever reason.

As for being a cover for incompetence, one need go no further than the guaranteed playing of the race card each time Dali Mpofu attempts to defend Busisiwe Mkhwebane, the suspended Public Protector, at the Parliamentary inquiry into her impeachment. Most recently, when not complaining about having to endure the “battered syndrome” caused by “overt and covert racism”, Mpofu attributed Mkhwebane’s travails entirely to the machinations of the “white” and “racist” Democratic Alliance (DA).

While none of this should detract from the racism experienced by the black elite, it does require asking whether racism is a sufficient explanation of what is seen to be the systemic injustice they endure. I’m thinking here of the need for further complexity voiced by the artist Amy Sherald (as quoted by February):

“I’m not trying to take race out of the work… I [am] just trying to figure out a way to not make it the most salient thing.”

That challenge is precisely where February and the Mail & Guardian’s complexity is still wanting.  

Enter Angela Davis.

The universalisation of black liberation

Angela Davis, the US activist and academic who first hit the international news in the 1970s, delivered the 17th Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture on 9 September 2016 in Pretoria. What she said then was not entirely new. Making her address special was that it was she who made it and that it was made in honour of Steve Biko.

The complexity Davis provided, includes:

“The instance of the particularity of the black predicament is precisely that which is capable of yielding a robust universality. For most of our history, the category human has not embraced black people. Its abstractness has been coloured, white and gendered male. If all lives mattered, we would not need to emphatically proclaim that ‘black lives matter’.

“Our collective contribution towards dismantling the evil apartheid system should catapult us towards creating a space where there is universality in the struggle for the dignity and equality of all people in our country. It therefore becomes a new approach in the struggle — not the struggle by black people for a black cause but a struggle by all people for the black people and all other races who continue to suffer from the injustices of post-apartheid rule.”

Critical to a proper understanding of what Angela Davis was advocating are the even more radical things she said, things that are often less well-reported.

Placing her thoughts in the global context of “contemporary struggles for justice” (where “race is not the most salient thing”), she spoke of “unfinished activism”, of being “dissatisfied with the present” because “the revolution we wanted wasn’t the one we helped produce”.

More specially, this was because of the “growing inequalities generated by global capitalism”. Saying that “we continue to live with the mandates of capitalism” and the realities of the “unremitting capitalist attack”, she continued: “We know that freedom, as conceived by bourgeois democracies, has always been a limited freedom, a freedom accorded to… elites, a freedom that acquires its value precisely because of its powers of exclusion.”

For Davis, it is this capitalist inequality that makes “‘black’ a sign of the trajectory towards human emancipation”. This is to say, black emancipation is human emancipation because it signals a world without capitalist inequality, without the oppression of others requiring racist justifications in all its prejudicial forms, including xenophobia.  

“Critical thinking,” Davis told her constantly applauding audience at Unisa, is “learning to question things as they are, learning how to imagine that the possibility of something different is the very essence” of radical thinking for radical change.

Is Angela Davis’s retelling of black liberation being the universalisation of human liberation not the missing content to the radical change the Mail & Guardian urges us, black and white, to make? Is it not the realisation of Judith February’s injunction: “don’t keep it simple, embrace complexity”? DM

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Otsile Nkadimeng - photo by Thom Pierce

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