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South Africans don’t know what to do with race

Dlamini is a writer, critic, traveller and portrait photographer. He also has a day job, sort of. His portraits of writers have been published in many top literary publications, but he mostly makes his living as Chairman of the Chillibush Group of Companies, which deals in the dark arts of advertising, public relations and event management. In 2007 Dlamini was the recipient of the South African Literary Awards' Literary Journalism prize. He regularly reviews books, especially from Southern Africa, and presents the The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast. Recent columns:

You get the impression that South Africans don’t know what to do about race. It keeps popping up in the most unlikely places, and at the most inconvenient of times, and rarely does it bring good tidings.

For a very brief time, they tried to pretend that race didn’t exist or that like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s “rainbow nation”, it was an illusion. The fashion of the day was to speak of a “non-racial” society. But the old habits were too powerful even for Tutu’s rainbow, and before its colours had begun to fade, race had once again emerged as a powerful social force, one that could bring joy or tears, unite or divide.

On the eve of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, TNS Research Surveys has thrown the cat among the pigeons with the release of a survey that singles out the racial identity of its participants. It seems odd that a survey for so important an event as the literally “once-in-a-lifetime” Fifa World Cup in South Africa should use so crude an instrument as race to measure who is excited or not about the soccer competition.

I had to chuckle when I read the summary of the survey, for here before me was what I thought was a reincarnation of apartheid South Africa with its fanatical obsession with race. Let me quote from the statement: “The survey revealed that 45% of whites are excited about the World Cup, compared with 86% of blacks, 69% of coloureds and 77% of Asians,” said TNS Research Surveys director Neil Higgs. (To be fair to Higgs and his company, it is the differences in the responses of the race groups that they highlight, and they do deal with other factors such as employment and safety etc., but within a racial rubric.)

You would have thought that those who want race swept under the carpet would have railed against Higgs and his company, and accused him of playing the race card, but not a word of protest. So here we are, more than 15 years since we became a democracy and first tried to banish race to the dustbin of our history. But it is still with us; ever more powerful, always lurking on the periphery of our consciousness and peppering our conversations when we think no one can hear us.  Is it time that we accepted race as a fact of life, stopped our mad pretence that it doesn’t exist and acknowledged its power.

The reaction of South Africans to the TNS Survey probably indicates that most are learning to make an uneasy peace with the stubborn reality of race. Why else would there be no howls of protest at the “racism” inherent in TNS Research Surveys’ freshly released data on the 2010 Fifa World Cup that use race as a key marker. That’s probably why we have not heard anyone ask this research company why they relied so heavily on race when they could have used any number of alternative social indicators to conduct their research. Instead, those who have interviewed Higgs accepted this race-based narrative and have kept their focus on why whites react this way and blacks react that way.

So what are we to make of the howls of protests in certain quarters when others, most notably Julius Malema and Jimmy Manyi invoke race in their arguments? Why have they been rounded upon and dismissed for playing the “race card”? It is remarkably easy for those who support a certain position or decision to see it as based purely on the “facts” and to dismiss the concerns of those who bring race into the equation. But this is too easy an option, and one that seeks to underplay the powerful way in which race has shaped and continues to influence our society.

Yet even those who howl the loudest each time Malema invokes race know that race is writ large on the South African psyche. It is equally clear that South Africans are not alone in struggling to define or even accept how race impacts their societies. The problem with race is magnified a hundredfold in those countries, like the US, that vigorously promotes the idea of the individual as the organising principle of society. But even they quickly run into trouble with the degree of autonomy they are prepared to grant that individual, and pretty soon you come across race-based and other social markers. It is one of the remarkable facts that the “one-humanity”dream of the 1990s has given way to the sharply polarised ethnic reality of a post-9/11 world. That’s why Barack Obama is so important, because his ascent to power has revived the dream of a shared humanity in which our differences do not condemn us to permanent tension.


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