Opinionista Jeff Rudin 24 January 2014

Race: running backwards in search of the universal ‘we’

What is it that induces religious people to kill other religious people in a battle over whose God is God? Why do people of the same faith – Christian or Muslim, for instance – kill each other over whose interpretation of their shared God is truly God? What makes people ready to kill and die for their nation, ethnic group, or tribe? Or, for that matter, what makes a black policeman want to deport a taxi passenger (who happens to have been the son of Tito Mboweni) for no other reason than being blacker than most black South Africans and therefore a suspected foreigner, as was recently reported?

The answers to these questions frame another one: How, in the 21st year of the ‘new’ South Africa and in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, are we to move towards the elusive non-racial society for which he devoted his life and which is a founding principle of our celebrated Constitution?

The sobering truth is that we are today further away from this ideal than in 1994 and that the overall trajectory is firmly in the wrong direction. A reminder of just how fast we have been running backwards is the rapidity with which ‘race’ has returned to being an entirely normal part of everyday South African vocabulary. The short life of euphemisms such as ‘demographics’ highlight the return to racialised normality.

Reflecting this normality and putting aside, for the time being, that most socio-economic measures remain unchanged from our odious Apartheid past, trade unions now readily provide the same racial information they pointedly once refused to supply. Prior to 1994, trade unions maintained that ‘race’ was an artificial construction manufactured by capitalists to further exploit a divided and, therefore, weakened working class.

Another instance of this backward race is the use of ‘coloured’. During the 1980s and early 1990s, no person associated with the anti-Apartheid struggle used the term without the qualification, ‘so-called’. This is now history. Along with the disappearance of the qualifier, what was once seen as an Apartheid invention has now become an established race worthy of being capitalised as a respectable noun – Coloured.

Our fixation on race and the need to colour-code everything derives from the inherited specificities of our history. Other people with different histories are similarly divided but not by race. Unlike us, they are divided by religion, language, nationalism, culture or claims to being indigenous. Our preoccupation with race makes us insufficiently aware of both the universality of these divisions and that, like ours, they are shaped by the particularities of the accidents of history.

Competing identities are common to all these divisions. Identity is the standard way in which we, in our interactions with others, give meaning to ourselves, to the world, and to our place in it. Although personal, self-identity is a profoundly social process born from our utter dependence on others for the first years of life. The growing awareness of one’s existential vulnerabilities, with death as the ultimate fear, make one aware – with varying degrees of consciousness – of one’s essential aloneness in a bewildering and often hostile world. The specificities of history, the form of social organisation and one’s place in it along with the details of one’s early nurturing either ameliorate or aggravate this ontology, this state of being that, unless comprehended, is beyond our volition and from which there is no escape.

Achieving a non-racial South Africa requires, in the first instance, a shift from the narrow focus on ‘race’ to the more fundamental one of identity. More specifically, the struggle (for those seeking this non-racial South Africa) necessitates a much better understanding of the specific South African form of the universal dynamics of identity. What, we must ask, energises the racial form of this seemingly unavoidable dynamic such that Verwoerd and the other architects of Apartheid have cause for smiling in their graves?

As Verwoerd might himself ask, given the normalisation of race in nominally non-racial South Africa, what gives me, a ‘white’ man, the right to question the racial identities now freely and fulsomely embraced by the black races, whether African, Indian or Coloured?

My inheritance – the accidents of my birth – includes being born in South Africa of practicing Jewish parents. They taught me that Jews must always and unconditionally stand together as the only protection against worldwide anti-semitism. They taught me that the Holocaust – the murder of six million Jews – was but the most brutal instance of this racial hatred. The imperative of Jewish solidarity made it entirely normal to ask, spontaneously, as my grandmother did when told of the death of a child who was crossing the road to buy an ice cream, ‘was he Jewish?’ My parents taught me that God was Jewish and that anti-Semitism was the price Jews paid for being God’s chosen people; it was all a matter of jealousy.

Amongst the many unintended things I learnt from them during the 1940s and early 1950s was that any contact with the non-Jewish world that was not affirming of oneself was due to anti-Semitism (which thereby became the unconscious, magical defence against any disappointment or criticism). I learnt that being Jewish didn’t necessarily make one good. From dinner-table talk, I learnt that my father’s business partners – who were, of course, all Jewish – were nonetheless all rogues, who regularly stole from the company and defrauded my father at every turn. This inconsistency of Jews treating fellow Jews in the same way that non-Jews supposedly treated Jews prepared me for an even greater challenge: the contradiction of Jews, the victims of the most extreme racism, being the perpetrators of racism and the committed defenders of the legal and institutionalised White racism that privileged them, notwithstanding the prevailing anti-Semitism of all the other non-Jewish White South Africans. The ultimate lesson I learnt from them was that one was not a permanent prisoner of the religion or the race or any other Identity into which one is born.

Fast-forward to 2014 and the racial identities which still imprison our would-be non-racial country. Uniting us, despite these divisions, is recognition of the need to redress the historic injustices of Apartheid that consigned most South Africans to poverty, in all its physical forms. The question is whether this redress, this Affirmative Action, itself needs to have taken the racial form it has.

Apartheid South Africa was built on cheap labour. A national minimum wage, reflecting the wealth of South Africa in 1994, could have been part of this reparation. So, too, could have been an infrastructure development programme that – commensurate with the enormous wealth of the country and the dignity guaranteed to each one of us by our Constitution. Schools, hospitals and other essential services could have been part of this programme that prioritised the meeting of need rather than the maximisation of profit and the winning of the approval of the World Bank and IMF.

Racialising Affirmation Action was not a mistake, not an unexpected outcome made apparent only after the event, but a conscious choice. Almost the first decision of the new Parliament in 1994 made this perfectly clear. Mostly now forgotten was the public debate on the remuneration of MPs in South Africa’s first democratic Parliament. Would MPs pay in post-Apartheid South Africa reflect the first-world levels of the last Apartheid parliament or the third world ones of the newly enfranchised majority? In the event, Parliament decided there was, indeed, a problem with MPs pay: It wasn’t high enough! Leading white communists, sitting as members of the ANC parliamentary caucus, opposed this decision. However, despite their credibility seared in the anti-Apartheid struggle, they capitulated when accused of being racists who opposed the proposed pay increase only because blacks would be the new beneficiaries.

The ANC’s decision to make the new Parliament even more first-world than the Apartheid one marks the first use of the race card to solve the fundamental problem of how to become capitalists without capital.

This use of race by a political elite to promote its narrow economic class interests is key to the dominance race continues to exercise in nominally non-racial South Africa. Making race the principal access to scarce resources, wealth and power is the (purest) oxygen of race.

This oxygen constantly refreshes the many different ways race gives meaning to the different groups amongst the beneficiaries of Affirmative Action and BEE. The need for redress is legitimised, above all, by the idea of the continuity of racialised poverty and inequality, notwithstanding the demise of Apartheid. That race might colour poverty without being its cause is not considered, for it would undermine the founding premise of the call for equity. Implicit in that premise is that the singular form of poverty and inequality is unique to South Africa and is the result of Apartheid. At its most innocent, the pursuit of racial equity and black empowerment derives from this understanding. This naivety, however, has no place in government policy.

The people (mainly) responsible for post-1994 policies are the same leaders who, during the struggle against Apartheid, defined Apartheid as racial capitalism. Yet, with breathless rapidity and without discussion, they retained only the racial part of this couplet after the formal demise of Apartheid. Race is now the only reality they recognise. Capitalism is conveniently negated.

Also overlooked is that class societies automatically reproduce themselves in the absence of a real, as opposed to a rhetorical, revolutionary break. South Africa, like all capitalist societies everywhere, is marked by poverty, inequality and unemployment. These features are indelibly coloured as a consequence of our Apartheid past: As long as we have a working class, it will continue to be overwhelmingly poor and black; unemployment will be similarly coloured. Inequality – capitalism’s other automatic disorder – will continue to look untransformed. (As though transformed inequality is acceptable!) The normal reproductions of capitalism will thus ensure that Black capitalists will never be deprived of their raison d’être. Only the demise of capitalism itself will change this.

In this respect, black capitalists need have no fear from the South African Communist Party or from COSATU, the self-proclaimed anti-capitalist labour federation. Notwithstanding that both organisations comprehend the world in terms of class and that they might therefore be expected to prioritise the exposure of the class interests made invisible by racial identities, they do nothing of the sort. Black capitalists and the many other blacks who, within the perfectly normal inequalities and poverties of a capitalist society, owe their (relatively) privileged positions to the good fortune of their chosen race have nothing to fear. The SACP & COSATU, do, disturbingly for black capitalists, attack ‘monopoly capitalism’, but they then provide the reassuring colour coding so that it is only ‘white’ monopoly capitalism that is the enemy. (Marx is not so fortunate as Verwoerd. Marx would doubtlessly be pleased to be dead, rather than hear his followers suggest that colour determines how capital behaves.)

Racial identities are oxygenated in innumerable other ways. Brief mention will be made of only two of them.

The first is the deliberate naturalisation of race by the state. The National Census is the clearest instance of this. It not only forces everyone to have a racial identity but imposes the same once despised and rejected identities manufactured by a (smiling) Verwoerd. Unlike the Employment Equity Act, which consciously rejected the Apartheid ‘races’ in favour of a single ‘Black’ category, the Census gives unproblematic reality to the entire pantheon of Apartheid races, thereby forcing everyone to be either African, Coloured, Indian or White.

The second example concerns what might be described as the black extremists. These are the people who maintain that race has a profound social reality even though readily acknowledging that race is itself a scientific nonsense. They describe modern South Africa as the perpetuation of ‘white supremacy’. And they haven’t gone mad. Just blind to anything that is not colour coded.

The fact that blacks (i.e. Africans) are still everywhere at the bottom of every socio-economic measure is due, in their understanding, entirely to untransformed white supremacy. That this remains the case, despite almost 20 years of black rule, presents them with no problem. For them, the black political elite are coconuts; house niggers seduced by the white world who, despite their blackness, think and behave as whites. (Left unelaborated is what is meant by the uniquely white world and white thinking.)

Where, then, does this brief exploration of identity (as the more fundamental category standing behind our obsessions with race) leave us? Has it assisted us in getting any closer to the non-racial society of our Constitution? Has it provided any light on Mandela’s still uncompleted walk?

If nothing else, my hope is that it’s done two things. First, the necessary though not sufficient road to a non-racial South Africa has to be one in which the economy is socialised and is not driven by the imperative of (privatised) profit maximisation. Second, the understandable need for Identity needs to come to terms with the fact that there is no Other. There is only all of us, a universal ‘We’.

Putting the Other in its place begins with a recognition that this (misconceived) Other has to exist in order to give meaning to our own identity, no less than to each of the other competing ones. Although needing to be seen as unique, as special, the identities that divide us and for which we readily kill each other, in fact contain features, customs, practices and beliefs drawn from a common and finite pool. The far from unique identities are as one would expect given that we are all biologically the same, with the same needs, fears and hopes, despite the richness of the different forms in which identity expresses itself.

Rather than celebrating and building on our common humanity, identity requires us to exaggerate difference, often to the obliteration of the very humanity of The Other. Identity is more pernicious still. Sometimes explicit but inescapably implicit, identity necessarily promotes, not just the idea of being different from but, crucially, better than. It is this unavoidable sense of superiority – or, for previously subjugated or otherwise discriminated identities, the need to prove equality – that, at the level of each individual person, sustains each of the competing, when not actually warring, identities.

What needs emphasising is that both a different economic system and a better way of understanding ourselves are required for the non-racial South Africa of our expectations. More specifically, we need to recognise the incompatibility between a non-racial country and an economy that breathes life into racial identities, as it necessarily sets, at a micro-level, workers against bosses, workers against workers in the struggle for work and better economic positions, bosses against bosses in the cut-throat competition for business and, at a country level, the collective boss against the collective bosses in the struggle between nations.

At a deeply personal level, each one of us needs to recognise that competing identities take us backwards on the long walk to a non-racial South Africa. The best way of honouring Nelson Mandela’s memory is for us to aspire to living a unifying Ubuntu in which the universal ‘We’ allows for the celebration of each Otherless ‘I’. DM

Dr Jeff Rubin is research associate at the Alternative Information & Development Centre in Cape Town.


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