Opinionista Stephen Grootes 19 January 2015

Race – still our final frontier

Recent news has seen some racial debates rising and tempers flaring. But is the reality so bad? Not really. We just need to calm down.

The last few weeks have seen what looks like a resurgence of racial discussion in our national dialogue. Various claims have been made about “white people” and “Jan van Riebeeck”, while one or two people who should know better have claimed that Apartheid is responsible for things it is not.

Discussions about whether or not journalists should be wearing party regalia at ANC events have ended up with racial overtones, and even a puppet has found himself being sued. It seems, once again, that the issue of race is being discussed in an ugly way.

In reality, with all the problems facing us, we have made more progress on the issue of race than we have on unemployment, poverty, and inequality. We just need to calm down.

Last weekend, during the gala dinner celebration of the ANC’s annual 8 January statement, President Jacob Zuma made a comment that the “problems in the Western Cape started with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652”. That fed into a comment made during his main speech, that the problems with Eskom were because of Apartheid, and not because of any mistakes made by his own party. He is, of course, dead wrong.

Then, last week, Marianne Thamm wrote in this publication that she felt there were questions that Independent Newspapers Executive Editor Karima Brown and the group’s opinion editor Vukani Mde should answer, after they placed on Facebook pictures of themselves wearing ANC branded clothing. Brown, Mde and others wrote replies. Many of these referred to the race of Thamm, and claimed they were speaking against “white power” in some form. Mde wrote a response that referred to the “white internet”, to which Ferial Haffajee responded.

More was to come. Zelda le Grange, Nelson Mandela’s former personal assistant, tweeted over the weekend:

And then:

Things took off from there.

In the middle of all of this came another dispute about our current historiography of FW de Klerk, after the City of Cape Town said it wanted to name part of the N1 highway that runs through the city after him.

To throw all of these incidents together would make it appear that we are, once again, on the verge of some kind of massive dispute over race, and what the ANC has always called ‘The National Question’. For many white people the question is slightly starker: are they, and their children, welcome in South Africa or not? Are they a part of society, or are they not? Are they just tolerated, or do the other groups (for which you can read, crudely, “black people”) really want them here?

As it has been many times before, white South African fears are overblown. This series of discussions about race will end soon, as all the others have. And the reason for that is simply that our attention spans are too short, and some other political scandal will come along that will start to unify people more along class lines than on racial lines. (Don’t forget, Julius Malema is due to square up against President Jacob Zuma fairly soon.)

It is also important to remember that for various structural reasons, it is not in the interests of any of the main political parties to truly campaign along racial lines. While a very crude analysis may claim that for President Jacob Zuma to use race as a campaign tool would gain the ANC votes, in fact it would be a vote-loser. It’s worth repeating: the ANC either stands for everyone, or it stands for no-one. If it decided to reverse fifty years of history and become “black-only” or “non-white” in some way, it would run the risk of becoming a party of only one language group pretty quickly. The hallmark of the party has always been its broad church appeal, and so it needs to have members of all groups, otherwise it cannot claim to govern for the benefit of everyone.

Should it decide to exclude one group for any reason now, calls would soon grow within the party for another group to be excluded. And thus it could end up representing just one group, with the end result that it would lose power, because the other groups would obviously mobilise their own political formations and would not need the ANC anymore.

To make things even more complicated, the definitions of “white” and “black” in political speak are also changing. For example, there are economists who work at banks in this country who happen to be racially “black” but are fairly conservative. There are economists who happen to be racially “white” but work for trade unions. Jeremy Cronin is politically “black”, but it could be argued that he is “politically blacker” than, say, Mmusi Maimane. Of course, it could also be argued the other way, and there are possibly even strong grounds to say that all of these definitions don’t hold anyway. The point is, what these people think and stand for is more important than their race.

All of that said, it could be claimed that the ANC has started to move more towards the Zulu-speaking groups, and to Kwa-Zulu/Natal in general, than it has in the past. Perhaps. But the same claim might well have been made about Thabo Mbeki and the Eastern Cape ten years ago. And Zuma himself has balanced his Cabinet according to geography, and language as well, entirely because he knows that the ANC has to govern for everyone. And that it must be explicit about this.

One of the dynamics that has shifted when it comes to debates around race in this country is that many of them happen on Twitter. Just last week, in fact, the SA Human Rights Commission publicly fretted that it was receiving more complaints about racism on social networks generally than at any time before. This is happening for several reasons.

Firstly, everyone on Twitter is equal (not really, in that some have more followers than others, but then again followers don’t necessarily translate into influence). Secondly, the medium completely nullifies our Apartheid spatial geography. In other words, anyone can see what you say, and respond. There’s an old saying about the US that is equally true to us: our country is more divided on Sundays than any other. People go to church and socialise with family and close friends in their local communities, which are often less integrated than our workplaces. But on Twitter, none of that matters, which means things you might say only around the fire, are then said on Twitter, and thus evoke a response from the group you said them about.

However, Twitter’s big failing is that it is very easy to misread tone. Dr Nomalanga Mkhize, the Rhodes academic, can be seen by some as quite fiery, or even angry, on Twitter. On the phone, where tone can be heard, it’s a completely different picture. The words are the same, but the tone is not angry, it’s friendly and welcoming. Discussions that take place only in the thumbed word can miss a huge range of meaning. Particularly when we look at how different languages have different idioms and phrases, and of course irony and jokes.

This might mean that arguments come across as angrier than they actually are.

It is also true, that, as many others have pointed out, white people, and what could probably call “white culture” still dominate much of the country. It’s about the attitudes of the predominantly middle-class media, the confidence many white people might feel when speaking to a black police officer that black people speaking to the same officer might not feel. It’s also, as these things so often are, about money. The easiest way to earn enough money to live in the middle-class in this country is still to be born white; that hasn’t changed in twenty years, and it’s probably not going to change for some time.

ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe once explained a point made during an ANC meeting by Joel Netshitenze. Netshitenze’s point was that the ANC should look to change society in ways that could not be reversed were it ever to lose power. An example he suggested was that any white person shown to be racist (or to use the “K-word”) would not be accepted by society (and thus lose their public job). Something else the ANC has done, for the benefit of all of us, is that it has made South Africans tolerant of diversity. Some more than others perhaps, but anyone saying in public that they “hate black/white/coloured/Indian” people would immediately lose their jobs/votes/standing in society.

That is not going to change so easily, and especially is not going to change just because of a random series of small incidents that refers to the race of one group of people. People of South Africa are much better than that. DM


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