Opinionista Jeff Rudin 6 May 2015

Rhodes, race and xenophobia

Xenophobia is now a dangerous part of our present. Yet the connection between the assault on Rhodes and the assault on non-national blacks has seemingly not been recognised.

What will be left when the toppling is done? asks Richard Poplak in a recent Daily Maverick article sparked by the campaign to remove the statue of Rhodes at Cape Town University. Answering his own question, he notes:

What made the assault against [Rhodes] so dangerous was precisely the fact that it was not an attack on history. It was an assault on the present.

Xenophobia is now a dangerous part of our present. Rhodes, the symbol of white supremacy, has been supplanted by a complex form of black supremacy/fragility within a race-derived normalisation that sees everyone as identical members of groups based entirely on features over which no one has any control, such as the accidents of home language or national origin. Yet the connection between the assault on Rhodes and the assault on non-national blacks has seemingly not been recognised.

Vested economic interests, strike-breaking, unemployment, poverty, inequality, a standardisation of violence and criminality all figure in the many attempts to understand the current xenophobic outbursts. All these factors are undoubtedly involved but so, too, are racialized perceptions that, surprisingly, remain in the xenophobic shadows. By contrast, a bright beam is shone on white privilege symbolised by Rhodes’ statue.

Blindness to the centrality of racial thinking begs many questions. These questions need to be asked if we are to learn from the anger displayed both by those who attack symbols of white supremacy and those who attack others deemed to be foreigners, darkish in pigmentation and from elsewhere in Africa.

I write this soon after the 21st anniversary commemorations of South Africa’s first non-racial election based on a universal franchise. Non-racialism, lest it be forgotten, is one of the ‘Founding Provisions’ of our national Constitution.

Race classification was the bureaucratic backbone of Apartheid. This is why three years before the first democratic election of 1994, the then still Apartheid government, bowing to huge pressure from the ANC, repealed the hated Population Regulation Act, the Act which assigned an Apartheid-manufactured ‘race’ to every person. Yet, 24 years later, those same manufactured ‘races’ remain intact. More significantly, each and every of the ‘Born-frees’ are still officially classified as African, Coloured, Indian or White. There is no escape from this classification despite it having no constitutional or statutory basis or even a legal definition, unlike their Apartheid equivalents.

How did this happen? A not unrelated question concerns equality, the achievement of which is the first of the Constitution’s Founding Provisions. Yet, inequality has persisted to a point where South Africa now ranks amongst the world’s worst.

It is, to be sure, the very starkness of this inequality that lies behind the otherwise strange complaint against ‘white supremacy’ 21 years after the black majority elected a (mainly) black government enjoying persistently huge Parliamentary majorities. Apartheid was deliberately designed to perpetuate white supremacy. The Population Regulation Act stipulated who was ‘white’. Other laws guaranteed that only whites could vote. Still others ensured that the mineral wealth of the country was in white SA. Bantu Education unashamedly affirmed its intention of reproducing black inequality. Job reservation preserved white privilege via the ‘civilised labour policy’ guarantee of a proper living wage to workers classified white.

All the above Apartheid inequalities have long been swept aside. It is the class structure of new South Africa that has remained untouched. Left intact are all class-based inequalities, including work opportunities, pay, education, health, housing, transport and leisure. Yet these standard – and universal – reproductions of class remain immovably colour coded. They aren’t even seen as vestiges of a ‘white’ past; instead they are elevated to nothing less than ‘white supremacy’.

If, as I’m arguing, race, as the determinator of economic wealth/poverty, is an anachronism from our colonial/Apartheid past, how are we to explain the persisting power of colour, even allowing deep-seated psychological hurts, other internalisations and racial self-identities?

Colour-camouflaged class indeed provides the first part of this complex question. For those very many ANC leaders who, in the evocative words of one of them, hadn’t struggled against Apartheid to be poor, it makes perfect sense to measure ‘transformation’ in terms of Apartheid’s four ‘races’. Equality, for them, means a mechanistic reflection of the proportion of South Africa’s total population of each of the four ‘races’ across all economic sectors and occupation groups. In these terms, equality has not been achieved until, for instance, Africans, who, without the benefit of the Population Registration Act, are nonetheless said to constitute 79% of the total population, own or otherwise benefit from 79% of South Africa’s wealth.

This race-based understanding of equality, however, rests on the imperative of a class-based denial: the self-esteem of the black beneficiaries of this ‘transformation’ requires them to ignore that their prosperity is within an economy automatically producing and reproducing inequality regardless of any colour coding or ‘race’ classification. A recent example of this thinking is the complaint aired on national TV, by someone concerned about what she saw as ‘white supremacy’. For her, it was outrageous for two white men to own the same as half of SA’s total population. Her expressed concern about the poor, however, was lost in her anger that the two owners of the obscene wealth were ‘white’; the implication being that it would have been OK if they were black.

This colour-coded class-infused definition of equality, which entirely ignores the black majority, is enshrined in the Employment Equity Act (EEA) of 1998. This Act compels the promotion of black beneficiaries, while leaving untouched the class system that creates poverty & inequality and guarantees that the losers will always be black.

Both the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), however, were heavily represented by senior people in Parliament during the passage of the EEA. Moreover, Cosatu was actively and directly involved with the ANC’s caucus that formed the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Portfolio Committee responsible for Parliament’s main work on the Bill. One needs to ask about their position on the Bill seeing that both the SACP & Cosatu explicitly represent the class/es permanently disadvantaged by the capitalist inequality that the EEA would reproduce. The answer is singular: They failed to challenge the Bill. (I was the ANC’s Parliamentary Labour Researcher at the time and witnessed what happened.)

This failure by the two organisations was not any conscious betrayal of the working class. They accepted the EEA because it was consistent with their understanding of the post-Apartheid period. According to the prescriptions of the theory of the two-stage National Democratic Revolution (NDR) they both enthusiastically endorsed (and still do), the first stage is the period of ‘bourgeois democracy’ that would follow the defeat of Apartheid. The growth of a ‘black bourgeoisie’ would flourish during this period in which South Africa had its first experience of bourgeois normality. The inevitable class contradictions that would emerge would then facilitate the movement to socialism – the second stage. (The ANC, which also subscribes to the NDR, along with its rich members created during the first stage, are supposed to honour the primacy of working class interests on which the NDR is based and thus be part of the 2nd stage movement to socialism!)

Notwithstanding the dominance of the NDR thinking, the SACP & Cosatu did influence the shape of the EEA in two ways. First,

  • They succeeded in opposing the strong move for specifying the Apartheid races, together with a hierarchy of disadvantage according to Africa, Indian and Coloured

  • They successful opposed indigenous languages being a basis for promotion under the Act

  • They resisted the division of women into white and black.

Second, once it had been pointed out that the ‘Apartheid wage gap’ that had been so important during the anti-Apartheid struggle had been entirely ignored in the first version of the Bill, Cosatu picked this up and made it a major point of principle. Cosatu insisted that it would not support the Bill unless it addressed the pay differential between bosses and workers. Having threatened to withdraw the entire Bill if Cosatu stood firm, a compromise was finally reached. Cosatu accepted the inclusion of what is now Section 27 of the Act. Most tellingly, the Government, without any public explanation, has been allowed to ignore this fiercely fought-over Section, which is why it remains entirely unknown to most people. Section 27 would not have stopped inequality but it would have prevented South Africa from becoming one of the world’s most unequal societies.

Today’s attacks by blacks on both ‘White’ statues and blacks deemed to be foreigners (recall the Constitution & the Freedom Charter: ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it’) have many connections with the acceptance by Cosatu and the SACP of the EEA.

The ‘equity’ of the EEA is a capitalist equity designed to make blacks demographically proportionate beneficiaries of capitalist wealth while the capitalist economy continues to produce poverty, inequality and unemployment for the rest of the black population – the large majority. This colour-coding of access to an economic advancement that can never be achieved other than by an elite sustains (racialised) group thinking; thereby becoming a fertile xenophobic seed.

With the EEA seen as giving expression to Stage 1 of the NDR, both Cosatu and the SACP failed to object to the racial employment forms created in the name of the EEA. Although the EEA recognised only ‘black’ employees in the clearest possible manner, the statistics required by the government (and then everyone) ignored the EEA and, instead, illegally divided ‘black’ into the three component ‘races’ of Apartheid. The Population Registration Act repealed by the Apartheid government in 1991 was thus effectively re-introduced by the ANC government in 1998. Affirmative Action and BEE merely reinforce this institutionalisation of Apartheid’s obsession with racialised thinking about everything and everyone. In this way, those born free in a supposedly non-racial South Africa have unavoidably been socialised into the divisive ‘racial’ thinking of resurrected Apartheid.

One can only speculate what would have happened if the SACP and/or Cosatu had rejected the EEA. One can only speculate what might have happened if either organisation had pointed out that employment statistics supposedly required by the EEA were in fact directly contrary to the EEA. Cosatu’s failure in both these instances is especially noteworthy. Not only did Cosatu exercise economic power that could not be ignored but its acceptance of employment statistics based on African, Indian or Coloured was a colossal reversal of its practice during Apartheid. Apartheid made the provision of such racial statistics a statutory obligation on all employers. Nonetheless, Cosatu and its affiliates refused to comply. For them, there was only one working class and they were not going to participate in the Apartheid regime’s attempts to divide workers on the basis of what they dismissed as manufactured ‘races’.

The accepted unity of the working class, both at home and internationally, would not necessarily have prevented xenophobia but it most certainly would have curtailed its cancerous spread.

So much for the background to the present. What of the future? Cosatu has now given way to the contradictions it, as an Alliance member, helped create and sustain via what has been called the ‘exaggerated conservatism’ of the ANC’s economic policies. Numsa, formerly Cosatu’s largest affiliate, has been expelled and is committed to forming both a United Front with service delivery protesting communities and a workers’ party explicitly committed to socialism and in competition with both the ANC and the SACP.

One can but hope that these new formations will learn from the mistakes of the previous 21 years. Despite the limits of what we can do as individuals, the lesson shouting to each of us is: De-naturalise race; be aware of the extent to which we unthinkingly and gratuitously colour-code things and people. There is so much to be undone in order for us to go back to 1994 and its promise of a new beginning. The angers of the present are too explosive to be ignored. DM


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