Opinionista Francois Jurgens 14 October 2015

Racism: Careless accusations are dangerous

University of Cape Town professor David Benatar has been accused of racism by fellow professor and colleague Xolela Mangcu. The manner in which the accusation has been made is morally problematic, however, due to the harmful consequences unfounded accusations of racism can have on the welfare of our public figures and our public discourse.

In June this year, David Benatar, professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town (UCT), published an article in the Cape Times, Those who seek changes must show they are desirable, in which he argued that we need to be more precise about the meaning of the terms ‘transformation’ and ‘decolonisation’ and to articulate more clearly what changes we wanted to see in our universities and why. In making this argument, that change is only valuable if the changes themselves are valuable, Benatar notes that just because something is African does not make it valuable. Because this claim could be misinterpreted, he expressly notes that he is not saying that Africa has nothing valuable to offer, but only that its being African does not in and of itself speak to its value.

In his response to this article, professor of sociology at UCT Xolela Mangcu accuses Benatar of racism in a seemingly careless manner in an article in the Cape Times, Racially offensive diatribe has no place.

Mangcu makes six criticisms of Benatar’s argument, but the only one that might suggest that Benatar is a racist is based on an obvious mischaracterisation of his argument. Mangcu claims Benatar is arguing that “Africa must prove it has something to add to the world”. This implies that Benatar thinks, in general, that Africa has nothing valuable to add to the world, and that if it does, it needs to prove it. In most cases, such a view could be described as racist for it would probably be based on a belief in the inferiority of African people or African culture. In fact, however, Benatar is making the quite different claim that changes to the curriculum should be based on the individual merit of the change, rather than on the geographical origins of the material. The text of Benatar’s piece militates strongly in favour of this alternative, non-racist interpretation, and it seems careless of Mangcu to attach such a destructive label to Benatar in these circumstances. (Benatar then wrote a response to Mangcu in the Cape Times.)

This might seem like a trivial matter, but it is not. Careless accusations of racism are morally wrong because they have a stifling effect on public discourse, as commentators now have to worry whether they will simply be dismissed as racist, and continued public vilification can, obviously, harm the wellbeing of the target of the attacks.

This is not the first time that a South African academic has been subjected to accusations of racism when his character and his commitment to public service demanded something else altogether. In the 1990s, Etienne Mureinik, a legal scholar who made significant contributions to the new constitutional order, was denounced as a racist for speaking out in favour of certain principles, such as the need for people in positions of power to be suitably qualified. Mureinik was one of 13 academics at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), who called William Makgoba’s fitness for the office of deputy vice-chancellor into question, for example, and in a piece in the Mail & Guardian, Mureinik lamented the fact that “a white person who dares question a black person’s credentials will automatically be called a ‘racist’, a label which makes one a moral criminal, and consigns one to the non-world of those who can safely be ignored”. (See, also, Paul Trewhela’s obituary of Mureinik in the Independent). Friends of Mureinik, without claiming that the public attacks were the sole cause of his eventual suicide, noted, nevertheless, the toll that the attacks had had on him. June Sinclair, who was deputy vice-chancellor of Wits at the time, stated in a tribute to Mureinik that he was labelled “conservative” and “racist” because he “dared to speak his mind” and said she did not doubt that “the attacks on him and his increasing doubts about the commitment of our new democracy to the tolerance of diverse views and true freedom of expression contributed to his sense of worthlessness about his valiant efforts to save us from recreating the tyranny, discrimination and nepotism that characterised our past”.

The accusation of racism against Benatar strikes me as being similarly stifling and unfounded. Race and racism are obviously complex matters and I know that a white person should be cautious when claiming that particular accusations of racism are warranted or unwarranted. But the need to be mindful of one’s own privileges and to realise that one can insult others or perpetuate social inequalities without meaning to do not entail that there can be no public discussion on when attributions of racism are warranted or not. It is particularly important during moments like this, when intense scrutiny is being placed on transformation, that we are careful to distinguish between people who truly are racists and people who are not, and to be mindful of the cost of unjust accusations of racism. DM

Francois Jurgens is a PhD student in the department of private law at UCT.