At the dusk of the apartheid regime in 1993, laid the assassinated body of Chris Hani, killed by right wingers who sought to collapse the country into a civil war. The great communist and MK Chief of Staff was second in popularity only to Nelson Mandela.
Liberation forces saw Hani’s death as a death caused by the system. In a TV statement on Hani’s funeral, Mandela unequivocally put the blame on the apartheid system.
“Chris Hani’s murder was no aberration,” said Mandela. “When Chris Hani criticised the theft of weapons from the Air Force Base and said those weapons were not stolen, but were taken to be used in covert operations, he was ridiculed. Guns from those same stolen weapons were used to kill him. This secret web of hit men and covert operations is funded by our taxes. While we remain without homes, without food, without education, almost nine billion rand was spent in the last two years on these secret operations”.
At this point, the path towards violent takeover of power on the part of the liberation movement was open. Hani’s corpse could unite all progressive forces towards a non-negotiable takeover of power, insurrection style. Having characterised the killing of Hani as an act of a system, as opposed to simply being about hate-filled individual right-winger, Mandela could have led a march to Pretoria and told the illegitimate minority racist regime to fall, but they chose a different path.
As a new democratic dispensation rose after 1994 elections, the question of a “murderous system” became even more urgent. Here we witnessed the rise of a discourse of “reconciliation” through forgiveness, fortified in the processes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The immediate philosophical approach to the resolution of the question of racism became “reconciliation and forgiveness”. Confess your racism, show remorse and you will be forgiven. This was supposed to work on the collective psyche of the white community as a whole, demonstrating to them that they had a place in post-apartheid South Africa.
Even though Hani’s murder was resolved in a separate court to that of the TRC, the reality is that all juridical processes inevitably individualise racism. Here, racism becomes about specific incidences of individual whites who performed atrocities, but the systematic manifestation of racism – apartheid – was left aside.
Apartheid is understood as the systematic promotion, production and maintenance of whites as superior and backs as inferior, through amongst other things, murder and the exclusive ownership and control of means of subsistence by whites. In the words of Mandela, it is a system that makes black lives cheap.
The judicial processes focus on individual whites and their acts of racism and as long as they confessed and show remorse, they were forgiven. Therefore, over the years, we got used to confessions and forgiveness with the hope that this will result in reconciliation, but it failed.
In the past few months we have seen a different approach to public manifestations of racism.
People now demand that there should be consequences for those who are found guilty of racism. This is an important shift, signifying that there is “reconciliation exhaustion” and no one finds its techniques of “confession and forgiveness” useful anymore. Indeed, from Sparrow to Cliff, society demanded consequences and loss of privilege, unlike the TRC processes. Today, there is no “forgiveness” talk, but “justice” talks.
However, is this really different and will lead us to a truly new dispensation of dealing with racism? The answer is that it will not. This is because as with the TRC, we are still trapped in individualizing racism. Of course, we ought to call out the racist, put them in their place, but the conditions that produce anti-black racists remain untouched.
From a materialist conception of the problem of racism our law, as it stands, cannot help us arrive at non-racialism. This is because hearings and courts depend on isolating the individual racist from the conditions that produce them as racists with the hope to find justice. But this fails because the problem of racism in South Africa is not “prejudice” – attitudes of individual whites – but the systematic and material conditions which make whites superior than blacks.
If we hope to resolve the problem of anti-black racism we have to transcend the TRC practice which essentially relies on isolating individuals. Otherwise, all we ever come up with are cosmetic changes that will put us back in the same cycle of the last twenty years.
Even if Penny Sparrow was banished or Gareth Cliff stripped of his wealth and position, unless we transform the material and systematic conditions that produced them, we have not resolved the problem. When Karl Marx, in the Enlightenment Brumaire, said “men make history, but not under the conditions of their choosing”, it was precisely to deconstruct bourgeois conceptions of societal change.
Even if you could take all the apartheid generals and leaders into prison for their role in systematic racism, it would lead nowhere. This is because the process of doing this still individualises a structural problem, a structure that made them in the first place believe that they are superior.
The only thing that will shift the balance of forces in relation to anti-black racism in our world today is to directly change the material and systematic conditions suffered by blacks i.e. landlessness, homelessness, poverty, under-education and disease.
This is the only hope in creating a just world where the colour of one’s skin does not determine your social status. DM