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The ‘Event’ of Racism

Defend Truth


The ‘Event’ of Racism

Joel Modiri teaches jurisprudence at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal (and ideological) capacity.

The now entrenched South African habit of responding to racism as a set of events that flare up in the media, elicit public outrage and sympathy and then die out a few days later is unproductive on many fronts.

The reduction of political life to a string of mostly banal events suggests a media and public discourse overtaken by a “tabloid”, scandal-chasing sensibility rather than a commitment to informative and critical analysis. But closer to the point, the treatment of racism as just another news item fails to see how individual acts of racism are symptomatic of a larger historical and structural problem. The two raggedy white males who taunted and terrorised Victor Mlotshwa and forced him into a coffin that they threatened to set on fire were acting in the name and on behalf of all white people. In their acts of racist violence, they reassert whiteness as a privileged social identity and reinforce the never-ending social misery of Blacks.

In truth, the attention paid to what is now dubbed “#CoffinAssault”, and to the events at Girls High, and the recent Constitutional Court case in which a white employee referred to his black supervisor as a k****, is a distraction. It prevents us from maintaining a permanent grasp of the problem of anti-black racism as something ubiquitous and prevalent across the entire social, cultural and psychic fabric of South Africa and not merely as a set of isolated incidents and outbursts.

What should be of greater concern to us is not the open vulgarity of these acts, but the social and economic system that organises them. What socio-economic arrangements make it possible for Mlotshwa to be viewed as a “trespasser” on a white-owned farm? What cultural order urges Black families to valorise model-C education? Why is that Blacks, no matter their level of education or seniority in the workplace, are still called k***** and monkeys? These questions can only be answered by giving “racism” its proper and truer name: white supremacy.

Many scholars have argued for a shift from speaking of “racism” to “white supremacy” on the basis that the former term is too slippery, too promiscuous, too emotive and too malleable to describe the racial order of things in a society. The most crucial value of the term “white supremacy” is that it moves away from a definition of racism centred on actions, behaviours, words and feelings and also doesn’t reduce racism to legally sanctioned racial discrimination (such as in the form of apartheid).

Rather, since relations of power and domination can survive the dismantling of their overt legal supports, white supremacy must be understood more broadly as a political, economic and cultural system in which: (1) whites overwhelmingly control and have access to social power and material resources; (2) conscious and unconscious notions of white superiority (“whites are better than the rest”) and white entitlement (“whites deserve better than the rest”) are widespread, held mostly by whites but also by Blacks and (3) relations and images of white dominance and Black subordination are re-enacted daily across a wide array of institutions, spaces, platforms, media and social settings – both private and public, inter-subjective and structural. A society will therefore only cease to be white supremacist once the material and symbolic conditions created by centuries of white colonial domination are eradicated.

Just a cursory survey of the social landscape reveals that such eradication has not yet happened:

  • English language and European culture forms the primary mode of being and communicating in mainstream society;
  • Entry into upper middle-class life for Blacks not only involves incurring massive debt but also leaves many psychologically traumatised by the pressure to assimilate to white social culture;
  • Manual, unskilled/servile and exploited labour continues to be occupied almost exclusively by Blacks who guard cars they do not own, clean homes they do not live in, take care of children who are not theirs, drive people to places they do not live in and serve people in places where they themselves cannot afford to be serviced;
  • Spatial segregation continues to persist with overcrowded townships and rural villages being reserved for Blacks who continue to experience massive violence, squalor, poor social mobility, pollution, exposure to drug and alcohol abuse and other deprivations, pathologies and violations.

That South Africa is a country in which whites are at the top of the social pyramid and Blacks at the bottom is an incontrovertible statistical reality. The more difficult issue to figure out is how this is possible, normal and tolerated in a country on the African continent where Blacks make up over 80% of the population and whites, less than 10%.

Here is a country that claims to be a “liberated” “miracle nation” with the “best Constitution in the world”, revered the world over for avoiding a bloody civil war and creating what is viewed as the most successful Westernised liberal democracy in Africa.  “Post-”apartheid South Africa, the poster-child of freedom and human rights.

And yet Blacks of all ages suffer endless humiliation, ridicule and violence at the hands of white South Africans. Indeed, Black South Africans may be unique in the belief that we are free and liberated from subjugation even while we remain economically and culturally powerless. The tabloid approach to racism precisely prevents us from linking these everyday episodes of racism to the fundamental structural reality in South Africa: the fact that South Africa remains a settler-created and settler-controlled country organised by the imperatives of white supremacy.

Whatever legal and political transformations occurred in the early 1990s did not alter this fundamental fact. How deeply entrenched is white dominance that neither Blacks’ overwhelming demographic majority status nor the political power we are said to wield has been unable to even partially dismantle white power. And surely the complicity of the “ruling” African National Congress in this state of affairs should alarm us all.

As Panashe Chigumadzi pointed out a while ago in her reminder that the “hair issue is the land issue”, recent events of racism in schools, in crèches, on social media, in universities, in the corporate sector, in popular culture and in the media return us again and again to the same problem, namely, the unresolved historical injustice of conquest that begins in 1652 with the European colonial invasion that resulted in land dispossession, cultural decimation and the loss of territorial sovereignty by African people. Without land, a sense of culture and sovereignty, a people cannot be self-determining and self-defining, thus giving rise to the anomalous situation of an indigenous African majority being subject to the standards and norms of a white settler minority. This colonial conquest was foundational to the making of the place we call South Africa and is the reason Blacks are “foreigners in the country of their birth” as Steve Biko once said. White supremacy is thus embedded at the very heart of this nameless place.

On this view, the “racism” of whites lies not in their actions or mindsets, or even in their complicity and silence but in their inherited enjoyment of the benefits of white supremacy – benefits that cannot be separated from the mundane suffering of Blacks.  Recent racial events are simply a reiteration of this historical fact. The practice of waiting for an “event” of racism merely delays us from coming to terms with the deeper problem of a still unreconciled and unsettled society. And after 22 years of manufactured reconciliation and fictional equality, it should be obvious that the racial conflicts in South Africa will not go away until our colonial history is fully addressed by means of a programme of substantive historical redress and corrective justice.

Aside from the shared existential realities we face, an important difference between Black South Africans and Black Americans (who make up less than 13% of the US population) is that it is futile in our case to constantly hold marches and protests against racism. Whereas African-Americans must articulate their struggles within a white majority public space, Black South Africans need only to actualise their collective majority power to realise their aspirations for justice, freedom and dignity. To chant slogans like #RacismMustFall (and it surely must) or to even demand that whites join such protests is to concede to our forced “minoritisation” and to still depend on white civil society to legitimise black political claims.

The wisdom of Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko among others was in their insight that a truly non-racial democratic and egalitarian society could only be brought about by Blacks themselves and on their terms – not through a badly drafted Hate Crimes Bill but through continued conscientisation, mobilisation and struggle. The inverse of this insight is more damning however: that white supremacy and racial inequality can only continue in this way with the consent of Blacks. DM


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