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23 October 2017 08:14 (South Africa)
Opinionista Oscar van Heerden

Scrutinising our National Question – It’s okay to say ‘I am black’

  • Oscar van Heerden
    Oscar-van-Heerden.jpg
    Oscar van Heerden

    Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Mothlante Foundation

The argument that coloured people are not being afforded opportunities in broader society smacks of the same crap young white men say about affirmative action and how their livelihoods and opportunities are stolen from them, when in fact statistically it is shown that the complete opposite is true.

Our politics are in an appalling state nationally, we disagree on everything. These are not civil disagreements; each side has no respect for the other. We are no longer partners in self-government; our politics is rather a form of war. – R Dworkin

The pyrrhic victory by the ANC will be spun by some as an act of nation-saving, while others will view it as a deep betrayal of either our constitutional democracy or our national democratic revolution (NDR). As some clamour to seize their moment in the limelight, to have their “storming of the Bastille” – emboldened by their common war cry of “lynch the corrupt father of Duduzane”, I am left wondering what is there – if anything – that we still have in common?

What constitutes our nation state at this current juncture?

Writing in 1913 on “Marxism and the national question”, Stalin defines the characteristic features of a nation as: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”

Our South African nation-state fails on pretty much every feature of nationhood (except history and constitution): We don’t have a common language, ownership of our land remains contested, our economic life is so unequal as to be defined distinctly, and our psychological make-up seemingly similarly irreconcilable.

Could it be that our common need for social justice and a more equal society, one where theft of any form is not tolerated, could be the glue that binds us? For this to be the case, we would need to invest as much vigour and energy that’s expended on toppling a president at redress and addressing one of our major historic scourges: racism.

While the big stage of Parliament was powerfully lit by the no-confidence furore, we had a number of notable side-show cameos taking place: The coloured community rejecting their black African principals, the KFC attack, and the public assault on women by one of our so-called “leaders”.

We as a country have avoided tackling the real ugly beast (or perhaps the real “elephant”, since this seems to be the popular parlance among the opposition) in the room since 1994: racism and sexism. I focus here just on the former. Not holding a firm stand on the principle of non-racialism is a further indication of how low the moral and ethical standing of the ANC leadership has fallen in recent years. The consistent marginalisation of minority groups in recent years within the ANC and the resultant Africanisation of the ruling party serves as a microcosm of our broader society.

I contend that it is the current ANC’s inability to manage our national question which places South Africa at the gravest risk.

But let’s first backtrack a little. What is “the national question”? The 1997 ANC document titled Nation Building: The national question in South Africa outlines the contradictory consequences of colonial conquest in South Africa. On the one hand, colonialism brought together different communities into a one nation-state. On the other hand, the colonisers deliberately prevented the unity of the colonised communities into one nation. The paper explains that “the national question plays itself out in ways that are specific to the concrete conditions in various parts of the world. Nevertheless, it is fundamentally a continuous search for equality by various communities which have historically merged into a single nation-state, or the struggle for self-determination and even secession by communities within such states.”

The paper goes on to outline 10 theses which should be taken into account in the South African context:

  • Colonialism of a special type’ which means that the national character of the NDR necessitates the resolution of antagonistic contradictions between the oppressed majority and their oppressors, as well as the resolution of national grievances arising from colonial relations. (This remains an ongoing struggle to this day.)
  • National oppression and its legacy are linked closely to class exploitation and so can only be successfully addressed in the context of socio-economic transformation. (Hence the populist politics of attacking White Monopoly Capital.)
  • A nation is not equivalent to a classless society. The NDR requires that all classes and strata – both black and white – act in a way that promotes South Africa’s true interests.
  • Apartheid was successful in crippling working class unity. Reference is made to the Indian and coloured questions, as expressions of fear among the working class.
  • The national question is also a super structural phenomenon at the level of consciousness, “feelings” and perceptions. Where it is noted that the feeling of pride in being South African cannot be sustained without socio-economic transformation.
  • Individuals will have multiple identities but the main purpose of the NDR is not to promote fractured identities but to encourage the emergence of a common South African identity.
  • The main content of the NDR is the liberation of black people in general and Africans in particular.
  • The main content of the NDR should find expression in the leadership structures of the ANC, and indeed the country as a whole (commonly referred to “African Leadership’ but requiring that we do “ethnic, racial, language, gender and class arithmetic” in composing leadership structures.)
  • The national question can never be fully resolved. We must retain a healthy equilibrium between centrifugal (disintegrative) and centripetal (integrative) tendencies.

The Struggle itself was an important and conscious act of nation-building.

In 1989/90, some of the Rivonia trialists had just been released and there was a mood of jubilation in the air because things were going to change for the better.

Up until this stage in our anti-apartheid Struggle, the revolution was on track, the UDF was mobilising all motive forces and serious gains could be attributed to all these efforts. Then came “African Leadership”, a concept that was introduced by some of our comrades from the Gugulethu and Langa townships. We immediately attempted to grapple with this concept and though most of us in the student and youth movement did not yet know this concept, we nevertheless engaged on it.

It soon became an acrimonious matter between the black African and black coloured comrades.

In short, the argument from our black African comrades was that though the entire black population is subjugated under apartheid, they, the black Africans, were no doubt the most oppressed and exploited among the blacks in general, therefore they must occupy the most senior leadership positions within society and by extension within our mass democratic movement, in the battle against such an oppressive system.

Now ordinarily this is all good and well in a province where the black Africans are in the majority but in those provinces where they are not, most notably the Western and Northern Cape provinces, this argument runs into some difficulty, as you can imagine. And so, the coloured comrades objected to this interpretation of “African Leadership”. They felt that they were more than capable of leading the revolution in these parts of the country even if, indeed, the most oppressed and exploited remained the African black man.

The debates became so fierce it almost resulted in physical blows at a workshop at the then “Dora Valk” venue just outside Muizenberg in 1989. The UDF leadership was called in but offered little help with regards to a correct interpretation of this concept. We furthermore invited the recently released and now departed (may his soul rest in peace) Comrade Ahmed Kathrada to please shed some light on this concept. But alas, he had not heard of the concept and concluded that it must have come into effect after 1964 because he did not recall ever engaging on it before going to prison. The young lions of the Western Cape were no closer to finding a lasting solution to this political impasse.

And thus, I contend, it was the beginning of the end of the Western Cape for the ANC. The province never recovered from this division. Each side was more convinced of their argument and position and inevitably we lost that province to the opposition and quite frankly could never recover from it. I fear this is the road that comrades from the Northern Cape are embarking upon.

Let’s just be clear, they too will end up losing the province to opposition parties sooner rather than later.

I guess my appeal to comrades is not to allow slate politics to blind us to a point where we take decisions based on principles we never espoused: African leadership does not mean we abandon doing “ethnic, racial, language, gender and class arithmetic” in composing leadership structures. Tribalism, unilingualism, corruption and self-enrichment cannot be tolerated.

Now, having called out the current racist state of affairs in the ANC, I want to state categorically that the behaviour of the coloured communities in question is simply racist. I mean, where do we draw the line?

I’m not going to fly because it’s a black African captain. If the train, bus or Uber driver is black African, I am not getting on it. Oh wait, the country is being run by a black African!

What do coloureds think is meant by “Unity in Diversity”?

The argument that coloured people are not being afforded opportunities in broader society smacks of the same crap young white men say about affirmative action and how their livelihoods and opportunities are stolen from them, when in fact statistically it is shown that the complete opposite is true. White men remain the most employed and indeed occupy the most middle management position in most companies on the JSE. It is mere fallacy that they don’t get opportunities because of affirmative action.

In another article of mine in The Thinker, I write that when considering the racism so prevalent in South African society and wanting to have a correct understanding of the phenomenon, it is important that one looks at all three aspects of racism: Individual, Institutional and Structural Racism.

As a so-called coloured, in Mzansi, I have particular lived experiences. In the end, my cultural experience are not white, it’s not an experience of the haves but of the have-nots, my experiences are informed by poverty, inequality and marginalisation, in other words, a black lived experience by all accounts.

Now, as coloured people you may want to romanticise your lived experiences and talk about being accommodated in a tricameral parliamentary system, an experience where your grandparents had a smallholding in a far-flung rural area and where a little more money was spent on you as opposed to a black African child, but in the end, we must call it for what it was. A divide and rule tactic by the white oppressors, simply to give you the appearance that you are better, and that you are more loved and held in high regard.

How sad, that some of you actually fell for this.

Racism has no place in our new democracy. We have fought too long and too hard to rid ourselves of it, to regain our dignity and pride as equal citizens.

In the end, as I said at the beginning, it’s okay to say, “I am black and proud of it”. DM

  • Oscar van Heerden
    Oscar-van-Heerden.jpg
    Oscar van Heerden

    Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Mothlante Foundation

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