Opinionista Richard Raber 19 March 2018

Imagined Displacement vs Real Displacement

The logic of white supremacy is in full view in Australia as failures to recognise or take reparative action towards founding genocide persists, the human rights of Manus Island detainees have been denied, while demands are made to resettle those fleeing a mythical white genocide.

The identification with white genocide by settler communities is correctly framed by Michael Bueckert as less about the context in South Africa and more about domestic anxieties. As countries in the Global North struggle to craft genuinely inclusive societies amid continued migration from the Global South, these anxieties mirror sentiments from white South Africa. Privately, an observer chalked up apartheid amnesia, nostalgia and the like as being rooted in a concern around instability, and the recognition that the future of South Africa both will and ought to be black.

Though indefensible, such anxieties and nostalgia reflect a lack of imagination, leadership, and most importantly empathy. Similarly, European, Australian and North American xenophobic reactions reflect a fear of de-centring, of no longer occupying a core or exceptional position. Lacking popular leadership with the capacity to tap into the visceral nature of these fears, we find ourselves with large segments of our societies accepting and acting upon demonstrably false truths; white genocide is mythical (and those who peddle it are reprehensible) though the fear of being shifted to the political, intellectual, moral or representational periphery feels true for its adherents.

Just as indigenous peoples have been conceived of as removable problems, Australia continues to deny the human rights of the denizens of Manus Island while the European Union persists with its outsourcing of migrants; out of sight, out of mind. In this way, as Bueckert correctly highlighted, the ostensible plight of white farmers in South Africa is less about tangible realities and more about conceiving of black and brown people as swarming their land.

Notions of sharing are absent as any step towards diversity is understood as an existential threat. Accordingly, no longer singularly to occupy the centrality of a society is understood as to disappear, to become extinct. In the reactionary mind of the settler, the presence of Manus Island detainees in Australia would hasten the ostensible loss of Australia; a perceived loss in which the white South African farmers are viewed as fleeing from in their homeland.

Partially to blame for this xenophobia is the tacit or implicit acceptance of its premises by centrist leadership. For instance, there has been a swap negotiated between Australia and the United States wherein a select few from Manus Island have been settled in America and Latin American applications have been taken to Australia. By accommodating rather than rejecting local variants of racism, we have allowed xenophobia to continue to function institutionally. A meaningful anti-racist politics demands we fight this bigotry both at home and abroad. Living together must not be rendered technical.

Alternatives towards these politics of fragility require moral and intellectual recognition of the interwoven nature of our fates as poignantly charged by Henning Melber … “[d]ecolonisation (especially when including the mindset) requires engagement by the descendants of those involved on all sides”.

In practice this demands policies reflecting an extensive sense of community and responsibility in the realms of taxation, housing, education, health and labour. Silencing this myth relies upon an acceptance by its proponents that the vast majority of them have more to gain and little to lose in joining the community at-large.

Lethal, Silenced Threats

Amid the hysteria surrounding white genocide, strikingly little attention is provided towards a deeper, more immediate threat to social cohesion, that of political violence; turning our attention to South Africa’s second most populous province, KwaZulu-Natal, a province wracked with a legacy of apartheid political violence between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a Zulu nationalist party.

Through the lens of neoliberal accommodation, this conflict is largely out of sight historically while relegated to the past; there was violence, the transition dealt with this, the problem was solved. Though these structures and their violent underpinnings, particularly that of the IFP, have been ingrained into the New South Africa specifically by legislation such as the Ingonyama Trust Act. Passed days before the historic 1994 election, the Act stipulates that land which previously administrated as the KwaZulu homeland was to be regulated as a Trust led by the Zulu King.

The Act was passed in order to ensure IFP participation in the 1994 elections; it was a result of violent extortion rather than community consultation. Following recent attempts by traditional leadership to encourage residents of Trust land to convert their Permissions to Occupy into long-term leases – effectively transforming land rights into long-term leases – the High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change recommended the disbandment of the Trust.

Knowing no shame, the King has asked all Zulus (including those surviving from social grants) to donate R5. Publically, the king contends that this will support a nonviolent legal route to be taken to protect the trust and the power it reflects, though one must ask, what calibre is a promise from a man previously implicated in xenophobic violence?

Garnering additional concern is that this conflict is arising during a period ripe with conditions for uncontained political violence. During the past few years we have witnessed political assassinations of both partisan and non-partisan nature. Within this context, attention both nationally and internationally ought to be paid to the situation developing in KwaZulu-Natal in order to prevent either of these conflicts from spilling into a much larger violent conflict. As one long-time activist reminded me, the violence of the late apartheid period “began with the [communal] taxis.”

Complicity: White Victims, Black Violence

Suffering at Manus Island is muted, founding genocides invisible and political violence normalised while a mythical white genocide persists to take to the forefront of much international dialogue. The anxieties of imagined displacement take precedence over real displacement. White supremacy dictates that we privilege our attention and energy towards a fictitious genocide while the conditions for a rise in armed conflict are ignored.

The disparity in attention paid to these two issues reflects competing valuations of life; the death of a white farmer is a tragedy while violence against black communities is an impersonalised trend. Though reactionaries overtly recognise themselves in the murdered farmer and not in the victims of political violence, we too are culpable. Just as centrists have appeased racist anxieties in order to facilitate settlement arrangements, we have appeased racist elements by failing to elevate genuine risks to black life.

As both consumers and producers of media, we are complicit in continuing to allow whiteness to dominate our discourse and, perhaps, imaginations. If we are to find ways to live together rather than simply tolerate each other, our focus ought to shift towards a deeper analysis of the challenges underpinning our direct communities and those elsewhere. Part of this requires a sidelining and mitigation of the frivolous, with a refined focus in developing policies and societies which foster cohesion and togetherness.

Too often we find solace in the accessibility and ease of the immediately recognisable or the familiar; we lose track of the factual as the ties that fundamentally bind us together are often muddled or weakened.

Indeed, we find ourselves within a crisis of empathy and imagination. DM

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