The race debate in South Africa is always an explosive and a volatile national preoccupation largely due to the fact that the transfer of power has not been accompanied by similar shifts in the economic and cultural spheres.
South Africa has that paradox of black visibility as far as political power goes but yet there is the sense – certainly at the visceral level – that the majority are absent from the economic and cultural landscape.
The shift in power has also come with the invisibility – today that question revolves around opportunity and meaningful lives within the economy and black presence in other forms of organised life.
Impatience with the slow progress in the transformation, ownership and distribution of wealth have emboldened nationalists to disentangle the post-apartheid accord that has led to the current dispensation.
The problem of the world today, for much of the less important mortals, is the problem of being invisible. Being invisible is to disappear. It is to be absent. Even in a country where you are the majority, your life is overwhelmed by your invisibility.
To be invisible is to live a life of anonymity. To be invisible is to have violent things be done to you in the name of civilisation or race essentialism.
You are a scapegoat for that project called progress or some arcane excuse called the people’s will or an inwardly turned populist nationalism. Since progress is turned into a good thing one should not shout against it but accept it as a condition of historical inevitability.
Small things must be swept under the carpet for larger historical events in life.
Reflections on the problem of invisibility are not new issues and have received various forms of treatment by writers and thinkers concerned with race and colonialism.
The Afro-American writer Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man brings to the fore, through its main character, the many ways in which black experience can be invisible in the totality of whiteness.
Long before Ellison, the writer George Schuyler, in his version of Afro-futurism in Black No More (1931), imagines a sort of race-machine that can convert blacks into whites.
Schuyler’s sci-fiction race machine is an attempt to show up the absurdity of the idea of race and suggest that even when racial divisions disappear, dominance and invisibility reappear like a hydra with many heads. Even from the very quarters that have overthrown the shackles of invisibility.
The problem of invisibility is not only the question of race but also religion, ethnicity, male dominance, class, sexual orientation, and your gender.
The revolutionary and intellectual Frantz Fanon did notice that one of the consequences of invisibility is that the victim often reacts violently to their own production of invisibility. Fanon is often accused of being the prophet of violence but one must blame the French philosopher Sartre for this part of Fanon’s narrow infamy.
Fanon was merely reporting not only on the victim’s propensity for violence but the production of invisibility by the perpetrator and how it produces violence at both ends.
Fanon did not see himself, a mulatto from the island of Martinique, as the only one subjected to the harsh racists’ gaze but he shared something in common with the Arab and others of colour on the African continent.
The problem of the North African was that he was simultaneously Berber, Muslim and African.
The whole point of the racists’ gaze is not just race but that race is the mere convenient arrangement of ordering – around one’s biology – the whole production of invisibility.
Fanon too saw that even when you resolve the problem of colonisation those who are free can cannibalise their own souls and exert tyranny on their own.
His chapter on the national question, in Wretched of the Earth, is replete with the warning that dealing with the perpetrator of oppression is only one part of self-actualisation and transformation. Not turning against yourself is the next.
It is for this reason that utopian pronouncements should be viewed with deep scepticism.
Steve Biko, who knew of Fanon’s work, saw the remedy not in more whiteness or imbibing the white maelstrom by a black adorning a white mask but the revitalisation of blackness through black consciousness.
One can interpret Biko in many ways but it is clear his broader notion of black consciousness was to reject the production of invisibility that apartheid in all its dimensions sought to assert, whether it was through physical or a mental apartheid.
Apartheid’s production of invisibility took the form of rupturing black ideas of the self by the systematic erasure of economic power, cultural identity, altering their historical experience and even more invidiously creating the feeling that being what you are as a negative race is always to walk with the consciousness that you are inferior. That legacy continues to this day. It remains an unresolved chapter of our peculiar history.
Biko’s humanism evolved within a South African context but his message was universal. Our reactions to invisibility should remind us that this problem of a lived experience of invisibility extends beyond the boundaries of race but its menace is to be found in other forms of hate, prejudice and discrimination.
South Africa at the present moment may be at a historical turn – only time will tell, even when Fanon’s name is being invoked in the unfolding of this new spirit of history.
In recent times, the turn to racial nationalism and essentialism has taken a more pronounced, ugly twist in a country always predisposed to racial sensitivities.
Race essentialism is the assertion of a new form of racial dominance in which the national project is assigned to a specific group and in which the presence and influence of other groups are systematically diluted.
Racial essentialism relies on notions and the myths of historical inevitability and even tragedy is played out as a necessary condition of this inevitability.
It has its own moral logic as “small” things must give way to large events.
It is for this reason that the embroiling crisis of the present, following the post-1994 accord, finds itself today being forced – by some quarters – to give way to this new kind of national project and this fast-moving force of the new historical spirit.
One can then be sure that nothing will be left of the existing order and as always, all national chauvinists display the natural propensity towards the production of new forms of invisibility.
Here, history teaches only one thing: history repeats itself and projects of inevitability do not takes us to new paths out of complexity but where complexity itself is reduced to the ashes by the rhetoric of simplicity and this new dawn of racial vulgarity. DM