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Opinionista

Stellenbosch University paper on coloured women symptom of a wider academic malaise

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Clive W Kronenberg is an NRF-Accredited Research Scholar and Lead Co-ordinator of the South-South Educational Collaboration & Knowledge Interchange Initiative

Irrational debates on race and racial identity will continue as long as we ignore the fact that it is not skin colour, but social circumstances wrought by highly unequal economic relations, that ultimately determine an individual’s fate or progress in life.

The recent study by Stellenbosch University scholars on the intellectual abilities of coloured women elicited widespread anger and contestation in academia, eventually leading to their publication being retracted by the journal in question.

One is left pondering, however, how prudent and informed such disputing reactions really are?

What essentially emerges from this unfortunate episode is merely a substantiation of the position dozens of Brazilian social scientists have advanced for several years now.

Because South African scholarship concerning race and racism remains by-and-large a confined, homegrown enterprise, it is only inevitable that the deeper connotations, as well as actual causes of this dismal event, would have been overlooked. As a result, ordinary observers may very well remain wholly confused and disoriented, continuing questioning, for instance, the actual levels of the intellect of South African “coloured women”.

In 2008, dozens of Brazilian sociologists (Daher et al 2008) released some alarming findings, the essence of which can be summarised as follows: “Beliefs in race is the article of faith of racism” (ibid).

The Brazilian position draws attention to some of the most perturbing social consequences of the “different race” conjecture, a singularly important premise, that, to my knowledge, has yet to be subjected to critical scrutiny in local circles.

Towards inaugurating a more inclusive and equal social landscape, in the early years of the new millennium, the Brazilian government – like the South African government, to some degree – sought to pin its hopes on affirmative action policies (Miranda et al 2010). Previously simply designated “Brazilian”, the citizens of that country would be assigned particular racial tags, presumably to accelerate and enhance social equality, quite a familiar tale.

Tens of dozens of Brazilian sociologists, however, have fervidly challenged and questioned such measures. They cautioned about the dangers that would ensue from human classification procedures based on popular conjectures that are, in themselves unscientific, groundless, and therefore flawed. Such measures, they proclaimed, would yield far more devastation than any good:

The fabrication of official races, the selective distribution of privilege according to racial labels, inoculate the venom of racism into society’s veins, with its correlates of rancour and hatred. In Brazil, this would constitute a radical revision of our national identity and the renunciation of … effective citizenship. Racial quotas are the tip of the iceberg and a symbol of what a racially-divided society would mean. By implementing such policies … we are teaching children that they will have different rights.” (Daher et al 2008).

This extract suggests how the very belief in “different races” (despite its “noble” intentions) could effectively trigger the emergence of human discriminatory practices in the first place. The application of the racial tag, they argued, principally lays the basis for the surfacing of “human otherness”, which, quite intuitively, may spawn human “comparison”, “contrast”, and “judgement”. This, in itself, could lead to human attitudes and behavioural patterns that, in the end, could be associated with notions of partiality, intolerance, marginalisation, inferiority, purity, supremacy and more (Daher et al 2008; Miranda et al 2010).

Are any of these discreditable impulses unknown or neoteric to post-apartheid South Africa? More crucially, what does this suggest about recent events at Stellenbosch University?

Notwithstanding economic inequality, which inevitably spawns competition and rivalry, could the impetuous eruptions in bigoted attitudes and behaviour in South Africa be ascribed to the resurrection of racial stratification in the country?

The South African Constitution of 1996 and associated legislation promote the formation of social cohesion and the building of a new, unified nation, founded on the principles of democracy, human dignity and equality. These are venerable national goals, the antithesis of apartheid ambitions premised on minority rule, human differentiation, segregation, repression, and national division.

Key here has been the official preservation of racial categorisation for the purposes of bolstering affirmative action policies, which, in turn, are intended to right the economic wrongs of the past.

The fact that South Africa for some time now has been perceived as the protest capital of the world casts serious doubts on the suitability or appropriateness of “racial selection” to bring about meaningful economic change. Equally, if not more disquieting, perhaps, 25 years into the new democracy it is readily perceptible that our public spheres have not become less, but more and more exclusive and compartmentalised in character and intent, which by no means signifies an evolvement towards social togetherness or national unification.

Official approaches to bring about economic sustainability, as well as national unity, appear to have been catastrophic when we consider both our current economic and national situations. An important consideration that arises here is that both transformative agendas have employed race as the primary instrument to bring about, as well as monitor and evaluate, the country’s conversion from one largely characterised by widespread poverty and imposed divisions to one based on equality, harmony and unity.

A chief reason why South African scholars have persisted in “missing the point”, time and time again, is because of their inclination to employ positivist methods of inquiry, where the critical engagement with history customarily is neglected. A fundamental outcome has been that, in spite of ostensible improvement, our social order has become less sensible and coherent. Since the pivotal role of education should be to interpret and learn from the past to advance towards a more constructive and meaningful future, this is perhaps the most serious indictment that can be made of the constraints and weaknesses posed by the prevailing scholarly tradition.

On the central issue of race, local positivist theorists have argued variously. While it is commonly acknowledged that race does not exist, it is, nonetheless, seen as a social construct, ie, a social/historical actuality. In defending their standpoints such scholars frequently argue that failure to see “race” presupposes not purely a certain colour blindness, but denial or even contestation of racial oppression. A denial of race, therefore, means a denial of marginalised identities, groups and cultures.

Hence, recognition/employment/elevation of “race” contributes to the formation of a new, more equitable and just society.

Needless to say, the positivist position is wholly ambivalent, and steers clear of engaging in established, scientific findings on the subject. Further, to consider the denial of racial categories as a form of perpetuating human oppression, is simply ludicrous. This perception remains prominent in academia because it is seldom if ever subjected to critical engagement. That the overwhelming majority of the South African citizenry remains marginalised and underdeveloped is there for all to see.

The positivist position furthermore displays a near complete lack of awareness of the apartheid system’s core ideas, beliefs, and assumptions, which, as we may recall, situated race centrally in all of its goals. Widely promoted in the past was the assumption that the South African people inherently or innately belonged to a certain race or caste. The apartheid system’s premeditated construction, designation, and the imposition of racial identities seem to be of little concern to such thinkers.

In other words, it could be said that proponents of the positivist thinking tradition are either ill-informed of the subliminal goals and aims of apartheid, or inadvertently seek to preserve them. With its national trajectory precisely guided by such dubious norms and standards, post-apartheid South Africa has become not less, but more and more chauvinistic, bigoted, exclusive, narrow-minded and xenophobic in character, outlook, and intent, a development quite accurately projected by our Brazilian peers.

Callously suppressed by narrow-minded, dim-witted apartheid constabularies and still largely obscured today, are the positions advanced by socially-committed, rational-critical thinkers, whose work ever more compels introspection, for the very least on account of the present nature of things. Contestation of the different-race theory, therefore, is not new to the country and was particularly emphasised by the late Dr Neville Alexander.

In his critical evaluation of South African affirmative action policy, Alexander cautioned that it is not skin colour but social circumstances wrought by highly unequal economic relations that ultimately determine an individual’s fate or progress in life (Alexander 1983; 1986). Customarily highlighted in these circles is the ultimate aim of “race-making” – the carving up of the national community for enhanced capitalist control and exploitation. “Race” is thus seen as a fundamental aspect of the broader capitalist enterprise.

Intrinsic here is the concept, or rather, the myth of race and how it became infused in colonialist ideology, across colonial territories, and into the consciousness of the colonised and ensuing generations.

Offering credible proof for their standpoints, such thinkers have drawn on established scientific findings which up to today refute the existence of different races.

Proposing a vision of a truly new social order, they called for the formation of a non-racial society, with the important proviso that “non-racialism” necessitates the obliteration of the racial stratification of the South African nation. Such an approach can advance the eventual formation of a truly cohesive and unified social order (within the context of a more equitable economic system).

The enduring, often frenzied preoccupation with race and racial identities has brought only uncertainty, unfounded assumptions and shallow speculation, preserving if not intensifying the misery and suffering of ordinary people, precisely the consequences of the Stellenbosch calamity.

It is in this light that Professor Chielozono Eze’s 2015 paper, “Transcultural affinity: thoughts on the emergent cosmopolitan imagination in South Africa”, entices productive engagement. Eze (ibid) dwells into the thoughts of key South African thinkers, who, too, so it appears, have shown a certain weariness towards the perpetual puzzlement and turbulence “race debates” so habitually generate. Calling up the thoughts of Prof Njabulo Ndebele, Eze (2015: 2) writes, “he outlined strategies through which South Africans might … transcend the legacies of apartheid. One such strategy is the repudiation of race as an interpretive model for South African reality”.

Professor S Vally (2002) not only corroborates but brings practical insight to Eze’s mode of thought. As Vally quite plainly summed it up almost 20 years ago already:

“All of us have brought along meaningful influences to South African culture which could flow into one river, our common South African identity.”

In sum, what all of this means at the end of the day, is that unless due, critical consideration is afforded the irrational perpetuation of racial categories in South Africa, any retraction of “coloured women’s intellectual abilities” will remain somewhat empty and fruitless, for the very least in the broader, public domain. DM

This article draws on the author’s earlier paper presentation, titled “Restoring the Vision of a New South Africa”, to the 2015 Conference on Non-Racialism in South Africa – Past, Present & Future: Debates & Controversies, organised by the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism & Democracy (Canrad), held at Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth.

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