Defend Truth


Sorry, Gareth Cliff, but identity politics is critical


Lwando Xaso is an attorney, writer and speaker . She is the founder of Including Society. She is also the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’. Follow her at @includingsociety.

In an effort to diminish the importance of race and identity in our country, radio personality Gareth Cliff demonstrated the power of his race and identity when he shut down Mudzuli Rakhivhane, a young black woman, by asserting his own version of reality over hers.

‘I am not interested in identity politics at all. Nobody really is… Oh please, I am over it. It’s just uninteresting and this has played out so badly for people in other parts of the world where they have tried it.” These were the words of an exasperated Gareth Cliff, who was meant to moderate a discussion about the local elections between representatives of the Democratic Alliance and One South Africa – but decided to make himself a panellist instead.

In an effort to diminish the importance of race and identity in our country, Cliff demonstrated the power of his race and identity when he shut down Mudzuli Rakhivhane, a young black woman, by asserting his own version of reality over hers.

Cliff made himself the authority on what ordinary South Africans care about in the lead-up to the municipal elections. The irony of a white man denouncing identity politics, when prejudiced white men are the architects and purveyors of identity politics, would be comical if it was not so dangerous.

Unlike Cliff, I am a proponent of identity politics used to narrow inequality in our country. Audiopedia defines identity politics as political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify. Identity politics enables the marginalised to articulate their felt oppression through their own experiences. Life sharing allows us to recognise the commonality of our oppression and enables us to build a politics that will change our lives.

The origins of identity politics are colonialism and apartheid, which introduced the stratification of our society along colour, race, gender and sexuality identity lines, among others. The identity politics of apartheid placed the straight white man at the top of the hierarchy and, with that identity, came the full protection of the law, access to the economy and many other rights.

The dawn of our constitutional democracy and the establishment of new battles, particularly in the form of social media, presented to the historically maligned powerful ways to organise globally and to call for urgent change.

This makes it hard for the dominant group to look away from the consequences of a system they created and benefited from. Indeed, denouncing identity politics under the guise of antiracism only enforces the normativity of whiteness, writes Professor Marzia Milazzo.

For example, it is the politics of identity that secured gay marriage in South Africa, thereby expanding the meaning of freedom not just for the LGBTQI+ community but for us all. In a world where members of the LGBTQI+ are more free than I am as a black woman, I am also more free.

But even within the broader LGBTQI+ community we cannot wish away race and other identity markers. Black members of LGBTQI+ have different policy needs from their white counterparts. This does not have to be divisive unless the dominant group deems the freedom of others as a threat to or a calling out of their privilege.

American activist and politician Stacey Abrams writes that “identity politics can strengthen our democracy”. Our changing political landscape and technological advances such as social media “have encouraged activists and political challengers to make demands with a high level of specificity – to take the identities that dominant groups have used to oppress them and convert them into tools of democratic justice”.

Abram takes on the argument that, by calling out ethnic, cultural, gender or sexual differences, marginalised groups harm themselves and their causes: “The marginalised did not create identity politics: their identities have been forced on them by dominant groups, and politics is the most effective method of revolt.”

I would implore the likes of Gareth Cliff to think more deeply, not reactively, about the use of identity politics because, as Abrams shares, “new, vibrant, noisy voices represent the strongest tool to manage the growing pains of multicultural coexistence. By embracing identity and its prickly, uncomfortable contours, we will become more likely to grow as one.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    I assume you are aware that polls demonstrate that racism is way down on the issues that the vast majority of South Africans are concerned about.
    Identity politics in the shape of apartheid was wrong then and it is just as wrong now.
    We can all find racism if we look for it – focus your energy on encouraging better education, self help and holding government to account as a minimum.

  • Andrew Blaine says:

    Racism is the exclusive property of the “haves”. For the rest of us it is a luxury we cannot afford.
    The young person, complete with tertiary qualification, who is unable to find employment is not concerned about melanin content, unless it can help in the battle to attain and support in the achievement of independence and identity. Only once this has been realised, will “race” assume any value, because it then becomes a weapon to defend individuality?
    For this reason, and because the current unemployment rate in South Africa is rapidly approaching 40%, the matter of “race” is of little consequence to the common citizen and resident

    • Johann Olivier says:

      …unless race is a factor in the horrific unemployment number… Racism is the ‘exclusive property of “the haves”‘ as a polite conversation. Racism for those who, for decades (centuries) suffered the burden of being marginalised & exploited is a harsh & unrelenting struggle.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    If white men and apartheid are are at the apex of the problem, why is the rest of Africa even more dismal than South Africa. Colonialism: how is this different from the invasion and total submission of countries that has been taking place for centuries and still happens today? This is exactly the problem with identity politics: we shape it to serve our own objectives.

  • Stephen T says:

    This drivel again? Opposing the bad bits of Socialism can get tiresome…
    Ok, here goes.

    Identity politics is just an extension of scapegoatism. It seems to be exclusively punted by those who seek to receive some sort of benefit or privilege without having to work for it. Their privilege is due to them, apparently, by the mere act of existing, much like religion. How they define their existence and avoid criticism is through “Oppression Olympics”, which essentially is a puerile attempt at virtue-by-association married with tantrum activism to compete with other collective identities. The louder they scream and shout, the more attention they receive. Just like a spoilt toddler.

    Wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance, among other things, are not in their vocabulary. All that matters is finding ways to legitimise their privileges that always come at the expense of others. Just like Karl Marx was in his actual life – a parasite upon friends and family, abusing their generosity by wasting their money, never taking any kind of responsibility for it, and using his upper-middle class education to invent a system that celebrates such a lifestyle and thereby avoid accountability as well. Marx was clever, but also socially diabolical. I would wager his followers are cut from the same cloth – their own personal inadequacies giving rise to support for the antithesis of meritocracy.

    Conclusion: treat these people for what they are: the intellectual equivalent of a spoilt toddler.

    • Johann Olivier says:

      This drivel again? Not getting the meaning of inter-generational White privilege…
      OK, here goes.

      Identity politics is vital in a world where specific power cliques marginalise or do not recognise you or your POV. It is frequently punted as nothing more than a desire for charity, which in & of itself underpins the argument FOR indentity politics. It is often those who have not worked for their benefit & privilege who most loudly decry identity politics. Like many privileged in Africa & around the world. Reality is, they did work for it, but do not recognise those who worked WITH them so that they get to take all the marbles. The more these privileged feel challenged, the louder they scream about Socialism & how if everyone was just like them, they’d get ahead. Of course, it would often require a change of melanin.

      Wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance, among other things, are not in their voabulary. Most assuredly NOT. All that matters is finding ways to legitimise their privileges that always come at the expense of others. Irony, anyone? Karl Marx was in actual life – a brilliant academic, a PhD, editor, author, thinker, atheist, much persecuted for his thoughtful philosophical bent. Those who fear his thinking call him ‘clever’ and, of course, ‘diabolical’. I would wager those who fear him are cut from the same cloth – their own personal inadequacies giving rise to their need to discriminate & marginalise.

      Conclusion: treat these people (identity politics, anyone?) for what they are, intellectualy oblivious.

  • Rosalie Kingwill Kingwill says:

    Well done for speaking out against white supremacists who cast a shadow over a healthy society. I am with you and admire your attempt to engage rationally with Cliffe and his ilk. However don’t expect a rational response in return. It will all be the usual emotional defensive white persons whingey dismissive don’t care response as is already evident

  • Heinrich Holt says:

    I am also a supporter of identity as a dimension defining my worldview. I identify with leaders such as Temba Bavuma, Siya Kolise, Thuli Madonsela, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Angela Merkel. People who are true leaders in the way they behave and lead by example. They are (were) not corrupt and care deeply for others. They do (did) not need the past to define their future legacy. This is the type of identity politics that matter.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    who takes Gareth Cliff seriously anyhow. give airtime to those young people who are doing something of value like making things happen.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Elections24 Newsletter Banner

On May 29 2024, South Africans will make their mark in another way.

Get your exclusive, in-depth Election 2024 newsletter curated by Ferial Haffajee delivered straight to your inbox.