Defend Truth


Identity: A (seemingly) good idea with malignant consequences that fan xenophobia and race war


Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC)

Julius Malema and the EFF lose no opportunity to fan a race war against white (and Indian) South Africans. We have made their demagogy very easy by the perpetuation of the once-reviled apartheid categories, the racial Identities that, without legal basis or definition, permeate all our official statistics and our racialised way of thinking.

The biannual Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture took place a short while ago. Its theme was Race and Democracy in the US and South Africa, within the explicitly given framework of White Supremacy. Even though White Supremacy was not the main focus of the 95-minute lecture, it was proffered as an essential understanding of the major institutions of the world, as well as being part of the structure of the contemporary US and South Africa.

While not hazarding how Bram Fischer would have responded to the claimed persistence of White Supremacy almost 28 years after majority rule in South Africa, I am confident he would have been concerned that the fact of White Supremacy in the South Africa of 2022 was asserted as a self-evident given requiring no further analysis or elaboration.

Having mentioned “White Supremacy”, I can immediately hear my friends – yes, even my friends – say, while holding their heads: “Oh, no, here he goes again!” So, let me immediately state: I’m not writing about White Supremacy. I’m writing about a much deeper subject: about something that lies behind all forms of racism: Identity – capitalised to denote its political and highly charged emotional character.

An observation was made at a recent meeting I attended that left-wing groups in various parts of the world were sympathetic to those opposed to the Covid-19 vaccination. The support for human rights was said to lie behind the sympathy for the anti-vaxxers. The contributor drew attention to the paradox of how individual liberties were trumping the importance of the collective individual, namely society.

This leads me to ask: what is the connection between those opposed to the vaccination and xenophobia?

Another and related question was triggered by Jay Naidoo, the founding general secretary of Cosatu and a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government, besides many other current positions. In a recent Daily Maverick article, titled “We Must Defuse South Africa’s Xenophobia Time Bomb – Now”, he notes:

“We are an integral part of Africa – not some displaced oasis of African supremacy connected to the poisonous politics of our feral colonising masters of the past. We are African. Our present is connected to Africa. And so is our future. This is why we belong to the African Union.”

Not so fast, Jay Naidoo, if I may say so. Apart from the accident of being on the same continent, what is there specific to Africa that makes us uniquely and self-evidently African? Indeed, other than the accident of being born in South Africa, what is it that makes this accident of birth so precious, so particularly exclusive as to make an opportunistic football of those Africans not born in South Africa?

A somewhat dumbfounded Judge Dennis Davis listened, in early February, to one of his panellists, Gayton McKenzie, founder and president of the Patriotic Alliance (PA), call for the immediate extradition of all Africans who are not South African. McKenzie, indeed, made little distinction between legal and illegal residents. He would deport even naturalised South Africans if they came from anywhere else in Africa.

McKenzie and his party can easily be dismissed, for the PA has no seats in Parliament and only 81 council seats countrywide. But McKenzie’s unapologetic xenophobia has now been picked up by the EFF and Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA. Not to be outdone, even the ANC has jumped on the bandwagon, thereby making xenophobia part of mainstream politics. Naidoo has good cause for describing xenophobia as South Africa’s time bomb. But it is not the only one.

So, what are the various connections with Identity?

We all – each and every one of us on Earth – have to find answers to who we are and what’s our place on Earth for the short period we are on it. The answers we give ourselves, individually and collectively, are profoundly shaped by where we are when answering these eternal questions. Most of us just accept the answers provided by those who nurtured us.

The years after World War 2, beginning in the late 1950s, were economically boom years in North America and most parts of Europe. The ensuring economic security promoted an openness to the recognition, among the broad spectrum of the liberal left, of diversity. The self-assertiveness of the formerly marginalised – the victims of mainly racial, gender, religious and sexual oppression and discrimination – was not only recognised but made virtuous.

This was the process of separating ourselves into ever smaller and more distinct groups, all competing among themselves not to be different from but rather better than any other of the competing Identities. Illustrative of this is the spaghetti of letters denoting sexual orientation, which ends with a + sign, lest anyone should be ignored.

The global Great Recession of 2008 created economic instability that was further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which, beginning in 2020, shows little sign of abating any time soon. In this period of heightened uncertainty and anxiety, we cling with even greater urgency to our very individualised Identities.

“I” is at the heart of all identities.

“I” is at the heart of those saying “no” to vaccines. “I” is at the heart of the rampart xenophobia that at once gives powerful meaning and protection to those who are part of the privileged “we”, while rendering powerless all those deemed to be “them”, the hostile Other.

Contrary to Jay Naidoo, there is nothing exclusively “African”, any more than there is anything remotely unique to being South African. Both are part of the same fragmentation of what we do all share – whether knowingly or not – namely our common humanity, our membership of something that is indeed distinct, our particular species, homo sapiens.

Our membership of the African Union (AU) signifies nothing more than that “African” is now a major Identity competing with all the others claiming similar uniqueness.

Let’s not forget that many of those claiming African Identity were, in the 1950s and early 1960s, part of the “third world”, the non-aligned world. In this instance, there was real substance to the identity: all were – or had been – former colonies and, as such, shared similar economic and political realities. To be sure, these realities remain largely unchanged. It is only our divisive Identities that so effectively keep us apart – along with supposedly “post-modernist” thought that decries anything universal.

It is these competing and increasingly particular Identities – now inflamed by a world economy with unprecedented levels of inequality and related anxieties affecting the privileged as well as the poor – that are the playthings of politicians and their economic backers.

Xenophobic riots are now a regular occurrence in South Africa. Mercifully, race riots are not. At least not yet. The murder of Africans by people we still call Indians in July 2021 is but a harbinger. Julius Malema and the EFF lose no opportunity to fan a race war against white (and Indian) South Africans. We have made their demagogy very easy by the perpetuation of the once-reviled apartheid categories, the racial Identities that, without legal basis or definition, permeate all our official statistics and our racialised way of thinking.

In today’s world, the celebration of what makes us different endangers what makes us human. We mistakenly think of ubuntu as being uniquely southern African. Be this as it may, and while there is still time, we need urgently to protect the spirit of ubuntu from the Identities all too ready to eat it. DM


[hearken id=”daily-maverick/9153″]


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