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Rishi Sunak has khanucked all our smug political assumptions about ‘racist’, ‘imperialist’ Britain


Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and author of ‘Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid’.

In ‘racist’, ‘imperialist’ Britain, a prime minister drawn from a minority community is quite real. In progressive South Africa, it is impossible to even imagine this eventuality.

One of the books that enthralled and tormented me as a university student was Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It is the story of an English working-class boy, Colin Smith, who is incarcerated in a borstal (juvenile prison).

He is a brilliant runner and the governor of the borstal thinks to use Smith to highlight the success of his rehabilitation programme. The moment comes with a race against a posh nearby school. Colin pulls way ahead but refuses to cross the line for that would legitimise the governor’s brutal disciplinary practices and class prejudice.

The thought of running a race but deliberately not winning is jarring. Muhammad Ali was filled to the brim with principles but he fought to win. If Jesse Owens pulled up just before the tape, what would that prove to the watching Nazis?

I read Sillitoe when I was one of the first batch of “non-white” students at Rhodes University. Should I get top marks in my essays but refuse to take the final examination because I wanted to expose the segregated residences of the university and that I had to study there under a permit? It just didn’t make sense. Would it not be more effective to outperform the white people?

In my case, I failed three consecutive essays in African history so I never got to do a Colin Smith, let alone a Jesse Owens. I was canny enough though to dress my failure up in the Marxist-speak of class suicide and the racism of my lecturers who, unlike my mother, I surmised, could not instantly and unconditionally recognise genius.

These thoughts bring us to race winner Rishi Sunak. We know from Sillitoe and George Orwell, and more recently Kazuo Ishiguro, all about the workings of the English class system. One gets daily reminders about it in the rants of the “tofu-eating, Guardian-reading wokerati”.

We know about the conveyor belt of privilege. With minimal exertion, future prime ministers from top private schools roll into Oxbridge and then, via a big finance house, into Downing Street. The epitome and nadir both of white privilege.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Briturkey, Britaly and right-wing fear of Britainistan — Rishi Sunak inherits the new ‘sick man of Europe’

What does a recent pilgrim to Mud Island, like Rishi’s parents, do to give their son the best shot at the top. Their boy is Asian, Hindu, and with a nose that spells trouble. One lesson they quickly learn is to avoid a local government school where their slightly built progeny will be mercilessly picked upon as a “Paki”, his sacrosanct red string removed and his confidence shattered.   

So, young Rishi is sent to a top school like Winchester to straighten out the creases but keep the faith. This is where he separates somewhat from the herd. Usually what happens is that a cultural outsider is increasingly deracinated, his name mutates to Richie and acculturates by self-deprecating his paganism.  

Rishi, though, while adopting the sartorial accoutrements of the English gentleman (remember Churchill’s Gandhi gibe about the “half-naked fakir”?) is a practising Hindu. The local paper for Indians in South Africa, The Post, led with the headline “Britain’s first Hindu Prime Minister”.  From the first Asian, Sunak soon became the first Hindu occupant of No 10. Someone swore they even saw him levitate when greeted by adoring Conservative Party MPs.

Hilarious memes ensued. Shoes outside No 10 guarded by an Asian policeman in brown uniform with laathi (stick) in hand. First meal at Downing Street, eating with hands out of a banana leaf.

It seems that me and most of my friends brought up on a diet of critiques of colonialism and apartheid got it wrong. When the Tories voted for Truss instead of Sunak we wrote that “the Brits are not ready for a brown man”. When he was voted in, as lefties, we trundled out explanation “B”. He is a puppet of the whites, an MI6 plant, white capital’s butler, a coconut like Obama.

Considered opinion pieces explaining the Sunak phenomenon fare no better. In The Guardian of 26 October, veteran journalist Mihir Bose tries an angle under the banner headline “Sunak’s rise is thanks to the Tory Hindu Revolution. Labour, look and learn”.

Bose, a sports journalist, writes about the Hindu vote as if it is soccer’s Premier League: “At the 2010 election, Labour had a 13% lead among Hindus … by the 2015 election, the Tories had gone 8% ahead among Hindus…”

Bose spills a lot of ink stating the obvious, “that Sunak does not represent all Asians”. He tells us that the first Asians are those who came directly from the subcontinent and went into the factories of the North. Sunak comes from a different wave. From East Africa.

Read more  in Daily Maverick: “Sunak faces dose of reality as economic and political woes mount

Bose holds that, unlike Labour, it was Edward Heath’s Tory government that allowed Ugandan Asians to settle in the UK in 1972. “It is the children of these East African Asians who have done well, and particularly the Hindus: about two-thirds of Hindu men are in managerial and professional jobs, but only about a third of Muslim men … Labour has often given the impression that it still sees the Asian community as a homogenous one, when, as Sunak’s rise shows, it is more complex. It needs to learn from the Tories how to court the various divergent sections of Asian communities if it is not to see Sunak and his party further mine the Asian gold it has found.”

But how would a Rishi Sunak arise in the Labour party? His biography and values can only appeal to conservatives. He is a child of migrants who, in one generation, rose to the top. He did so by marrying and schooling well. Sunak eschews the solidarity of other “victims” of a racially rigged culture. The system works for him. Race can be trumped. His religious devotions don’t impede him much, they can even be a political turn-on.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Subtle stirring

Meanwhile, in Durban, Indian South Africans asked if there would ever be a Rishi arising out of Chatsworth to occupy the top office in the land? Doing the rounds was a cartoon with an Indian aunty with a tower-high bun, big red dot, a bursting blouse proclaiming “forget Rama Poser, here comes Sita” heading a Cabinet meeting at the Union Buildings. On the menu for lunch is an al la Mbalula mutton bunny chow.

And then to top off this feast, a photograph with one of the Gupta brothers appeared on my WhatsApp… “Don’t forget: We had an Indian head of state before the UK.”

The rise of Rishi in the North is part of a subtle stirring that should see many of us question our smug, common-sense assumptions about the moral superiority of Southern political culture. In “racist”, “imperialist” Britain, a prime minister drawn from a minority community is quite real. In progressive South Africa it is impossible to even imagine this eventuality.

Meanwhile, Rishi does have terrible troubles many a Durban charou would recognise in an instant. A big, fat family audit file at the Revenue Service, in-laws who have more gold (teeth) than you, also berating you to ensure the grandkids get their Green Cards. Sunak must also stomach having lefties who acknowledge that he broke through the race and religious ceiling while condemning his successes as flowing from the embrace of the horrid white establishment.

The Durban-born card game thunee is every so often punctuated by the word “khanucked” (I got you). The Sunak phenomenon has khanucked us all. DM



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  • Dave Martin says:

    It’s also worth noting that there are quite a few people of Asian descent in the Torie leadership and the Conservative Party have also been a lot better at having women Prime Ministers – three so far, compared to Labour’s zero.

    The old stereotypes of “left equals progressive” and “conservative equals racists” is no longer sensible analysis.

    Leftwing woke-ism has alienated a lot of centrist people of colour.

    • Steve Stevens says:

      Hmmmm. Quite the contrary. Rishi Rich has very cleverly put in place a rabidly right wing Home Secretary who’s ‘dream is to ship all immigrants off to Rwanda’ (well, those that survive her disease spreading concentration camps) and once done, to turn her attention to ‘tofu-eating woke lefties’. Hardly progressive, particularly as ‘immigrant’ still equals ‘foreign person of colour’ in the minds of probably half the population of the UK. The irony is that had both Rishi’s and Cruella’s parents emigrated today they’d be boarding the 21.50 Rwanda One Way Express as we speak.

  • Paul Mathias says:

    An interesting read.

    I expect we will have to wait until the next general election to see if the British public do indeed support Mr. Sunak.

    Whether that in itself would negate the ‘racist’ and ‘imperialist’ tags you reference I’m not entirely convinced, but I’d have more faith in that proving the point than in his appointment by just over a hundred MPs.

    • Nick Cursi says:

      I agree Paul, an interesting read

      In polling dishi Rishi comes out ahead of any other current leaders of either party.

      I think (certainly in the UK) we are reaching the beginning of the end of the veneration of victimhood. Labour’s raison d’etre (after losing the class war) is to find another set of victims to patronise, they are trying hard with race and LBGTQ. Rishi proves they are losing the race argument, last year, even the UK commission on race and ethnic disparities said that “geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.” This is a disaster for Labour.

  • dwakerley147 says:

    The motivations behind Rishi’s elevation should be understood in
    terms of necessity rather than enlightenment.
    Britain has just had the worst Prime Minister in history, following the second-worst. The latter’s major contribution to Rishi’s election was to surround himself, as narcissists do, with a cabinet of dunderheads appointed for their loyalty alone. The talentless were endlessly recycled from one ministry to another, part of the deal with Johnson that they would always protected.
    The Tories found themselves in a serious crisis. Anyone who looked even moderately competent would do. First old-hand Jeremy Hunt them Rishi.
    The election or rather Coronation of Sunak was a stitch-up. Breaking their own rules (they are a party of rule breakers after all) the job was done in a week with the connivance of the parliamentary party. Rank and file members, who had already rejected Rishi in the previous prime ministerial election were neatly excluded from the process. These members, largely elderly and from the shires would almost certainly have voted for any candidate other than a Hindu

    This is not to say that Britain is fundamentally racist. Most people, especially in the cities, live quite happily side by side. Ironically it is the Tory part which harbours and is increasingly dominated by a hard right minority who have no love for other minorities.
    This group drove Brexit to get rid of Poles and Romanians and advocates sinking small boats in the Channel.

  • Kevin Summerley says:

    Nice one, Ashwin. You had me chuckling all through that. But, inter alia, I think you make the point that it should all be about merit and not your race, colour or religion. If you can do the job better than the next man or woman, then you should get the job. A subtlety the previous and the present governments in this country never got right.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      Good comment….interesting to note that the SA Cabinet has only one person of European descent representing 20% of taxpayers who cover 80% of the taxes! About time the Powers that be got rid of their racist attitudes and took a leaf out of the Tory book!

  • Brent Record says:

    Very amusing, but the writer seems to overlook the fact that, at least, the first Speaker of our democratic parliament was a South African Indian (Parsi), Dr Frene Ginwala.

  • Ryckard Blake says:

    Rishi did not elect himself.
    He was elected by the majority of the top echelon of a party comprising very largely Born-in-Britain white people.
    So, it is not Rishi who Khanucked anyone, but the Conservative Party who khanucked the idea that englishmen are fundamentally racist.
    When the best candidate ticks all the important boxes, it counts for nothing that he / she is not in their image.

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