By Leonard Gentle · 18 Mar 2011
The spat between Trevor Manuel and Jimmy Manyi has brought the question of racism to the fore. Manuel rightly attacked Manyi’s remarks about an “oversupply of coloureds in the Western Cape,” for being racist.
Of course, whilst this has been presented as a spat within the African National Congress (ANC), the real manipulator is the Democratic Alliance (DA) playing the race card on the eve of the local government elections in the Western Cape.
At the same time, ex-Mynwerkersunie, Solidarity, with its history of white exclusivity, stokes the flames of fear by alleging that millions of “coloured” workers are going to lose their jobs because of changes in the Employment Equity Act (forgetting that 16 years after the original one was promulgated its lamentable failure to change the dominant white colour of employment and ownership is its most notable feature).
From the side of mostly white letter writers in newspapers, the argument goes: Apartheid is over - why should we now have any racial classification at all? We should all now be non-racial and simply South Africans. OK! OK! Maybe we can accept the need for some special measures to redress the past, but for god’s sake, its 17 years after liberation, surely this need is now over?
So the ANC, historically proudly non-racial and the movement, which fought against apartheid is now racist; and the white middle classes, which supported apartheid, and parties like the DA that appeal to the racist fears of this stratum are now non-racial and proudly South African.
Truly, as Shakespeare once, wrote: Fair is foul and foul is fair!
But why is no one asking the much deeper question hidden in Manyi’s remarks? Why, 17 years after democracy, is South Africa still a patchwork quilt of “races” and “tribes” socially engineered and geographically distinct? Why has the geography of apartheid continued today, as if Group Areas and Bantustans were not abolished?
Clearly what many of us used to call the “national question” has not been resolved by the achievement of democracy in 1994.
Reduced to its simplest form the national question was: What constitutes the South African nation? From the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 to the transfer of power from Britain to a South African ruling elite, the answer was straightforward. The South African nation was white people -- people of European descent. This was so in the definition of citizenship, in elections, in all aspects of social life and in the national sports teams.
And the black majority?
Well they were not really South Africans, or not really a majority at all. They belonged to separate tribes who were defeated in colonial wars, or came over as indentured labourers or were the detritus of colonial era relationships.
Some of them had actually fought as allies of the settlers, whilst others had a history of their own conflicts. This repeated the old colonial fiction – “the white man’s burden” - that without the civilising influence of the white man, the natives would tear themselves apart in mindless internecine squabbles.
Over time, Apartheid’s ideologues and professors shifted from merely seeing the defeated as cheap labour in the reserves to separate “nations” in independent Bantustans.
So for the ideologues of apartheid, South Africa consisted of many nations, which had to be kept apart under white rule.
Against this, the liberal school, from J.H. Hofmeyer to the Progressive Party of the 1960s, argued that the problem of many nations would be solved by capitalism as the great modernising force.
What was needed was some kind of carefully managed process of expanded citizenship over time. According to this view, apartheid and its predecessor, separate development, were seen either as an illogical aberration or as rooted in experiences of Calvinism and the grievances of the Anglo-Boer war.
Over time, the modernising influences of industrial capitalism would bring the nations together, once they had passed the test of civilisation. By the 1960s this view even saw South Africa as two nations: one white and modern and the other black and underdeveloped, but waiting for the benefits of trickle-down capitalism. Interestingly enough, Thabo Mbeki revived this view after 1999.
By way of contrast, there was a growing body of work conducted within the liberation movements and at the universities that argued that apartheid itself was a form of capitalism, a highly successful, very modern form, with all its cruelty and violence. The Bantustans, the Group Areas, the migrant labour system and the racial engineering (together with its accompanying ideology) made for layers of cheap, flexible black labour on which a successful, monopoly capitalism was built.
From this side it was inconceivable that apartheid could be eradicated without making substantial structural changes to the system of capital accumulation. You couldn’t facilitate the development of a whole new post-apartheid generation of “born free” youth without having integrated cities, national public transport, breaking up the Bantustans and the power of the chiefs and having integrated schools and spaces for public interaction. And you couldn’t do so without a massive programme of public expenditure and upliftment.
Beyond these competing perspectives, however, anti-apartheid activists learnt a very simple lesson: struggles conducted along racial or tribal lines were simply doomed to failure or apartheid co-option. This coming together of the unity of the oppressed against all apartheid’s attempts at dividing black people along racial and tribal lines became the culture of all activists in the liberation movement and is deeply entrenched. This was not due to some kind of “political correctness” but was forged in thousands of bitter lessons learnt.
This doesn’t mean racism and extreme racist attitudes did not prevail within communities. Apartheid’s legacy continued to make the most vitriolic racism possible. So non-racialism could not be signed off as achieved. The daily reproduction by apartheid of “races” and “tribes” saw to this.
Even within the movement this reproduction also saw debates about some blacks being more oppressed than others, about the ANC being Xhosa-dominated, about separate organisations for Indians and so on. But by the 1960s all parts of the liberation movement were uncompromising in the understanding that racism was anathema and that unity was everything. This is something that struggle veteran Manuel understands. The same lesson clearly passed by Anglo-protégée, Manyi.
The one apparent exception that was not part of the liberation movement – the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) - only survived as an organisation by getting favours from the apartheid government and being able to access resources through chiefs and Bantustan bureaucrats.
This is no mere coincidence. It reveals that despite apartheid conditioning, there is no self-organised popular movement, which dares to embrace this brand of ethnic identity. Far from there being a US-style pride in wanting to be Italian-American or Irish-American or African-American, apartheid’s imposition of these racial categories brought about the opposite: the desire to unify because these categories were immediately associated with Group Areas, with forced removals and with separate schools and amenities.
This commitment to non-racial solidarity, which characterised the United Democratic Front (UDF) and COSATU, is today still a feature of the social movements in the Cape. Organisations such as the Anti Eviction Campaign, Equal Education and COSATU continue to build campaigns and local structures across the apartheid divides of working class communities and the post-1994 influx of African refugees. The communities in Hangberg who defied attempts to racialise their struggles for housing are an inspiring example.
Now, post 1994, the dominant way the issue of apartheid and the national question is seen amongst politicians and the media is as a purely residual problem and separated from its capitalist underpinnings. In this view, apartheid may be over, but its legacy lives on and so special measures are necessary to overcome its legacy.
Strangely enough the ANC and the DA agree on this one. Racism is residual, rooted in an irrational apartheid past. But whereas the ANC emphasises the need for special legislation to overcome this legacy in the form of affirmative action and black economic empowerment (BEE), the DA considers that the residual nature of racism will, in time, whither away and that the special measures legislated by the ANC government are open to abuse and corruption (whilst ignoring every survey that confirms that most corporations are white as are most senior positions).
Many others – young students born after the struggle years for instance – also regard apartheid as over and that it is now possible to freely embrace one’s identity. In a post-apartheid South Africa identity is “cool.”
But there is another way of seeing the question. Apartheid is not just residue, or a legacy, but is reproduced today through the compromises made at the negotiation table at Kempton Park and, thereafter, through the neoliberal policies of a black, democratic government.
Today there is a real danger – the apparent death of apartheid (which takes away the moral rationale to unite), combined with with neoliberalism (which encourages the me-first attitude of the middle classes and the scramble over scraps for everyone else), superimposed on the ongoing geography of apartheid – is a recipe for reviving real racial divisions, against the hard work done by the liberation movement over nearly a century. This is not so “cool.”
Today, in the media and even government documents the word “black” has come to be used narrowly despite formal legislation, such as the Employment Equity Act, using the term expansively -- allowing the DA and Solidarity to stoke racial fears. Today, the media often refers to “minorities,” trying to establish a new post apartheid fault-line and a coalition of fear of being swamped by democracy.
One of the key compromises made at CODESA in Kempton Park was on the issue of the provinces. Whilst the liberation movement has always insisted on a unitary South Africa to combat the tribal and racial divisions of apartheid’s geography, the Nationalist Party and the IFP wanted a high degree of provincial autonomy. And whereas the liberation movement wanted a programme of non-racialism, the old order apartheid parties wanted group rights.
These were nothing more than devices to preserve apartheid privileges by raising the spectre of black majority rule. To appease the IFP and the Nationalists, the ANC agreed to a variation of group rights by accepting a high degree of devolution of power to the provinces. This is why two of the provinces, KwaZulu Natal (KZN) and the Western Cape, have become battlegrounds for ethnic politics.
Other concessions include the Sunset Clauses, which left whites in control of the civil services as well as guarantees made to white capital to allow them to become world players (for which they are not even grateful). And Buthelezi’s IFP also had to be appeased given the scale of violence in KZN.
Having made these comprises, which ANC leaders assure us were necessary, the genie of racialism and tribalism was let out of the bottle.
Since then, the ANC made the decision to embrace Zulu ethnic identity and symbols, which were notable features of Zuma's campaign. Discredited Bantustan chiefs from Stella Sigcau to Nelson Ramodike were rehabilitated purely on the basis of their tribal affiliations. Tribal chiefdoms were instituted into the new local municipalities against the democratic desires of the activists struggling for genuine local democracy. The system of BEE deals and state tenders, which are all about patronage and networks, rewarded old racial affiliations. Suddenly we’ve also seen the revival of apartheid-style official forms, which now call on us to classify ourselves into a “racial group.”
All of these betray the traditions of pan-Africanism of the Pan Africanist Congress, the notion of black unity of the Black Consciousness Movement and the non-racialism that the ANC came to espouse before 1994.
Now the way to a BEE deal is to have a suitable white company needing a black face (what corporate cynics call “skin equity”). The line up of black faces needs a political champion with the right credentials. In much of the country the right credentials will be within the ANC, but in Ulundi it’s the IFP and in the Western Cape it has become the DA.
The links of patronage encourage “old boys” and “old girls” networks, which, given the history of apartheid, are often along racial and tribal lines. People need to have the right race card to play.
It is in this context that a Smuts Nngonyama could declare that he didn’t struggle to be poor and where there is room for a Manyi to articulate a smug racism. They are creatures of the very policies that were made and pursued on Manuel’s watch -- notable for its neoliberal policies of abandoning the poor majority to social grants, whilst privatising and commercialising public services.
Thus, the ANC government must accept blame for the smaller pot of public goods that the poor are now forced to fight over within their apartheid ghettos -- the brick houses against the squatters and land invaders, the South Africans against the foreigners, the people who think they are on the housing waiting list versus the queue jumpers. Add to this the kind of “Africans” versus “coloureds” storm being whipped up by the DA and the ANC and you have a recipe for internecine warfare rather than any united campaigns that can force government to carry out its responsibility towards the people.
To those who proselytise the cause of non-racialism and who are not doing so as a rationale for scrapping affirmative action or any measures which disturb their cosy post-apartheid life styles, it may be important to criticise the ANC - not for proclaiming the need for transformation, but for not going far enough.
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Great article. From my perspective as an American observer of inspirational South Africa, there seems to be far too little of this kind of serious, thoughtful, rigorous analysis in the major South African press, especially the apartheid-residual papers. Thank you very much for this thoughtfully-crafted, essential primer.