Racial identities still imprison our would-be non-racial country, says Jeff Rudin.
Pretoria - How, in the 21st year of the “new” South Africa and in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, are we to move towards the elusive non-racial society that is a founding principle of our celebrated constitution?
The sobering truth is that we are today further away from this ideal than in 1994.
Achieving a non-racial South Africa requires, in the first instance, a shift from the narrow focus on “race” to the more fundamental one of identity. More specifically, the struggle for a non-racial society necessitates a much better understanding of the South African form of the universal dynamics of identity. What, we must ask, energises the racial form of this seemingly unavoidable need for identity?
Given the prevailing normalisation of race, what gives me, a “white” man, the right to question the racial identities now freely embraced by Africans, Indians and coloureds 20 years after the supposed demise of apartheid?
My inheritance – the accidents of my birth – includes being born in South Africa of practising Jews. They taught me that Jews must stand together as the only protection against worldwide anti-Semitism.
They taught me that the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust was only the most brutal instance of this racial hatred. But I learnt that being Jewish did not necessarily make one good (and) Jews, the victims of the most extreme racism, could be the defenders of white racism.
But the ultimate lesson I learnt from them was that one was not a permanent prisoner of the religion or race or any other identity into which one is born.
Fast forward to 2014 and the racial identities which still imprison our would-be non-racial country. At question is whether the transformation that everyone agrees is necessary needs to be racialised.
A minimum wage – acknowledging cheap labour behind world-beating inequality – could have been the basis of this non-racial affirmation action.
Infrastructural development – commensurate with the country’s enormous wealth and the dignity guaranteed to everyone by our constitution – could similarly have been part of this transformation. More and better schools, hospitals and other essential services would have been the outcome of this non-racial transformation.
Instead, as the new Parliament in 1994 made perfectly clear, affirmative action was to be race-based as a matter of conscious policy. Parliament decided that MPs’ pay wasn’t high enough, even though it was already at First World levels.
Leading white communists, sitting as members of the ANC caucus, opposed this decision. However, despite their impeccable anti-apartheid credentials, they capitulated when accused of being racists who opposed the pay increase only because blacks were the new beneficiaries.
The ANC’s decision to pay MPs even more than the apartheid Parliament did marks the first use of the race card to solve the fundamental problem of how to become capitalists without capital.
This use of race by a political elite to promote its narrow economic class interests is key to the dominance race continues to exercise in nominally non-racial South Africa. Making race the principal trigger for access to scarce resources, wealth and power is the (purest) oxygen of race.
This oxygen constantly refreshes the many different ways race gives meaning to the different groups among the beneficiaries of affirmative action and BEE. That race might colour poverty without being its cause is not considered, for it would undermine the founding premise of the racialised call for equity.
The people (mainly) responsible for post-1994 policies are the same leaders who, during the struggle against apartheid, defined apartheid as racial capitalism. Yet, with breathless rapidity and without discussion, they retained only the racial part of this couplet after the formal demise of apartheid.
Race is now the only reality they recognise. Capitalism no longer exists.
Racial identities are oxygenated in innumerable other ways. Brief mention will be made of only two of them.
The first is the deliberate naturalisation of race. The national census is the clearest instance of this. It not only forces everyone to have a racial identity, but imposes the same once-despised and rejected identities manufactured by apartheid.
Everyone is forced to be either African, coloured, Indian or white.
The second example concerns what might be described as the black extremists. These are the people who maintain that race has a profound social reality, even though readily acknowledging that race is itself a scientific nonsense.
They describe modern South Africa as the perpetuation of “white supremacy”. And they haven’t gone mad – just blind to anything that is not colour-coded. The fact that blacks (that is, Africans) are still everywhere at the bottom of every socio-economic measure is due, in their understanding, entirely to untransformed white supremacy. That this remains the case, despite almost 20 years of black rule, presents them with no problem.
For them, the black political elite are coconuts who, despite their blackness, have been seduced by the white world into thinking and behaving as whites (left unelaborated is what is meant by the uniquely white world and white thinking).
Where, then, does this brief exploration of identity (as the more fundamental category standing behind our obsessions with race) leave us? Has it assisted us in getting any closer to the non-racial society of our constitution? Has it provided any light on Mandela’s still uncompleted walk?
If nothing else, my hope is that it’s done two things. First, the necessary though not sufficient road to a non-racial South Africa has to be one in which the economy is socialised and is not driven by the imperative of (privatised) profit maximisation. Second, the need for identity needs to allow for the fact that there is no “Other”. There is only all of us, a universal “We”.
Putting the Other in its place begins with a recognition that this Other has to exist in order to give meaning to our own identity. Although needing to be seen as unique, as special, the identities that divide us and for which we readily kill each other, in fact, contain features, customs, practices and beliefs drawn from a small and shared pool. The far-from-unique identities are as one would expect, given that we are all biologically the same and are unavoidably social beings.
Rather than celebrating and building on our common humanity, identity requires us to exaggerate difference, often to the obliteration of the very humanity of the “Other”. Identity is more pernicious still. Sometimes explicit but inescapably implicit, identity necessarily promotes not just the idea of being different from, but, crucially, better than.
What needs emphasising is that both a different economic system and a better way of understanding ourselves are required for the non-racial South Africa of our expectations. More specifically, we need to recognise the incompatibility between a non-racial country and an economy that oxygenates racial identities.
At a deeply personal level, each one of us needs to recognise that competing identities take us backwards on the long walk to a non-racial South Africa.