South Africa has a long association with racism and racial injustice. The recorded interaction of white settlers and SA’s various indigenous peoples is a story of conflict and dispossession.
This is not to suggest that SA’s racial conundrum is a story of competition and contestation between races that are more or less “equals” (in their possession of material, political and discursive power).
This is one of the most enduring but erroneous beliefs about the struggle against apartheid.
Indeed a key liberal analysis of South Africa’s race question throughout apartheid viewed the driver of SA politics as the clash of two competing “nationalisms”: African and Afrikaner.
This had two effects on South African race analysis: it imported analytical tools developed in the study of the growth and development of European states, in that it saw history as driven by conflict between competing “nations”.
It also situated racism in the realm of interpersonal relations, rather than structural realities.
This has dogged South Africans’ attempts at understanding racism even in the post-apartheid era. It also explains the somewhat curious notion – most recently expressed by President Jacob Zuma – that racism was defeated or even “ended” in 1994 when “we chose the path of reconciliation and nation-building”, and that only a small minority persists with “racist attitudes”.
This analysis also buttresses, whether intentionally or not, the deplorable denialism and victim-blaming practised by some prominent beneficiaries of apartheid.
It does so because it has nothing to say about the unchanged reality of white privilege in post-apartheid South Africa.
It does not understand, even denies, racism as a key feature of capitalism in South Africa. It is silent on the violence, the dispossession and the land theft that the colonial conquest of South Africa relied upon.
Progressive perspectives reject this subjectivism, seeing racism and apartheid as a structural feature of SA capitalism and its primitive logic of accumulation. These perspectives hold that, at least in the SA bequeathed to us by colonialism and apartheid, racism is synonymous with capitalism, and vice versa.
SA today has not defeated the scourge of racism, largely because we have not reversed – arguably we have not even tried to reverse – the economic legacy of apartheid. Economic patterns still retain their racial character, with blacks occupying the bottom rungs of the social, economic, cultural and development ladder.
Unemployment, poverty and inequality – the “triple challenges” to our ruling party, but merely “life” to blacks – are not purely economic problems that may yield to mechanistic policy prescriptions. In fact they are neither challenges nor triple for that matter. Racism, poverty, inequality and unemployment are the “quadruple reality” of black life in SA in 2016.
Disparaging anti-black attitudes are merely a reflection of this underlying reality; the symptoms, not the disease.
Therefore “racism” isn’t “a small minority” spewing racial invective on social media or in personal interactions. It is the system that allows, undergirds and reproduces such attitudes.
But recognising racism as a structural and systemic phenomenon is not to suggest that defeating racism falls outside the reach of individual action. We can and should do more.
This week Independent Media launches its own initiative to counter the scourge of racism, both in its structural and personal dynamics.
“Racism Stops With Me” is a call to all our major stakeholders – readers, commercial partners, advertisers, investors, our staff and our society in general – to work together to confront the reality of racism in our society once and for all. Racism in our country will not be defeated except by a concerted collective effort.
We must identify and isolate those who harbour attitudes – and take actions – that threaten SA’s ability to deal with apartheid’s legacy.
We must make the policy choices that will most help us to reverse the racialised inequality of post-1994 South Africa, something our ruling elite has all but suspended for 22 years.
We must no longer allow businesses to get away with a lax attitude to black economic empowerment, employment equity, gender parity, and other policies aimed at redress. In addition we must no longer tolerate those in the state and self-seeking politicians to use these cynically to enrich themselves and their cronies.
Over the next few months, we are partnering with the Sa Clothing and Textile Workers Union, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and other willing organisations both in and outside the Anti-Racism Network of SA to face down the economic, political, social and cultural legacy of racism in our country.
We will put our platforms to good use in this fight. We will be publishing some of South Africa’s – and the world’s – leading thinkers and writers on the subjects of race, oppression, inequality, justice and reconciliation.
We will invite our readers into a conversation about race and racism. But we will also give them options on what to do when confronted with racism, and what they can do to combat it in their own lives.
We aim to spark and encourage conversations on the vexed question of changing South Africa, in order to achieve the goal of a non-racist, non-|sexist egalitarian and prosperous society.
But we will look to do more than report on and expose racism. We will highlight the positive stories of change and reconciliation that are taking our country forward.
We will endeavour to hold all to account to the standards demanded of us by the need to build a new country – politicians, business, ourselves, our colleagues and competitors, our readers, and all South Africans.