File photo: Carlo Allegri

It is quite depressing that much of the discussion about race is still based on greed and ignorance, says John Cowlin.

Johannesburg - It is extraordinary that 21 years into our democracy the obsession with race persists. Despite the liberating discoveries about race over the last 60 years, the discourse is sometimes no different from the time of apartheid. Furthermore, it is quite depressing that much of this discussion is still based on greed and ignorance.

In the last century, the study of human genetics, anthropology and palaeontology suggests it was very likely that our species, Homo sapiens, originated in Africa and left home to populate the world about 45 000 years ago. In this process differences in appearance, culture and languages emerged. We nevertheless remained the same species.

There is thus no rational excuse for perpetuating the myths and prejudices which resulted in apartheid. In sharp contrast, there is every reason for leaders at all levels of our society to publicly promote non-racism based upon current scientific evidence and our common human origins.

It is perhaps worthwhile to compare and contrast the evolution of apartheid with the exciting developments in molecular biology and human genetics, processes that were practically simultaneous yet so completely contradictory.

Whilst segregation and discrimination had existed in southern Africa for several hundred years, the electoral victory of the National party in 1948 led to an intensification of racial prejudice. The cornerstone of apartheid was the Population Registration Act of 1950. This reprehensible piece of legislation sought to classify South Africans according to “race”.

When introducing this legislation, the minister of the interior used the following justification: “The determination of a person’s race is of the greatest importance in the enforcement of any existing or future laws in connection with separate residential areas.”

This act was based upon criteria of appearance, general acceptance and repute. The politicians and bureaucrats responsible for the act completely ignored the long history of social and sexual interaction which had taken place in South Africa between the San, Khoikhoi, European settlers, slaves from Africa and the Far East and the Nguni-speaking peoples migrating southwards.

Initially there were three broad groupings: native, white and coloured. In 1959 a further seven subdivisions of the coloured grouping was introduced: Cape Coloured, Malay, Griqua, Chinese, Indian, other Asiatic, and other Coloured.

A Race Relations Board was established in order to determine so-called “problematic cases”.

This iniquitous institution used arbitrary tests on people’s fingernails and the curls in their hair to determine their race classification.

Many so-called coloured people who were accepted as white, and had thus married whites, were reclassified with tragic consequences. As a result of the Mixed Marriages Act passed in 1949 and the iniquitous Immorality Act of 1950, so-called coloured people were now married illegally. Some committed suicide, many immigrated and others were prosecuted.

The absurdity of this race classification became evident in a debate in the Coloured House of Representatives in 1988. A member described how he had been classified as Malay, two of his brothers as Cape Coloured, and a third as white. At the same time, two of his sisters were classified as Cape Coloured and a third as Indian (Rethinking the Rise and Fall of Apartheid, Adrian Guelke).

During this period of racial and social engineering in South Africa, exciting developments in the field of genetics were taking place in Europe and the United States.

Just as the tragic consequences of apartheid legislation were becoming evident, Francis Crick and James Watson had discovered the DNA molecule and its ability to make copies of itself and thus be passed from generation to generation. These remarkable scientists had continued the work of Gregor Mendel, a 19th-century Augustinian monk, who postulated that the morphological appearance of subsequent generations were determined by units of inheritance invisible to the naked eye. We now call these units genes, which reside on chromosomes.

Watson and Crick’s discoveries in 1953 led ultimately to the Human Genome Project, the purpose of which was to sequence the 20 to 30 000 genes contained in our cells. By the 1970s this project was well under way, just as the first cracks in the apartheid edifice started becoming evident. By the ’80s almost all the genes had been sequenced, when it became obvious that apartheid was doomed.

The study of genetics is an exciting and vast field which has already provided remarkable benefits to mankind. Perhaps the greatest of all is the fact that we share 98 percent of our genes with each other. Furthermore, whilst genes contribute to our understanding of the differences in the external appearance (phenotype) of individuals, there is no evidence whatsoever that the inheritance of intelligence, skill or any other social attribute is associated with physical appearance.

Modern human genetics also exploded the myth of so-called “pure races”. In the South African context, Jared Diamond, in his remarkable book Guns, Germs and Steel, points out that some 18 percent of Afrikaans-speaking whites possess genes of non-European origin.

Wilmot James, in his book Nature’s Gifts, provides a dramatic description of the widely varied ancestry of people who consider themselves as white, black and coloured respectively.

In one example, only 5 percent of those who regarded themselves as white were actually from Western Europe. In another, more than half of those who identified themselves as coloured were actually from central Africa and therefore had Niger Congo (black) origins.

The iconic Nelson Mandela voluntarily underwent a genetic examination. He was proud to hear his grandmother was Khoikhoi .

The Population Registration Act of 1950, along with other legislation, such as the Group Areas Act, the Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act, were rigidly enforced. The maintenance of so-called racial purity was pursued with an intensity which bordered on the fanatical.

Apartheid spread into every aspect of South African society. On the one hand, better education and health care provided South African whites with huge advantages in terms of skills, qualifications and business opportunities.

Forty years of Bantu education has provided little for the majority of the country. A few exceptional and very determined individuals managed to achieve a decent standard of education.

Apartheid has made it difficult for all of us to think in non-racial terms, despite our vastly different ancestry. The rigid, unscientific and discriminatory classification of the Population Registration Act has placed us all in a racial strait- jacket which is totally in conflict with the current teachings of human genetics.

Sometimes one cannot help thinking that the apartheid planners of the ’50s are still ruling from the grave.

Thus, in the second decade of the 21st century, we remain constrained and restricted by policies and legislation from the past.

The constitution and other legislation introduced since 1994 neatly sidesteps the scientific and legal problems with previous definitions by referring to people other than white as “previously disadvantaged”. Of greater concern is the growing belief in governing circles that it is only blacks who were previously disadvantaged, even though apartheid laws were discriminatory to all others but whites.

It is, however, extremely alarming that certain members of the ruling party have returned to the racial classifications of the ’50s – black, coloured and Indian – despite abundant evidence that such distinctions are totally unscientific and prejudicial.

At some stage one has to ask the question: is the future of this country going to be based on the flawed thinking similar to that of the racist planners of apartheid, or will we at some stage move forward into the non-racial South Africa described by the Freedom Charter?

During the disintegration of apartheid and the early years of democracy, we were blessed with a number of exceptional leaders.

At present visionary and courageous leaders in government are conspicuous by their absence.

Who then will step forward to embrace modern science, reject prejudice and demonstrate that races can exist without racism?

* Cowlin is a retired medical doctor with an interest in history, genetics and evolution.

** The views expressed here are nt necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Times