The army, SAPS and Metro police outside Verulam magistrate court to stabilize the situation as 8 Phoenix suspects appear in court for charges of murder and unlicensed firearms.Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)
The army, SAPS and Metro police outside Verulam magistrate court to stabilize the situation as 8 Phoenix suspects appear in court for charges of murder and unlicensed firearms.Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)

SA Unrest: Situating Racism between Blacks and Indians in perspective

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 3, 2021

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By Dr Vusi Shongwe

Opinion - We are left with a task that requires us to navigate “between the Scylla of thinking that race is mere illusion, mere ideology…on the one hand, and the Charybdis of thinking that race is something objective and fixed” (H. Winant).

It is time we ask ourselves hard questions. I. Mitroff, James R. Emshoff and Ralph H. Kilmann, in their article titled: Assumptional Analysis: A Methodology for Strategic Problem Solving, poignantly point out that our culture unconsciously trains us for compromise or even the avoidance of conflict, instead of equipping us to deal with controversy and conflict. As a result, we run the risk of reaching compromise too soon and for the wrong reasons because of our inability to tolerate conflict and controversy. Equally scathing is Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who in his book titled: In Search of Politics, cites the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis as observing that “the problem with our civilisation is that it has stopped questioning itself. No society which forgets the art of asking questions or allows this art to fall into disuse can count on finding answers to the problems that beset it – certainly not before it is too late and the answers, however, correct, have become irrelevant.”

Thus, it cannot be gainsaid that we swept the issue of racial intolerance in Durban under the carpet because we do not want to discuss a controversial thing like racism. Racism between Blacks and Indians has always been there as marked by the 1949 racial war between Indians and Blacks where 142 people were killed. It is befitting, therefore, to underline the fact that the simmering tension between the two groups has always been present.

Notably, what distinguishes the current situation from the past is that the past was manned with people like Dr Dadoo who managed to normalize things.

Unfortunately, the present generation of Indians has the racist sentiments.

In the South African context, there still exists a disquieting current of active perpetual racism as exemplified by daily reports of it (racism) which manifest themselves on various levels. The myth of a ainbow nation has come back to haunt us. The colours of the rainbow still have racism written all over them.

Sadly, while we won the fight to end legal apartheid, its vestiges remain. Thus, this opinion piece has left me with a sense of trepidation and anxiety because the ideas raised in it might elicit controversy, public opprobrium, controversy and vicious condemnation. It is against this backdrop, therefore, that Edward Said, Palestinian American Academic, political activist, and literary critic is instructive when he asserts that “Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position, which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take.

To pen this opinion piece, I have also been spurred on by three quotes from Martin Luther King Jn. Firstly, King Jn. avers that “there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.”

Secondly, King Jn. Is sagaciously of the conviction that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Thirdly, King Jn. reminds our consciences when he says “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” and that “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

In a conversation I have recently had with the academically erudite and inimitably sagacious Professor Vika Gabela, who is a retired academic from the University of Zululand, it transpired that he reads and interprets the Phoenix issue as having the potential of escalating into a national disaster, especially given the sensational reporting from social media.

Whilst we may not take any modicum of authenticity from what is posted as a reflection of the odium of racial antipathy, we should not grant uncritical credence to all reporting in social media.

There are occasional instances of distant, faked or ‘ancient’postings being inserted as referring to a particular event. Notably some of the postings are humorous and stress relieving. However, however others have the potential of not only causing an irreparable damage to those being made fun off but could also unfortunately and tragically result to dreadful consequences. Two typical examples that immediately come to mind are firstly, the widely reported yet untrue passing on of former president Zuma’s wife, uMakhumalo and secondly, Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s comment on the Phoenix massacre, which was editorially engineered to give the impression that Inkosi Buthelezi condoned and welcomed the genocidally gut-wrenching killings of black people in Phoenix.

Now I understand, without necessarily agreeing, why countries like China constantly monitor and sometimes completely shut down the internet to prevent incidents that could harm the image of the government. At the risk of contradicting myself, we would not have known the killings of the people in Phoenix had it not been for the role played by the social media.

Judging from the intensely negative reaction from the African populace, the reported murders have started to kindle ambers or flames of hostility, which, like, antecedent events of looting and wanton destruction cannot be contained by the law enforcement.

Thus, Professor Gabela’s reading and interpretation of the Phoenix issue as having the potential of ‘escalating into a national disaster’ are insightful in manty respects.

Firstly, the Phoenix issue has fermented a highly volatile political situation which demands containment without any dilatoriness. Regrettably, as averred by Professor Gabela, the law establishment and political intervention require bolstering as evidenced by the ‘antecedent events of looting. In light of this, the South African man and woman are called upon to join hands with others in addressing this volatile situation to salvage what could be further lost.

To this end, ‘other measures of intervention’ as suggested by Professor Gabela need to be devised without delay.

Notably, some notable streets in Durban and elsewhere have been renamed in honour of heroes and heroines of the struggle against apartheid South Africa. Such individual heroes and heroines hailed from among other minority communities, the Indian community and the black community at large.

Dr Monty Naicker, Dr Xuma and Dr Dado, the famous members of the Three Pact constituted an exclusive elite group which at the time conveniently dispensed with notions of self-preservation in pursuit of the most pressing noble ideal which is the forging of an inclusive community wherein race would not be a determining factor for impulsivity.

This racially inclusive community came to be known in 1994 as the Rainbow Nation despite its attendant imperfections. There seems to have been an omission in this endeavor towards the attainment of this noble ideal.

This omission, arguably, relates to how the politically attained racial inclusivity would be generationally maintained as the mark of the Rainbow Nation as we embrace our symbiotic existence notwithstanding our ideologically constructed racial differences.

The recent resurgence of racism, as exemplified by the spate of racial incidents between Blacks and Indians in Phoenix is unfortunate but not surprising. I always argue that God, in his wisdom and magnanimity, graciously gave Nelson Mandela to all South Africans so that they could build a foundation upon which a structure encapsulating the spirit of Ubuntu among the different racial groups could be built. Instead, South Africans, known for their impatience, rushed to build the ‘house’ and in the process ignored certain fundamentals like how to deal decisively with the insidious scourge of racism, which has, unfortunately come back to haunt us.

The word Phoenix is a mythical bird known for rising from its ashes. According to ancient legend, the phoenix is a bird that cyclically burns to death and is reborn from its own ashes. For this reason, the phoenix often serves as a symbol of renewal and rebirth. It is my take that instead of Indians positioning themselves antagonistically towards blacks, they should rather position themselves as agents of change. I would argue that the recent resurgence of racism notwithstanding, both Blacks and Indians are capable of collectively attaining and embracing social cohesion despite the diversity ethnically and linguistically. Phoenix is also known as a colourful, mythological bird, that symbolizes rebirth, regeneration and renewal.

The race groups are in my view morally and socially obliged to forge some kind of collaborative understanding of what it means to live alongside other racial groups outside of their affiliation. This unfortunate incident should be appropriated as affording us the opportunity to forge humane race relation between/among ourselves as diverse racial groups. It is imperative that without being necessarily oblivious of this unfortunate saga that has just befallen us, we should nevertheless strive to rise above the occasion. The ashes as evidence of the occurrence of the unfortunate saga which has seen the annihilation of human life and destruction of property should always spur us to embrace the ideals of ubuntu and peace based on the tenets of inclusivity of all races.

Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary general hit the nail on the head when he opined shortly after the

University of Orange Free State Reitz video incident. He opined that the problems with racism is that it can either be a manifestation of prejudice or stereotype. When it is a manifestation of stereotype, it is very difficult to deal with because it is in the sub-conscious mind as it is a reflection of upbringing, values. As such, it can be traced back not only to families but also to political activities both in the past and in the present.

Notwithstanding the fact that apartheid has ended, racism remains a basic problem and a dangerous threat to our human relations as differently constructed races. It is against this background, therefore, that Barney Pityana, commenting on racial discourse in the country, accused all sections of the populace for failing to talk intelligently about race with all racial groups seeing events from very narrow perspectives – blacks from a historical perspective and whites from a position of privilege derived from exclusionary practices.

Professor Fatima Meer provides context to the possible cause of the fragile and frosty relations between the Africans and people of Indian descent, and possibly the cause of the Phoenix Massacre when in her perceptive piece entitled: Indian South Africans – the Struggle to be South African, posits that whatever the Africans’ perception of the Indian in 1860, included in it must have been the sense, if not, knowledge that he had been brought by the white colonists to replace him and to be used against him in ways that he did not immediately understand. Consequently, Indians and Africans were separated from each other, and in separation, projected as dangerous to each other.

They were at the same time within “viewing” distance of each other, so that they could be constantly reminded of the strange and different ways of the other. It was such perceptions that prompted Dr AB Xuma, the president of the African National Congress, Dr G. Monty Naicker, president of the Natal Indian Congress and Dr YM Dado, president of the Transvaal Indian Congress to begin talks of unity which culminated to the signing of the Three Doctors’ Pact in 1947, which is overarching objective was that of cooperation and mutual understanding between the two communities Addressing his people, President Igo Smirnov of Transnistria said…we must save the heritage of our heroic senior generation.

Their feat will remain for centuries as a caution for our descendants, as a lesson of courage, of selfless service to the Fatherland, of fidelity to the ideals of good and justice. It can thus be argued that the signing of the Three Doctors’ Pact in 1947 lacked majoritarian approval and backing from both the Black and Indian communities as evidenced by the incidents of 1949 and 1985 respectively.

Gandhi’s Transformative Journey and its Implications for Indians living in South Africa.

The book, The South African Gandhi: Strecher-Bearer of Empire, written by Professors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed paints a picture that is at variance with how the world regards him. negative picture about Gandhi in terms of his relations with Africans. According to S. Anand, the founder of Navayana,

the publisher of the book, Gandhi routinely expressed “disdain for Africans.”

According to the book, Gandhi described black Africans as “savage,” “raw” and living a life of “indolence and nakedness. He also campaigned relentlessly to prove to the British rulers that the Indian community in South Africa was superior to native black Africans.

At a speech in Mumbai in 1896, Gandhi said that the Europeans in Natal wished “to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.

Gandhi wrote in 1908 about his experience: “we were marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs. There, our garments were stamped with the letter “N”, which meant that we were being classed with the Natives. We were all prepared for hardships, but not quite for this experience. We could understand not being classed with the whites, but to be placed on the same level with the Natives seemed too much to put up.”

Protesting the decision of Johannesburg municipal authorities to allow Africans to live alongside Indians, Gandhi wrote in 1904 that the council “must withdraw the Kaffirs from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.”

One of the battles Gandhi fought after coming to South Africa was over the separate entrances for whites and blacks at the Durban post office. Gandhi objected that Indians were “classed with the natives of South Africa, “who he called the Kaffirs, and demanded a separate entrance for Indians. As a result of Gandhi’s objection three separate entrances for natives, Asiatics and Europeans were provided.

In his article titled Opinion thinking with Gandhi on racism and violence: A letter to a friend, Ajay Skaria, pertinently poses the question: Was Gandhi racist towards blacks/ The short answer is: before 1906, emphatically yes; from 1906 to 1913, qualifiedly yes; after 1913 or so, increasingly no. However, we need to ask a supplementary question: what light and shade does thinking with Gandhi throw on our current understanding of racism and anti-racism? To that question, the schematic answer would be most of us are anti-racist in a speciesist way or by invoking the idea of a unified human species where all of us are equals.

Reddy, quoting Mandela who in a speech made in New Delhi on October 15, 1990 referred to Gandhi as the hero of both India and South Africa avers that “some of Gandhi’s early views on Africans were Racist” and that “this was before he became Mahatma.” Of importance to note in this regard is the fact that Mandela was well aware of the racist statements by Gandhi when he was young. It is against this backdrop, therefore, that Mandela wrote in an article in 1995 that “Gandhi must be forgiven for those prejudices and judged in the context of the time and circumstances” since “we are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice save that in favour of truth and justice”.

Thus, in light of the foregoing explication sketching Gandhi’s transformative journey regarding his earlier prejudices against Blacks, it can be asserted emphatically that individuals from the Indian community are capable of embarking on this transformative journey in the same way as Mahatma did.

In conclusion, John F. Kennedy’s insightful averment that “our problems are manmade – therefore, they can be resolved by man” and that “man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable and we believe they can do it again” is germane to the South African situation in the same way as it was to the American context at the time.

Hence, I am of the conviction that through the indefatigable spirit South Africans valiantly demonstrated during their fight for freedom, they will again overcome the myriad of challenges facing our country.

Thus, it bears repeating that it would be disingenuous to paint all Indian people with the same brush on the issue of racism as it obtains in South Africa. Thus, I would assert emphatically in Liss A Flores and Dreama G. Moon’s terms in their piece: Rethinking Race, Revealing Dilemmas: Imagining a New

Racial Subject in Race Traitor, that we cannot yet afford to eliminate race and racial categories nor can we unquestionably accept the idea of race. Equally true, H. Winant, in his book “Racism Today:

Continuity and change in the post-civil right era,” points out that “because racism changes and develops and because it is simultaneously a vast phenomenon framed by epochal historical developments and a moment-to-moment experiential reality, we can never expect fully to

capture it theoretically. Moreover, we cannot expect that it will ever be fully overcome”.

Also, equally true, N Barney Pityna is correct when he asserts that the task of ridding our country of all forms of racism has to be an ongoing duty. That does not mean, however, that we are free to stop trying.”

Despite its fractures and faults, or perhaps because of them, South Africa is still a place of warmth, connection and deep humanity.

By Dr Vusi Shongwe. Shongwe works for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts and Culture. The opinion piece in written in his personal capacity.

Political Bureau

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