Germ of racism a recurring evil
More than structural inequality, black encroachments on white South Africa account for its current paroxysm, writes Malcolm Ray
When one looks back across the vast chasm of the past two decades through a prism of fiction and rainbows, there was a tendency to view the events since 1994 as mythic.
Black youths born during apartheid were encouraged to succeed, a triumph no doubt of a culture of aspiration in the new South Africa, overlaid by a form of cultural historicity and socio-political amnesia.
By the late 1990s there were museums and heritage sites everywhere - a guided tour here, a memorial plaque there.
Through these virtual collective memories a historical romance was attempted: forgetting as a form of sublimating leads to a deracialised amnesia (let bygones be bygones). They were a banal testimonial to ANC efforts to promote an ethos of civic nationalism.
So there was a tendency to believe, as Thabo Mbeki put it in a 2006 speech to Parliament, that “yesterday was another country”; that an older generation wanted to forget and the young couldn't remember.
Yet, as these and other members of that generation pass on, it's normal to remember when blacks were denied basic human rights, education and economic opportunities. After all, they experience first-hand the bitter harvest of apartheid in townships, informal settlements, schools and workplaces.
Not so for a privileged elite of white youth. After decades spent in the washing machine of mythology, history has been bled of all reality, to the extent that few white youth today know, much less acknowledge, that apartheid was a diabolical system of discrimination against blacks, legalised and institutionalised over centuries by a hierarchical, geopolitical and segregated framework of laws brutally enforced by the government.
An older generation of white South Africans know the lie. Racism has either been privatised at dinner tables or reinvented through liberal discourses that do more to disguise unequal power relations.
Even though South Africa had experienced a dramatic process in 1994 in which the old despotism was shaken, its legacy of psychological horror and social hardship has remained an embarrassment to those who directly participated in and benefited from apartheid.
So much so that, as former head of Intelligence Mo Shaik once told me: “It's hard to find a white racist in South Africa today,” adding: “For the history of South Africa is, to recall that pregnant first sentence of a 1992 UN report, littered with horrors - the Sharpeville and Langa killings, the Soweto uprising, Boipatong and Sebokeng.”
For not a few white youth, their decampment on a new frontier beyond apartheid may have been legitimised by democracy but is also circumscribed by a border-less racial chasm inscribed in the social, cultural and economic typography of the South African landscape.
In fact, with the exception of overt racism (in the cases of Penny Sparrow and, more recently, Judge Mabel Jansen), it's largely among white youth that the hereditary, ascriptive element of racism is pervasive, exemplified by the Reitz incident at the University of the Free State, the humiliation by a white student at UCT of a black worker, the unsympathetic and sometimes violent response by white students to ongoing black student protests, and the recent social media gaffe by Matthew Theunissen.
And here it's important to remind ourselves what racism has meant. From Hendrik Verwoerd”s aggressive drive to restrict just about every facet of the economic life of blacks to Bantustans and racially segregated peri-urban townships to successor John Vorster”s urban decentralisation scheme, much of apartheid history was a carefully orchestrated crusade against black encroachments, no matter how small, on the countryside and cities of white South Africa.
Although the economic system groaned under the heavy burden of growing internal contradictions as black labour began pouring into lumbering industries and farms to meet the rising demand for labour by employers during the 1970s and 1980s, the giant machine of inferior education, job reservation, segregated areas, pass laws and influx controls only partially and temporarily accommodated their presence in white areas as migrant labourers.
Thus it was that the translation of government policy interventions since 1994 into durable propositions of national unity became a matter of simple economics: The greater the degree of structural inequality between black and white communities generally, the greater the extent of racial disharmony. Corrective measures by the ANC government such as black economic empowerment and employment equity policies popularised this hypothesis and created new discourses of social inclusion to characterise it.
The problem thus posed is inherent in policy endeavours to transfer the legacy of inequality and terms of subordination from their apartheid origins to a deracialised market.
This sort of economism is, of course, a standard narrative in political discourse. The aim of British imperium (the argument goes) since at least the late 19th century was to unite English and Afrikaner dominions in a federated union as a neo-colonial arena for the expansion of empire, direct colonialism having already become redundant.
Once the legal-administrative architecture of imperial dominion was complete in 1910, the second dimension of the Union government proved decisive for the social construction of racial identities under the National Party since 1948.
An intricate dialectic of race and class emerged: a form of class stratification coinciding in large measure with a racial hierarchy of power.
As the late Bernard Magubane put it: “The narrative of whiteness’ which informed the construction of white identity meant that race became a salient social category in South Africa.”
How this insight, at once historical and contemporary, resonates with government policy on socio-economic transformation and social cohesion today has to do with the extent to which the post-liberation nation-building project really consists in an endeavour to transform the legacy of apartheid into a genuine expression of patriotic civic-mindedness and national unity.
Most respondents surveyed by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) last year felt that it was impossible to achieve a reconciled society as long as blacks were poor.
But how much of what passes for structural inequality accounts for the sudden surge in racism two decades since 1994?
As with most social changes, the effects of racial inequality must be distinguished from identity politics and its corollary - cultural diversity and difference - accompanying the post-liberation agenda, and an attempt made to identify the features special to, or exacerbated by, the process of nation formation.
Predictably, the IRR survey found that only 11.9â€…percent of white respondents experienced racism in their daily lives, with the highest incidence among blacks generally.
More importantly, it was in urban public spaces, such as work, schools, universities, workplaces and shopping centres, that racism was a live germ.
In other words, while material inequalities are tangible, it's within deracialised spaces of interaction between mainly middle-class whites and blacks that racial prejudice is prevalent.
By this I mean the interstices of black encroachments on white cultural and social spaces (distinguishable from the ghettoised poverty of the black majority) in which racial prejudice takes on a physical dimension.
Racism without the legal trappings of apartheid, we might conclude about post-liberation South Africa. For if by apartheid we mean the exclusion of the black majority from political and economic liberties, their differential inclusion in a post-apartheid state mocks, even abandons, any pretence of social bonhomie.
To view South Africa's tentative steps to reinvent itself through socio-economic transformation and the construction of emblematic attributes and iconographies is to miss the point; it is to misconstrue form for substance, appearance for reality. It has the superficial trappings of democracy, but in every relevant respect the deeper legacy of racial prejudice, now transposed on individual and social relations among youth, has remained.
We thus have a paradox: like sexism, racism may be deeply embedded in unequal power relations, but to the extent that remedial measures have resulted in encroachments by upwardly mobile blacks on the historical insularity of whites, those measures have become breeding grounds for mental and cultural prejudices among mainly white youth.
* Malcolm Ray is a policy analyst at Africa Empowered and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.