We must fight racism on every level
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Phumlani Mfeka’s virulently anti-Indian column should not have been published, says Imraan Buccus.
Johannesburg - Anti-Indian sentiment is back in the limelight. In May, City Press published a virulently anti-Indian column that carried an implicit threat of racial violence. There was no evidence that Phumlani Mfeka’s views had any popular support, or that his organisation really existed, but the newspaper decided to give him space to express his racist ideas on the grounds that he had some support on Twitter.
City Press should not have published the column. As one commentator observed, Mfeka’s views are fascist. And, as another noted, The New York Times doesn’t publish the Ku Klux Klan. It seems that the Human Rights Commission will act.
However, The New York Times does write about the Ku Klux Klan and issues of race in the US, and we should resist the temptation to sweep the issue of African and Indian relations under the carpet. This is not helpful. There are real issues that deserve careful and honest discussion. Mfeka’s column, with its wild generalisations, implicit threat of violence and repetition of the colonial idea that Indians must return to India, was dishonest, malicious and filled with racist bile.
He has since written a letter in response to the Human Rights Commission that has been circulated. There are some valid points in this letter. It is true that there are allegations that Gandhi was a racist. There were also times he looked down on indentured Indians.
It is also true that while Indians and Africans were both oppressed under apartheid, Africans were subject to a more virulent oppression.
These realities should not be denied. We need to tell the truth about history and that includes being honest about the fact that there has long been an ugly racist streak in the South African Indian community. And both these communities were subject to brutal racial capitalism by the white minority.
However, Mfeka’s response to the Human Rights Commission makes no mention of the undeniable fact that many Indians did resist apartheid. Of course the Indian community has sometimes pretended that all Indians were anti-apartheid, which is not true.
But many black people were also complicit with the system, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, and the mere fact that some Indians resisted apartheid shows that any generalisations about people’s political views on the basis of their race will always be bogus.
The reality is that a person’s race tells you nothing at all about their politics or their political history. For Mfeka to just ignore the heroic lives of people like Yusuf Dadoo, Phyllis Naidoo, Rubin Phillip, Jay Naidoo and so many others is entirely dishonest.
Mfeka also doesn’t mention that in poorer parts of Durban, like Motala Heights in Pinetown and in parts of Chatsworth, Indians and Africans have been living together, and struggling together, for many years.
He quotes a slogan that has emerged from the grass-roots struggles – “we are poor, not stupid” – but doesn’t admit that these are non-racial struggles in which poor Indians and Africans are struggling side by side for social justice. Mfeka also grossly overstates the tension between Indians and Africans.
It is true that some Africans do hold negative stereotypes about Indian people and that some Indian people do hold racist views towards African people.
But there are plenty of people who are getting on with life, as colleagues, comrades or lovers.
There are plenty of Indians who are outraged by the racism in their community.
Mfeka’s position is that of racial nationalism taken to the point of fascism. It leaves no room at all for individuals to make their own ethical and political choices.
It uses a distorted account of history and present realities to try to deny some people full citizenship. The non-racial ideal was developed in the Black Consciousness Movement in Durban in the 1970s.
It developed further in the United Democratic Front in the 1980s. It accords with the teachings of all the major religions and its ethical sophistication meant that the Struggle against apartheid was a Struggle for justice and not just for power. We all need to defend this ideal in our day-to-day lives, at work, in the political sphere and in our families.
Defending it means we must be opposed to all forms of racism, including racism within and against our own communities.
Demagoguery is not a route to justice. Julius Malema, Mfeka and other demagogues, including those who have arisen in the Indian community, are merely exploiting suffering and offer no path to a better world. That requires building strong institutions, engaging in vibrant and honest discussions and, above all, in the patient labour of day-to-day organising among the oppressed and exploited. Anyone who is serious about social justice should be at the coalface of this work.
* Imraan Buccus is a research fellow at the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.