Whites do the talk­ing; blacks do the lis­ten­ing

CityPress - - Voices -

The Colour of Our Fu­ture: Does Race Mat­ter in Post-Apartheid South Africa? Edited by Xolela Mangcu Wits Univer­sity Press 249 pages R320

The his­to­rian Phil Bon­ner has de­scribed the al­ter­na­tion be­tween non­ra­cial moder­nity of the African Na­tional Congress and the race con­scious­ness of Black Con­scious­ness and PanAfrican­ism as a “re­cur­rent trope in South African re­sis­tance history”. He writes that “this ten­sion will prob­a­bly al­ways be with us: even when the one po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion gains the as­cen­dancy, the other lurks with less public pro­file be­low”.

How­ever, a sense of this his­tor­i­cal ten­sion has been lost in the pre­tence that non­ra­cial­ism was al­ways the nor­ma­tive con­sen­sus in black pol­i­tics. This ap­par­ent con­sen­sus is of course be­lied by the tor­tu­ous jour­ney of the term.

The ANC opened its mem­ber­ship to non-Africans only in 1985, a mere five years be­fore it was un­banned. Through­out its life it was a mul­tira­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion. I pre­fer this mul­tira­cial­ism of its early years to the non­ra­cial­ism of its later years, with some caveats. The mul­tira­cial­ism I pre­fer is, how­ever, not based on race but on his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences.

The great African-Amer­i­can leader and scholar WEB Du Bois re­jected bi­o­log­i­cal def­i­ni­tions of race: “It is easy to see that a sci­en­tific def­i­ni­tion of race is im­pos­si­ble; it is easy to prove that phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics are not so in­her­ited as to make it pos­si­ble to di­vide the world into races.”

And yet Du Bois was faced with the ques­tion of what iden­tity to give to those who were op­pressed on ac­count of their phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance: “But what is this group; and how do you dif­fer­en­ti­ate it; and how can you call it Black when it is not black?”

His an­swer was that “the black man is a per­son who must ride Jim Crow in Ge­or­gia”.

Steve Biko also re­jected a bi­o­log­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of black­ness. He pro­vided a po­lit­i­cal def­i­ni­tion by go­ing a step fur­ther than Du Bois by de­scrib­ing black peo­ple as not only those who risked ar­rest for be­ing in the cities with­out a “pass” but also those who had the con­scious­ness to do some­thing about those ex­pe­ri­ences. Po­lit­i­cal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion – not mere skin pig­men­ta­tion – is key to Biko’s de­scrip­tion of black­ness as a po­lit­i­cal iden­tity. In this re­spect Biko is not far from Al­bert Luthuli, who ad­vo­cated a “mul­tira­cial so­ci­ety in a non­ra­cial democ­racy”.

Biko would of course have re­jected any bi­o­log­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of race and would have thought about mul­tira­cial­ism as an ac­knowl­edge­ment of our racialised iden­ti­ties as South Africa. He might also re­place non­ra­cial democ­racy with an­tiracist democ­racy.

I am, there­fore, ad­vo­cat­ing re­for­mu­lat­ing Luthuli’s vi­sion to that of “a mul­tira­cial so­ci­ety in an an­tiracist democ­racy”.

Too of­ten the op­po­si­tion of racist racial­ism (apartheid) to non­ra­cial in­di­vid­u­al­ity re­sults in a de­nial of group iden­ti­ties and ex­pe­ri­ences. To the ex­tent that it ex­plic­itly ac­knowl­edges racial group ex­pe­ri­ence and iden­tity, a po­lit­i­cal mul­tira­cial­ism could be much more use­ful than non­ra­cial­ism’s an­ti­thet­i­cal stance to racial group iden­tity.

Ray­mond Sut­tner still holds on to the con­cept of non­ra­cial­ism but pro­vides the kind of think­ing about racism that I pro­pose.

Sut­tner ar­gues that “the de­nial of ‘race’ is ‘an ab­stract ar­gu­ment that does not en­gage with the dis­tinct ex­pe­ri­ences of the var­i­ous sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion’.”

He also notes that “many are im­pa­tient for racial cat­e­gories to dis­ap­pear. It is of­ten asked when the tran­si­tion from apartheid and the need to re­dress will be over. These are not rad­i­cal or eman­ci­pa­tory ques­tions. They do not ad­dress the ex­pe­ri­ences of those who have been op­pressed and who, as a re­sult of apartheid lega­cies, con­tinue to en­counter ob­sta­cles in the way of self-re­al­i­sa­tion.

Sut­tner ar­gues that this is an avoid­ance strat­egy on the part of many white South Africans, who find it dif­fi­cult to con­front “the costs of their priv­i­lege, which are borne by the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in this coun­try”.

But this stands in the way of de­vel­op­ing “qual­i­ta­tively new re­la­tion­ships be­tween blacks and whites” and thereby em­bark­ing on “a mean­ing­ful road to an eman­ci­pa­tory fu­ture”.

Biko’s use of the term cul­ture has un­jus­ti­fi­ably been de­scribed as a form of racial es­sen­tial­ism or in­her­en­tism by lib­eral and left­lib­eral and Marx­ist crit­ics of Black Con­scious­ness.

I am not con­vinced by these cri­tiques be­cause they are sim­ply not true.

Even though he was not an aca­demic, Biko wrote as if he was an­tic­i­pat­ing the charge of es­sen­tial­ism: “I am not here mak­ing a case for sep­a­ra­tion on the ba­sis of cul­tural dif­fer­ences. I am suf­fi­ciently proud to be­lieve that in a nor­mal sit­u­a­tion Africans can com­fort­ably stay with peo­ple of other cul­tures and be able to con­trib­ute to the joint cul­tures of the com­mu­ni­ties they have joined.”

He ar­gued that “cul­tures af­fect each other, like fash­ions, and you can­not es­cape rub­bing against some­body else’s cul­ture”.

He was also ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal in his def­i­ni­tion of cul­ture: “This is a cul­ture that em­anates from a sit­u­a­tion of com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence of op­pres­sion.”

Now this is no dif­fer­ent from, say, Cor­nel West’s de­scrip­tion of cul­ture as “the struc­tures of mean­ing and feel­ing that cre­ated and sus­tained com­mu­ni­ties; this ar­mour con­sti­tuted ways of life and strug­gle that em­bod­ies val­ues of ser­vice and sac­ri­fice, love and care, dis­ci­pline and ex­cel­lence”.

I am sug­gest­ing that there is much that these sec­u­lar val­ues of black­ness can con­trib­ute to get­ting us to move “be­yond” race as a bi­ol­ogy to a con­scious­ness of the his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences of black peo­ple as the ba­sis for build­ing what Biko called a joint cul­ture. Biko’s cri­tique of non­ra­cial­ism was that it pre­vented the de­vel­op­ment of just such a cul­ture. He re­jected the su­per­fi­cial no­tion that “be­cause it is dif­fi­cult to bring peo­ple from dif­fer­ent races to­gether in this coun­try, there­fore achieve­ment of this is in it­self a step for­wards to­wards the to­tal lib­er­a­tion of the blacks”.

In any event, he ar­gued, “the peo­ple form­ing the in­te­grated com­plex have been ex­tracted from var­i­ous seg­re­gated so­ci­eties with their in­built com­plexes of su­pe­ri­or­ity and in­fe­ri­or­ity and these con­tinue to man­i­fest them­selves even in the non­ra­cial setup of the in­te­grated com­plex”.

“As a re­sult, the in­te­gra­tion so achieved is a one-way course, with the whites do­ing all the talk­ing and the blacks the lis­ten­ing.”

Non­ra­cial­ism has be­come an ob­sta­cle to au­then­tic di­a­logue among blacks and whites. In fact, it has be­come an ide­ol­ogy of de­nial and con­tin­ued in­equal­ity.

What we need is a frame­work that ac­knowl­edges our racialised iden­ti­ties as his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences while also reach­ing for new un­der­stand­ings of what it means to be hu­man be­yond those iden­ti­ties – “a mul­tira­cial so­ci­ety in an an­tiracist democ­racy”.

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