The futility of race dialogues
Without context, analysis or reason, it serves only to vent personal and individual frustrations and issues
AT A SYMPOSIUM on social cohesion at the ICC last week, organised by the Department of Arts, Culture and Recreation, Indo-African relations were interrogated.
It has been 70 years since the 1949 race riots took Durban by storm. Elsewhere, similar attempts were made to address the issue of racism.
UKZN held a discussion entitled: “Are Indians racist, Are Africans racist?”
In parallel talks, the Democracy Development Programme linked hands with DUT to reach out to community leaders in urban and rural areas to share their thoughts on where we stood as a nation on the issue of racism. Despite my reservations about the futility of targeting race relations between Africans and Indians, in isolation to the bigger picture of institutionalised racism and the ubiquitous nature of the very creature itself, embedded deep in the recesses of the human condition, I chose to participate in this dialogue of absurdity.
Without analysis or context or reason, race dialogues descend into a litany of personal frustrations better suited for the psychological couch or a trip down Alice in Wonderland’s hatch.
Clearly Mandela’s dream of the rainbow nation has dissipated with the advent of the steady deterioration of race relations in recent times. There are even empirical studies supporting the argument that since the advent of democracy, we have not assimilated to any great degree.
Instead, we tend to simply live alongside each other, not with each other. Structurally communities are still locked into the old ethnic enclaves of apartheid.
uMlazi and Chatsworth, and Lamontville and Phoenix, are separate residential areas housing Indians and Africans unable to rise above their racial differences. It’s little wonder that the usual stereotypes of each group still persist. Emerging from the dialogues in each of these three conferences were the same old cliched utterances: “Indians are racists”.
“They treat our people with disdain. They exploit us. We are kept down by them. They have been privileged by apartheid. Look at the big cars they drive and the big houses they live in.”
At one session, a black Muslim cleric read from his well-thumbed copy of the book The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed.
He proclaimed that Gandhi was a racist and that the Indians had learnt to be racist from their leader, or words to that effect.
“Yes Indians are the biggest racists,” boomed a voice from the heckling crowd.
He himself is a member of the very same community that he decries. They treat their servants badly. When a member of an in-group is critical of its self to its own detriment, psychologists describe the condition as self-hate. During the time of Nazi Germany, there were Jews who did the work of the establishment and they were described as self-hating Jews.
In this case, however, the self-proclamations serve only to confirm the extent and the intensity of true feelings that cannot be ignored.
“Listen without being defensive,” say the facilitators of the workshops. And so we listen. To summarise, the main arguments were that Indians as a collective have historically always seen their political struggles as being distinct from those of the native black African majority, that they have a history of treating African labourers oppressively and that they exhibit their racist tendencies through their voting patterns. According to the South African Human Rights Commission, allegations of racism make up 80% of 10 000 human rights complaints received annually on average.
Sociologists tell us that it is not unusual, in times of such intense social turmoil, for ethnic minority groups to be singled out and homogenised into a single bloc of unitary thoughts, prejudices and intentions. If, however, we had to examine the real situation of Indians in South Africa, we may find little reason to be threatened by a minority who are well represented in the poverty stakes.
There are more poor Indians than rich Indians.
They came as indentured slaves and not as merchants. They own less than 5% of the land. They may be found as street sweepers and they are generally law abiding citizens, with a strong and intact family system. They are religious and give generously to charities. They have strong eating taboos and unique cultural practices that are so dissimilar to the local indigenous culture, making assimilation difficult.
They are not a homogeneous community but differ in religion, language and cultural beliefs and practices. Professionally they are well-educated. They have contributed significantly to the political struggles of this country spawning a proud leadership, from Dr Yusuf Dadoo to Monty Naicker to Fatima Meer and Mac Maharaj.
And yet monolithic stereotypes abound, making this minority a target of prejudice. When one looks at the flip side of the coin, one sees a racial group closest to blacks in the political hierarchy of designated groups of the apartheid past as being so distinct and largely unassimilable.
They do not speak the indigenous languages and have maintained their identities relatively intact after over 140odd years. Many are perceived as having links with India and have not become Africanised.
Their radio stations reveal a unique character, closer to Bollywood than to the local culture in which they reside. It is little wonder that stereotypes about them abound, which gives rise to the tendency to view all members of one group as the same.
In a session that I was involved in, which interrogated racial dynamics and race relations in society in the context of Ubuntu, a young participant spoke of his negative experiences with his Indian employer, who treated him disrespectfully. He said his wife, who worked as a social worker, had similar experiences and complained that Indian professionals felt they were superior to blacks.
At the other end of the continuum, when I lent an ear to an Indian social worker in charge of a team of social workers, I heard a different story of poor work ethic and a lack of commitment from some black staff. Joe Lelyveld describes this as Spear and Shield thinking when black and white South Africans see reality differently.
“At one corner you see the world the way whites want to see it; at the next the world as blacks experience it and in between the two, other racial groups position themselves.”
The problem, however, rests in the fact that there is a great disparity between non-black and black thinking.
The former wishes to wipe the slate clean, and think and act “a historically” as if there was no past, while the latter cannot forget how the past has disadvantaged them and still continues to do so financially, educationally, psychologically, culturally and in so many other ways.
After 24 years of freedom, black people still feel like victims although they are being perceived as being otherwise.
The impact of this wide disparity, says sociologist Emile Durkheim, gives rise to state of anomie, a condition of social conflict.
Perhaps the widest chasm of thinking and feeling may be found among nonblack born frees, who cannot understand why race should still be a barrier against their progress.
They seem to resent the policies of affirmative action and equal opportunities (AA and EO).
They claim that we are the only country in the world where the majority people are in need of special privileges and protection against minorities. And all of this must be seen against the backdrop of a growing radicalism of pan- Africanists, who believe that Africa is for Africans and that all other racial groups are settlers.
So we are definitely in a period of intense social anxiety, which would create the conditions necessary for us to examine our fears and prejudices against each other – not in isolation of the larger context, however, as these dialogues were set up to do.
Devi Rajab is a columnist and the interim chair of the Democracy Development Programme.
We are definitely in a period of intense social anxiety DEVI RAJAB Interim chair of the Democracy Development Programme
Crowds being dispersed during the 1949 riots.