The fu­til­ity of race di­a­logues

With­out con­text, anal­y­sis or rea­son, it serves only to vent per­sonal and in­di­vid­ual frus­tra­tions and is­sues

Post - - NEWS - DEVI RAJAB ●

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.

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