The na­tional ques­tion to­day

The Con­sti­tu­tion be­stows equal­ity of rights and per­son­hood on to all South Africans, but when will we learn to sep­a­rate po­lit­i­cal con­tes­ta­tion from racial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to re­alise th­ese rights, asks Firoz Cachalia

CityPress - - Voices -

Re­cently, Is­mail Momo­niat, deputy di­rec­tor-gen­eral of Trea­sury was ruth­lessly ex­co­ri­ated for be­ing present to carry out his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. This is de­spite his be­ing prop­erly qual­i­fied and com­pe­tent, and re­quired as a se­nior pub­lic ser­vant, by the terms of his em­ploy­ment and his con­sti­tu­tional duty of ac­count­abil­ity to Par­lia­ment, to ap­pear be­fore par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tees.

It ap­pears his mere pres­ence in this space by virtue of his eth­nic­ity, or “race”, was suf­fi­cient to cause of­fence to some ap­par­ently sacro­sanct prin­ci­ple of African na­tion­al­ism. What are the im­pli­ca­tions of this de­mand for ex­pul­sion from or sub­or­di­na­tion in the precincts of Par­lia­ment – an in­te­gral part of the pub­lic sphere where we are all en­ti­tled to ap­pear, and to speak and be heard as equals?

Sub­se­quently, this ut­terly con­temptible ad hominem at­tack on Momo­niat’s per­son was broad­ened to in­clude an at­tack on an en­tire com­mu­nity, on the ba­sis of this com­mu­nity’s sup­pos­edly unique pre­dis­po­si­tion to racial prej­u­dice and its “dom­i­nance”. In fact, this com­mu­nity does not con­trol the state, the gov­ern­ment, the econ­omy, or the means of cul­tural pro­duc­tion.

The In­dian com­mu­nity is not the first in “postapartheid” South Africa to be as­signed some marker of col­lec­tive guilt. In­deed, the lan­guage of ac­cu­sa­tion and vil­i­fi­ca­tion has be­come nor­malised in our pub­lic dis­course.

Since “In­dian dom­i­nance” is now pre­sented as prob­lem­atic in the pub­lic po­si­tions of a po­lit­i­cal party which is rep­re­sented in Par­lia­ment, the po­si­tions they put for­ward raise po­lit­i­cal ques­tions be­yond Momo­niat’s en­tirely un­jus­ti­fied treat­ment as a pub­lic ser­vant. It is also not suf­fi­cient to point to his strug­gle cre­den­tials, since the mis­treat­ment he was sub­jected to would have been un­ac­cept­able even if he had not dis­tin­guished him­self in the trenches of the strug­gle against racism and na­tional op­pres­sion.

The at­tack on In­dian South Africans has been pre­sented as a Marx­ist-Lenin­ist anal­y­sis of the na­tional ques­tion. Ac­tu­ally, what it rep­re­sents, to bor­row lan­guage from Hannah Arendt, is a “per­ver­sion of na­tion­al­ist ide­ol­ogy into an in­creas­ingly bes­tial racial con­scious­ness”, words she used to de­scribe the im­pe­ri­al­ist jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of colo­nial­ism.

Anti-colo­nial na­tion­al­ist in­tel­lec­tu­als such as Pix­ley Ka Isaka Seme, Solomon Plaatje, IB Ta­bata, Pallo Jordan, Chris Hani, Steve Biko and Thabo Mbeki all chal­lenged no­tions of fixed racial iden­ti­ties and at­tempted in their dif­fer­ent ways to for­mu­late more uni­fy­ing and hu­man­is­ing ideas about who we are as in­di­vid­u­als, as com­mu­ni­ties and as a South African peo­ple. None of them would ever have been heard to use the kind of lan­guage we have heard re­cently be­cause they were gen­uine lead­ers of an op­pressed peo­ple, fully aware of the weight of their re­spon­si­bil­ity.

In do­ing so, they laid the ide­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tions for the emer­gence in South Africa of a “one na­tion con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy”, which recog­nises that as ci­ti­zens we are one peo­ple, and as in­di­vid­u­als we have many ways of be­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing.

The Con­sti­tu­tion en­ables us to take a crit­i­cal and re­flec­tive at­ti­tude to ques­tions of iden­tity and be­long­ing. We are free to re­ject the apartheid clas­si­fi­ca­tions, and its as­so­ci­ated in­iq­ui­ties and in­equal­i­ties, to think about what we have in com­mon, while val­i­dat­ing and re­spect­ing dif­fer­ences that are not based on in­jus­tice.

An iden­tity as In­dian should then have a re­spected place among other South African iden­ti­ties, while recog­nis­ing that this South African com­mu­nity is it­self in­ter­nally di­verse along many di­men­sions of per­son­hood, and so can­not, and should not, be ho­mogenised as a “race” with fixed at­tributes, po­lit­i­cal lo­ca­tions and opin­ions.

This kind of eman­ci­pa­tory project of “non­ra­cial­ism” and re­def­i­ni­tion also re­quires that we con­tinue to strive to dis­man­tle all un­just in­equal­i­ties that re­sulted from the coloni­sa­tion of the African peo­ple, and which arise in all con­tem­po­rary so­ci­eties from the op­er­a­tion of a glob­alised so­cioe­co­nomic sys­tem.

The re­ac­tionary lan­guage of the race es­sen­tial­ism we’ve heard from cer­tain po­lit­i­cal lead­ers pur­su­ing po­lit­i­cal power is an ob­sta­cle to this project of de­coloni­sa­tion. Its true ide­o­log­i­cal an­tecedent is not anti-colo­nial na­tion­al­ism.

Rather, it is 19th-cen­tury Euro­pean eth­nic na­tion­al­ism which, al­lied to im­pe­ri­al­ism, in­spired a phi­los­o­phy of na­tional grandeur, and ho­mogenised all groups as racial and po­lit­i­cal en­ti­ties. The “cho­sen na­tion” was then en­dowed with a na­tional des­tiny, and the rest con­signed to the gas cham­ber and colonised pe­riph­ery.

We see a re­vival of many of th­ese themes in the right wing pop­ulist re­ac­tion to glob­alised cap­i­tal­ism: “Amer­ica first”, by which Don­ald Trump means the white na­tion first; “Italy first” means African and Mus­lim mi­grants are be­neath all, and there­fore can­not be in­cluded. Racism, xeno­pho­bia and na­tion­al­ism al­ways form a toxic brew.

What is the moral ba­sis for our de­mand that “non- TALK


Is South African so­ci­ety be­com­ing in­creas­ingly in­tol­er­ant? SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word TOL­ER­ANCE and tell us what you think. Please in­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50 whites” from the colonised pe­riph­ery are en­ti­tled to hu­man rights and to equal con­sid­er­a­tion and re­spect, along with other ci­ti­zens in the global north, if we can­not pro­vide an ex­am­ple of equal­ity and tol­er­ance our­selves?

I can­not imag­ine a po­lit­i­cal party in Bri­tain to­day be­ing al­lowed to sin­gle out an In­dian civil ser­vant or Bri­tish In­di­ans for stig­ma­ti­sa­tion. Maybe our for­mer colo­nial masters learnt some­thing from the Drey­fus af­fair, which we in our in­fancy must still learn.

Where once we led by moral ex­am­ple, we prove our­selves to­day to be ill-equipped for the task of gov­ern­ing well or with jus­tice.

In power, post-colo­nial po­lit­i­cal elites have re­gret­tably not been able to sus­tain the prom­ise of eman­ci­pa­tion, or to pro­vide a per­sua­sive an­swer to the na­tional ques­tion.

Take the Mid­dle East – there ad­mit­tedly, ex­ter­nal machi­na­tions by for­mer colo­nial pow­ers are a con­stant fac­tor. But can we say that the po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and par­ties of th­ese so­ci­eties have pro­vided their di­verse peo­ple with at­trac­tive sym­bolic frame­works within which to af­firm a na­tional iden­tity while re­spect­ing dif­fer­ence?

Mbeki tried for us when he made his “I am an African speech” on the oc­ca­sion of the adop­tion of our Con­sti­tu­tion, but no­body lis­tened.

Why do eth­nic and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties face ex­is­ten­tial threats and even phys­i­cal ex­ter­mi­na­tion in many for­mer colonies?

In­dia started out as a sec­u­lar democ­racy for all its peo­ple, with­out re­gard to re­li­gious iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. To­day, ma­jori­tar­ian na­tion­al­ism holds sway. Other south­east Asian na­tions have fol­lowed this pat­tern. On our own con­ti­nent, some anti-colo­nial strug­gles were di­vided along tribal and eth­nic lines which con­tin­ued af­ter uhuru. In at least one case, we had a geno­cide. When will we learn the im­por­tance of sep­a­rat­ing po­lit­i­cal con­tes­ta­tion and racial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion?

The adop­tion of the new Con­sti­tu­tion in 1996, which in its pre­am­ble be­gins with the words “We the Peo­ple” – mean­ing we, the South African peo­ple – con­fers rights of po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion and per­son­hood on all with­out re­gard to race or other ir­rel­e­vant con­sid­er­a­tions. Its adop­tion gave us a sec­ond chance at a new be­gin­ning and rep­re­sented still un­ful­filled pos­si­bil­i­ties. To ful­fil its prom­ise, we must all be able to present our­selves in pub­lic with­out shame.

Cachalia is a law pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand. He is a for­mer MEC in the Gaut­eng pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment and is cur­rently a board mem­ber of the Ahmed Kathrada Foun­da­tion. He writes in his per­sonal



Floyd Shivambu, chief whip of the EFF


Is­mail Momo­niat, deputy di­rec­tor-gen­eral of Trea­sury

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