The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation hosted a public symposium on the prospects of non-racialism in South Africa. It provided a demanding set of inputs, and left this “politically immature” writer, with the sense that an important discussion on race in South Africa is starting. Here are some initial thoughts on an issue I need to spend more time engaging with.
There are some topics I have a reluctance to talk about. Of these discussing non-racialism makes me more reluctant. I have listened to various inputs on the subject. Some have traced the development of policy in the African National Congress, from Morogoro to Kabwe, to the Reconstruction and Development Programme and Growth, Employment and Redistribution, and more recently on the meaning of non-racialism post-Polokwane. Others have emphasised the importance of “material conditions” today, remaining that of the past. Still others, often over a meal, tell extraordinary tales of exclusion. It does not matter whether you are white, black, indian or coloured – everyone in South Africa somehow feels excluded on race, and in my social interactions gender and class rarely feature in political discourse. More to the point, it does not matter if I am speaking to a female union organiser, or a male business executive. I am often left at a loss for words for two related reasons. First, that the historical accounts, require one to be “politically mature”, and the informal discussions are not amenable to evidence based arguments. The result silence, and about one week to pluck up the courage to post this note. It is an exploratory and potentially politically immature reflections on the symposium hosted by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. The reason is that as we explore on this website issues of economic inclusion and economic transformation, we cannot duck the question of race.
I was reminded of my blackness, at an important symposium organised by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. The symposium asked a demanding question – what are the prospects for non-racialism in South Africa. The reminder of my blackness emerged via an input from black consciousness activist Andile Mngxitama. In recounting the theory of Steve Biko, Mngxitama reminded us all that blacks referred to africans, indians and couloureds. Hold on for just one second I thought, if blackness was a consciousness, could not whites also be black – in the sense of sharing a perspective focussed on redressing the past? In other words, is the simple clash as Andile suggested between “white oppression” on the one hand, and “black solidarity” on the other hand not just a restatement of traditional divisions of the past and the present, that will perpetuate racial oppression. Andile would argue in response that the black condition is akin to structural violence meted out daily through spatial configuration of apartheid cities, and through every avenue of life, including the reform programme of the African National Congress. This is a tough proposition, the dream of non-racialism will only emerge through a struggle between “white oppression” and “black solidarity”. The perspective further assumes that capitalism must be challenged as it is the backbone of exploitative relationship. In many respects, this perspective struck me as a too easy interpretation of the deep challenges that we face.
The Unbreakable Thread or the Unbreakable Link?
In contrast, David Everett (who provided a response to the panelists) adopted the least tough position focussing on process. He argued based on some of the best data available in South Africa, a process of whites and blacks interacting and finding each other would lead to better prospects for non-racialism. Of course there is value in this perspective, as interactions across race remain largely confined to the middle classes. More unequal relations between the employer and the domestic worker, the suit and the car guard occur daily. Usually those with material wealth in these interactions are white, but has become more non-racial, as the elite in society becomes more and more racially diverse. So perhaps what Everett meant to say is that the interactions between the races should make real the deep divisions that even after 17 years of democracy, remind us of what was once called “apartheid material conditions”. This requires conceding the unbreakable link between addressing inequality and building non-racialism. Everett however argued a more intrinsic meaning of non-racialism as an “unbreakable thread” drawing on the arguments of Julie Frederikse. A long tradition of cooperation amongst races must be sustained, and through that a programme of action emerges. Everett however went a step further arguing that non-racialism was so intrinsically important in and of itself, that it should not always be argued in instrumental terms of a more equal society. Here again, the ease of the argument and the suggested interventions seemed too simple.
Focus on inequality
Everett, spoke after all the panelist. Seemingly the most instrumentalist account of non-racialism emerged from the Zwelinzima Vavi. The General Secretary of COSATU provide the empirical facts of a wide division between the races, especially in relation to the distribution of wealth and income. Grounded in the Freedom Charter, Vavi argued for the importance of a new growth path that includes all South Africans and redress the imbalances of the past. The frightening reminder he provided was that 70% of young people are unemployed, and referred to this as a “ticking time bomb” that will explode if the future. He addressed the seeming gulf between “worker consciousness” on the one hand, and “black consciousness” on the other hand, with fortitude and clarity. The basic outline was not just that there was an overlap between race and class in South Africa, but rather that in being black and working class, the best approach to striving towards non-racialism was through an shifting power relations, especially in the economy. In his parlance, through strengthening the National Democratic Revolution(NDR). The NDR has complex foundations, but could be interpreted in a crude way as an imagining of the South African dream that is about a non-racial, non-sexist, prosperous and democratic society. The tactical stance of focussing on the instrumental questions of attaining equality, seemed to be grounded in view that the principles of the Freedom Charter represented the intrinsic core of non-racialism, and that the challenge today was about attaining that vision. Having worked in the trade union movement, this perspective is one I readily understand. It however left me wondering what the practical steps are for a more equal society (circa 2011), and whether egalitarianism and socialism needs to have a deeper focus on race.
Feroz Cachalia entered the debate arguing for the importance of democratic politics. He alluded to a deeper version of democratic politics than what we currently experienced, but did not adequately elaborate upon this. A couple of hints as to its meaning were that contestation should take place between legitimate opponents and that redress and redistribution were core to democratic politics. The foundation for the argument was to review the meaning of non-racialism in the liberation movement in South Africa. Cachalia argued that non-racialism emphasised a common humanity, strongly egalitarian roots and valorisation of black identity. He did not however argue that these elements were seamlessly integrated, but rather that these elements from the past resonate today, in how we tackle the present, and imagine the future. Importantly, through understanding the past, he stressed the egalitarian roots of the non-racial movement in South Africa.Perhaps, then it is on egalitarianism that the activist core of the Tripartite Alliance unite, against the erosion of values being undertaken by a range of forces in South Africa?
Everything’s contingent, except the principle of non-racialism
Raymond Suttner argued a more contingent meaning of race, describing it as shifting and ever changing. However, rather than an illusive concept that cannot be grasped, he argued that “race matters”. It matters to be reminded of race, least we are blinded to the inequality we face was the argument that I most readily associate with his input. Two additional pointers emerged that I found especially useful in Suttner’s input. First, that the media continually focusses on the symptoms of racial division, especially through focussing on a couple of statements, without tackling the underlying features of inequality. It is a reminder that a little publication like Zapreneur needs to take seriously. Second, that African Nationalism can assume both inclusive and exclusive forms of engagement. But there was more, and frankly speaking, I could not decipher it all because following an argument that race (and I make the extension to non-racialism) being contingent is a head spinning experience. I am penciling in reading Suttners books to better understand his perspective.
Let the people speak!
The audience provided a diverse set of responses that highlighted the deep challenges that we face. A black professional in the finance sector raised the racial pecking order of wages (i.e. whites, indians, coloureds and africans) and argued that it made one conscious of ones place in the economy. It asked a demanding question of Andile, is a multi-class alliance consistent with his support for socialism. Another audience member and a longstanding activist argued that without redress the foundations for non-racialism will not emerge, providing a striking rejoinder to Everitt by suggesting that redistribution was not instrumental but intrinsic to the concept of non-racialism. Several audience members questioned why Cosatu remains within the Tripartite Alliance when the statistics show that the economy has not changed. Vavi’s rejoinder was that the working class always makes common cause with the majority for strategic and principle reasons. Stuttner arguments were not contested directly, but more implicitly the audience hinted that the focus needs to be on how the past shapes the present.
The importance of the debate is that it represented a microcosm of South African society, tolerant, engaged and passionate. The event reminded me both of how difficult the path to equality and non-racialism is, and that South Africa is ready to engage on the issues. At it’s core, it requires linking the conceptually head spinning debates on the meaning of race, with the day-to-day expressions of race as an exclusionary reality. And yes, to overcome racial divisions of the past, redistribution matters especially if it is provides sustainable income and assets to the poor. But, then again, I may be skirting more difficult questions.