A "politically immature" note on non-racialism and inequality

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.

Critical conversations from the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation


Reluctant me

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.

Rethinking Biko?

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.

Democratic Politics

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.

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22 thoughts on “A "politically immature" note on non-racialism and inequality”

  1. Dear Ebrahim,
    Methinks you and I were at different meetings entirely. You’ve given the exact reverse spin on what I heard Everatt (and some of the others) say – namely that nonracialism is NOT an unbreakable thread and is something that has to be fought for every day, by everyone, quoting Hilda Bernstein. He also argued, I thought quite rightly, that if we wait for “our leaders” to get us to some kind of non-racial future, we’d never get there since everyone seems to be stuck in the 2-stage theory – class first, or socialism first, or BC first, and let non-racialism wait.
    There are indeed multiple cross-race interactions happening every day, everywhere, and if you reduce them all to maids & madams (or suits and car guards) then you really do need to get out a bit more.

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for commenting. It is better if you do not use an alias, especially if you have such strong views.
    We were at the same meeting, and your recollection that David argued that non-racialism needs to be fought for everyday is correct. He however argued that it was unbreakable thread that pulled together the congress movement. At least that is my recollection, and yes we cannot wait for leaders.
    The point is about cross-race interactons is that they are layered by class. Cross-race interactions in my opinion do not happen regularly between classes, and between those outside of the middle and upper classes. Survey data I think would support this, but will check.

  3. I’m not used to being supported by god, but ‘m sure she’s right….as are you. Though I’m not sure I said NR held the movement together – I think I said I hoped it would (!). It may be clearer in your story if you note that I was a discussant not a panellist, and responded to what the others said rather than put forward my own position, as your text suggests.
    There is a project happening right now, between GCRO and the Foundation, looking at exactly the issue you raise, Ebrahim, about race/class interactions, and what’s interesting (this is qualitative work so no idea if representative etc) is that racial interactions within class is more and more common, not just the cross-class/boss-worker thing. The transcripts of all the groups we’re jointly running will be made freely available to anyone who wants them (in about a month – groups still happening) and anyone who wants to can develop their own narrative and analysis from that primary dataset.

    • Dear David,
      Thanks for writing.
      Awesome! I would like to use the dataset for analysis on this website, especially around the interactions between and within classes. Non-racialism is a difficult issue, but one that I hope will find a place as we attempt to debate questions of economic inclusion.
      I will make it clearer in the text that you were a respondent.

  4. Ag moenie worry, just a gripe.
    Unless god speaks otherwise, of course….
    On a more serious note: two days ago we had a focus group of white, male, unemployed, young Afrikaans speakers from ‘the south’ (Rosettenville etc.), and they were (a) deeply conscious of our racist past, (b) described their parents as “trapped whites” (i.e. would rather be anywhere but here and completely unreconstructed racists), but (c) they themselves – being unemployed and in their own view unemployable (because of BEE, of course…etc.) lived a life of bartering, borrowing and lending, in suburbs that have become racially and nationally enormously mixed. Their ‘jolling’ mates are from Ethiopia, Nigeria, elsewhere in Africa, plus the South African race groups – and it does seem that as poverty extends into suburbs, or if you prefer as poor suburbs nonracialise – white unemployment in Gauteng has gone from 1% in 1004 to 9% today, for example – so whites are drawn out of the laager and into something much closer to how township life is normally described. I’m not setting up causal points here (which drives what), but the result is that these guys have been pulled and/or pushed into a new way of behaving, a new way of relating, which is fascinating. Nonracial? Maybe not. Racist? Not really. Something messy and in-between, breaking the old but not quite forging something new.
    They’re the first to admit, give them a dop and they drop into racial laagers again – someone picks a fight against a whitey, all the whiteys support him – but there are things happening that are more subtle and messy and interesting than either ‘wait for the NDR to deliver’, or the ANCYL’s ‘join the ANC and you’re nonracial’, or Andile’s crowd-pleasing ‘we need a racist anti-racism revolution first’ approach.
    Jeez I should use shorter sentences.

    • Hi David,
      Very important insights in this mini case study. Looking forward to the release of data, and will in the meantime look around for a way to represent the data online.
      On a tactical note, the changes you describe raise an important question – what forms of organisation can effectively give voice to a more complex working class.
      Oh, and we like long sentences and detailed comments on Zapreneur.

  5. Firstly, this is no psuedonym, its my name. And I’m a he not a she, politically correct liberal jokes notwithstanding.
    How sweet. I didn’t write to start a love-in between the two of you but to point out how sloppy the review by Hassen was, and to use some of Everatt’s points to correct this. I could have used others. What, for example, do you have to say of the experience of racism in the financial sector by a young (black) women whose racist experiences in he financial sector were brushed off by Cachalia as irrelevant compared with the global structure of capital? What of Vavi’s pointless, dull repetition of statistics that seemed to prove the failure of the tripartite alliance, but his refusal to answer questions about why he was in it? What about Suttner preaching about how masculinist the Alliance is and how we must all go tut-tut? Strikes me there was a whole load of stuff going on that just got ignored, perhaps predictably since your all from the same ideological camp. Politically immature indeed.

    • Hi again,
      Thanks for writing. Of course my review of the symposium is based on what I think is important. For me it is the link (or absence thereof) between non-racialism and equality that is of critical importance to realising a non-racial society. Interestingly, I am working on an article on the financial sector and will provide a perspective on this in due course. There is a curious contradiction in your responses. On the one hand, you indicate that approvingly that the speakers (or some of them) emphasised the importance of fighting for non-racialism in your first comment. On the other hand, in the second comment you argue that they did so in an inadequate way, and then put it down to idelogical coherence.
      The aim of the review was to tease out the perspectives on non-racialism and inequality, and I stand by what I have written. There are of course other perspective. If you are willing to drop the psuedonym, I would be willing to provide space on Zapreneur for a full response to what you think is a sloppy review. Just one thing, I will edit out all personal and unsubstantiated attacks. Interested?
      Readers should not I edited the previous comment by “God” as he made an unsubstantiated personal attack against one of the speakers at the event.

  6. Dear God,
    What an annoying pain in the arse you are!
    I can see by your comments that you are living up to the untouchable, vengeful and punitive persona ascribed to you by so many of the world’s religions – well done, old chap.
    Quick to spit and spite, not so quick to take up the gauntlet of honest expression, eh God?
    Dear Ebrahim-Kahlil,
    I enjoyed your article and your introductory remarks, that it comprised the ‘initial thoughts’ of a ‘politically immature’ writer, were clear. I think you did a sterling job and I enjoyed the follow-up dialogue between yourself and David, and the interesting studies referred to.
    God, my suggestion would be to start a transcription service to record such conferences, then instead of formulating and sharing your own thinking and dialogue based on what transpired, you can just post it all verbatim. OMG – what a prat!

  7. Jeez, there’s a brave soul – I only attack god when my fingers are crossed behind my back, just in case…
    This is just FYI, the focus groups are now transcribed and out with authors. If you’d like access etc., suggest you contact Kathrada Foundation folk and help us plough through and try make sense of our messy, creative, sadly race-obsessed, nation.
    We have also negotiated a special edition of Politikon on the issue (and using the focus groups), so while the Foundation will do more popular and accessible work, there will also be some academic outputs that may be fun.
    God willing, of course.

  8. What value, exactly, did @Annoyed add to this, other than making it go the way of all blogs/list-serves, namely from some kind of coherent narrative into mud-slinging? I thought god made some good points and some silly ones – so?

    • @ annoyed by annoyed — thanks for the very useful note. I have been thinking about the comments policy on the site, and will look into what the best way is to proceed. I kinda like the banter, but would prefer a conversation on the site, where people are identify themselves.

  9. Eb – I’m outta here, my mailbox is just too full to follow this kind of stuff, so if anyone wants to engage me on the data, they’re welcome via GCRO, or they can go direct to Caryn Abrahams at Kathrada Foundation, but otherwise you have fun with your gods and annoyeds and the rest.

  10. Dear Readers, I have for the first time on Zapreneur “unapproved ” a comment. The comment in question made for some salacious gossip, but hardly contributed to the debate. In case you wondering, it was not directed against me 🙂 If it was, I would have replied. I hate doing this, but I want Zapreneur to be a forum of high quality debate. I have written to the commentator and indicated that if he wanted to, he can raise the matter with the Press Ombudsman.

  11. Thanks for the censorship. You really are shit-scared of supposed leaders, neh? You know, and I know, that every word I wrote is true, so why chicken out?

    • Dear “God”. I have made an editorial decision not to publish your comment. It is the right decision. I have also indicated that should you be unhappy with this decision, you have recourse to other channels. As for the me being scared and engaging in censorship, you are perfectly entitled to your opinion. It is however revealing that you did not take my offer to ditch the alias and write an alternative perspective on the meeting in question. This matter is now closed on my side.

  12. “It is the right decision” – really? You da judge, you da jury, you da chicken? Honestly, all this posturing you do about openess, but your only complaint is that de man use an alias? U should be ashamed of yourself, your supposed morals, and your supposed beliefs. What you mean is, play it safe, make sure you get the next consultancy, and stuff everything else. Jah will judge u like all others.

    • Hi god V2 – thanks for writing. Two points. First, Zapreneur is no place for slander, and that is the reason for not posting the comment you refer to. Other online publications thrive on that sort of sensationalism, but Zapreneur will not post slander for extra pageviews. Second, thanks for the reminder to be vigilant on the relationship between consultancy work and running a publicatiion. I would much rather not have to manage the relationship, but it is part of trying to establish Zapreneur through bootstrapping.

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