Racial cleavages

2012-03-27 00:00

HELEN Zille single-handedly reduced herself and by extension the Democratic Alliance she leads from a respected voice on post-racial politics by allegedly labelling Africans from the Eastern Cape as refugees in the Western Cape. She failed to read the environment well by not realising how this would be understood in the context of racialised public discussions.

When Pieter Mulder resuscitated the myth that white settlers found an empty land in the Western Cape, many sensible South Africans brushed this aside as rantings of a desperate right winger.

A few months ago, an appeal by the never-retiring Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to impose a guilt pledge or tax on whites who had been privileged by the apartheid system so that they could atone for the sins of apartheid was viciously opposed.

There was utter refusal even to consider the idea proposed in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Instead of expanding the debate, white interest groups like Solidarity created the impression that whites would only consider reconciliation efforts that would not cost them money. More liberal groups like the DA stayed out of the debate perhaps because of the diversity of views internally in this broad church of conservatives, liberals and progressives.

Recent debates about racism against black people in the Western Cape have all ended without a clear conclusion. Opportunities to turn these controversies into a mature political discourse about how we ought to pursue tactically non-racism were squandered. Instead of finding ways of crafting a language that opens new avenues for rethinking non-racism, powerful voices stifled the debate, hoping that the underlying issues would just go away.

As a result, race-based schools of thought continue to divide rather rigidly public debates on land reform, nationalisation of mines, constitutional reform, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the media and the structure of the nation state. This leads to rather artificial differences in the public debates as both largely black and white voices seek to defend their own interests. It has now got to a point where positions on all major issues of debate are predictable and generally fixed.

For a country that is still emerging from three centuries of racial oppression of the majority by a minority and racialised politics, the least that was needed to bring about genuine unity was an open conversation about race and the new nation right from 1994. This did not happen because we were so fearful of instigating disagreements that could spark open conflicts that we hoped that declarations of non-racism in the Constitution and in public policies would somehow translate into lived realities.

Nelson Mandela made unreciprocated attempts to reconcile races, to the point that he was willing to go to his knees to ensure national reconciliation. But no tango could happen with one side dancing and the other determined to preserve privileges of the past. Every scientific analysis on the state of the nation since 1994 has warned that South Africa’s past of racial and ethnic politics will haunt its future and possibly completely undo the piecemeal reconciliation of the Mandela years. Studies in the 2000s found that South Africa has deep racial cleavages. Other reports noted that the governing party’s multi-racial character has declined.

Although the DA’s official stance is to promote discourses that are post-racial in nature, believing that race is not a critical factor in its vision of an opportunity-filled society, realpolitik has tended to bring it back to the politics of race. As power politics is a game of numbers and the DA needs black voters to grow, it increasingly uses race when identifying upcoming leaders within the party and in choosing faces for its electioneering posters.

The DA is worried that the ANC could engineer the transfer of some of its black support into the Western Cape to undo the power of DA rule there. It may be that this is happening; after all politics can be a dirty game. But for Zille to invoke the apartheid concept of blacks being refugees in the Cape is insensitive and counterproductive, to say the least. It is an unforced error that gives its opponents powerful evidence that it is using multiracialism to protect white privilege and supremacy.

Worse, instead of saying sorry, Zille defended herself by blaming the failure of the Eastern Cape for the influx of black children into Cape Town, confirming that she believes that these black children are refugees in what Mulder had suggested was a white province. Very sad, indeed.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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