Guest Column

The race for equality

2017-04-09 06:13
White picket Anti-apartheid demonstrators in London in 1978. Picture: Rolls Press / Popperfoto / Getty Images

White picket Anti-apartheid demonstrators in London in 1978. Picture: Rolls Press / Popperfoto / Getty Images

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Mandla Nkomfe

The modern economic system in South Africa was, and still is, built on the back of institutionalised racism – the two have always reinforced each other.

The migrant labour system facilitated the continuous exploitation of black people on a large scale.

The high profits generated by this system ensured that a section of people (the white community) had a high standard of living, comparable with developed societies abroad.

Denied of basic political rights, black people’s social, economic and political conditions deteriorated to abject conditions, with most living in the Bantustans and overcrowded townships, with an appalling school system.

The sugar industry in KwaZulu-Natal was built on the back of indentured Indian labour.

The prosperity of the Western Cape economy relied on the exploitation of the coloured labour in the wine farms, textile and other sectors.

The mining industry in the former Transvaal relied on superexploited black migrant labourers.

The victory of the National Party in 1948 inaugurated apartheid as an official state ideology.

This ideology elevated all white people to the level of citizens – with full participation in the political process, such as the right to vote and to be voted into office.

It further gave white workers preferential access to the labour market and ensured that managerial positions in firms were held by white people.

In this way, the “poor-white problem” was attended to.

On the other hand, all black people were to remain subjects of the colonial system, denied the political franchise.

The success of the project of colonialism of a special type depended on the deployment of the mechanism of race classification in deciding whom to include or exclude in the socioeconomic, cultural and political process.

Colour was to be a determining criterion to one’s life opportunities and chances.

It is in this context that the struggle against apartheid has to be viewed – a struggle to end racism in politics, society and the economy and to establish and promote nonracialism in its wake.

These efforts crystallised into a set of demands ensconced in the Freedom Charter, an antithesis of the apartheid sociopolitical order.

The Freedom Charter asserted that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.

In this way, it underscored the claim that modern South Africa is a proud product of the labour of its entire people.

Thus, it is our common heritage. All South Africans must benefit from its prosperity.

The election of a democratic government based on the will of the people and the adoption of a new Constitution marked the end of more than 350 years of oppression and exclusion based on race.

This was an official end to institutionalised racism, but its effects would remain for a long time.

Much work has been done on the political front (with the ever-present challenges of racism, ethnicity and regionalism).

While there is an emergence of individual acts of racism, the effects of institutionalised racism remain.

The different actors in our economy (sectors and firms) are still largely characterised by hidden racist bias in practice and operations. The legacy of the migrant labour system still looms large in our space.

The Marikana tragedy was an acute manifestation of this reality.

The need to close the apartheid wage, the removal of barriers to black professionals from ascending to the highest level of management in our country’s private enterprises and the speedy progressive ownership of wealth by black people are critical to the building of a sustainable common future.

Eliminating racism in firms and other economic institutions will result in all people realising their political, economic and cultural agency.

This is the foundation for living a richer, fulfilled and all-rounded life.

Economic freedom is therefore essential in addressing the needs of all South Africans. For economic emancipation to rise, racism in the economy must fall.

Transformation of the economy

Our economy must serve all South Africans, irrespective of race, gender, class and geography.

It must do so by meeting their basic needs. It must result in prosperity for all and focus on people as its reason to exist.

South Africans must feel a sense of wellbeing.

For this to be realised, racism must be eradicated in the workplace, greater levels of employment by all South Africans must be attained, and the management levels of our private enterprises must reflect the demographics of the country.

More South Africans, particularly black South Africans, must be given space to participate in small, medium and big businesses.

Big corporations must be regulated to prevent the abuse of their dominance in respective markets and, in some instances, more space must be created for the participation of new players.

An inclusive and equitable society

Our Constitution envisages a more inclusive and equitable society, characterised by the promotion of nonracialism, nonethnicity, nonsexism and fair values, with social justice and human solidarity at its core.

An inclusive and equitable society should be one that places the worth of every South African, irrespective of race and colour, on an equal sociopolitical, cultural and political platform.

While much has been done to advance these ideas, there is often an inclination by some among us to retreat to our provincial moorings.

This is especially so in times of economic and political crisis with low economic growth, stalled and decaying political process.

In this context, the urge to populism becomes stronger.

By this I mean the tendency for short-cut solutions and deceiving the mass of the people. With this come revolutionary-sounding slogans aimed at securing the trust of the people.

Leadership in its various manifestations (political, business, faith-based and civil society at large) is a critical variable in working to eliminate racism and build a common future.

Leaders must transcend their immediate, short-term interests and continue to promote reconciliation, broad–based transformation and the idea of a united South Africa whose destiny rests on the shoulders of its people, black and white.

To what extent will such a society see the elimination of racism?

Racism is an ideological phenomenon.

It exists at the level of the superstructure with relative autonomy from the base (economy).

Like any ideology, it persists long after its institutional form has been dismantled.

Racist stereotypes will take a long time to eliminate.

Racism and power go hand in hand.

The roots of racism can be located in the idea of the quest for economic expansion by colonial powers as they seek to conquer other countries for maximum profit.

Therefore, an economy that is free of racism and gender discrimination in its mode of operation will go a long way in creating a common society.

The material basis of racism remains economic power relations.

The elimination of racism will therefore take the efforts of all South Africans, including government, business, labour, nongovernmental organisations, cultural organisations and ordinary people.

The education system must continue to play a significant role in the elimination of racism and the promotion of nonracialism.

Broad-based economic transformation must be coupled with mass campaigns on awareness about racism to transform attitudes about racism.

Nkomfe is a board member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation

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