Living out of the box

2010-10-05 00:00

IN the words of the musical, the mythical Camelot was a “brief shining moment” of hope in a time of lawlessness and suffering. South Africans have also had their “brief moments”, most recently during the World Cup when, for a few short weeks, we put aside our normal concerns with crime and corruption, failing services and political bickering, to enjoy the simple pleasure of being a united nation sharing the same excitements and passions. We discovered anew that we are actually a nation, despite our political, ethnic and religious differences, and that our commonalities transcend our more visible differences.

Under our nonracial veneer, the political discourse of race-based nationalism continues unabated. From the ANC Youth League to cabinet ministers, the rhetoric of race is used to produce ethnic solidarity, with the aim of maintaining political power. Racial identities are never neutral in this county. Despite our constitutional guarantees of nonracialism, the business of ethnic bean-counting carries on. There are no laws requiring bureaucrats to assign a person to a racial identity, no demeaning and absurd pencil tests any more, yet no sooner does an official issue a form for some citizen to fill in than there it is: tick a box indicating your racial identity. When you ask the official, who is usually being very nice about it all, how you are supposed to complete a form which is based on a nonexistent law of racial classification, they are either bemused or, if they are honest, will tell you that you should answer in terms of how you were previously classified. This honesty is the bureaucratic equivalent of saying, “yes, the whole thing is ridiculous, but let’s all play along anyway”.

Against this backdrop, the Democratic Alliance (DA) recently adopted at its federal congress a resolution encouraging all supporters of the party to assert their common South African identity and to indicate on official forms that they are just South Africans, not black or white or brown. This is a perfectly acceptable affirmation of our non-racial constitution and asserts, in the face of a disturbing return to the rhetoric of racial nationalism by the ANC, that there is an alternative political discourse available within a party that stands for an open society for all.

This resolution does not mean that the DA is about to embark on a course of civil disobedience. The fact is that no law exists by which citizens of the republic can be assigned to predetermined race groups by the whim or edict of any official. Rather, what is being asserted is the right to choose one’s own identity.

Quite apart from the rabid nationalists, there will be those dedicated statisticians who will be alarmed by this failure to tick all the boxes correctly. It will undermine much of their information gathering if they cannot break data down into racial categories. Once data are statistically manipulated and presented in racial categories it is always used for a political purpose which often has little to do with addressing the fundamentals of poverty or deprivation, but everything with building up racial nationalism and perceptions of difference, or solidarity, depending on the context. Data do not come neutral, and if we do not wish to be boxed according to someone else’s perceptions then we need to assert what we are rather than what someone else wants us to be.

• Mark Steele is a member of Parliament and DA spokesperson for Scopa.

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