Not black enough for Africans

2008-11-15 00:00

The victory of president-elect Barack Obama ended a long, shameful, racially discriminatory period in United States history. But for all the excitement and pride that his election has sparked in Africa, his is an achievement that sadly could not easily be replicated on most of this continent and certainly not in South Africa.

The reason for this is that Obama, although he parcelled himself as an African-American is actually of mixed race — a coloured in South African parlance.

If he were a scion of the ruling tribe he might conceivably, as has Ian Khama in Botswana, overcome Africa’s ingrained disapproval and suspicion of mixed-race ancestry to become president. In South Africa, however, he would be disqualified from the highest office because he simply is not “black enough”.

That has been the fate of Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, who hit the African National Congress’ glass ceiling despite being by far the most competent cabinet minister in former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration. Whenever Manuel has been mentioned as a possible presidential contender, the word has firmly gone out: no need to apply, the job is reserved for blacks only, preferably a Zulu.

Given the long, avowedly nonracial, non-tribal tradition in the ANC, this cannot just be ascribed to hypocrisy. It speaks rather to the resilience of race as an issue in South African politics and the long road that minorities still have to trudge before we reach Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s “rainbow nation” nirvana.

This is the reason for the painstaking, often ludicrous social engineering that the government employs to attain its holy grail of “demographic representivity”. While there is undoubtedly a need to correct past wrongs and to open paths for promotion that were either deliberately or inadvertently closed to blacks, achieving this is not an easy equation of proportionality.

In a country with huge skills shortages, the unintended consequence of affirmative action is that instead of formerly discriminated blacks suddenly finding the highway open, they are finding it empty. Highly qualified white, Indian and coloured South Africans emigrate to where they will be valued for their skills, not their ethnicity.

The pernicious persistence of race is not unique to South Africa. It is far too early to declare that the U.S. is now a post-racial society.

The bloggers and online chatters who pray for the assassination of Obama are all whites. Ironically, unlike South Africa’s black racists who demand the racial purity of ancestry unsullied by “white” blood, American racists take the contrary view that any mixed-race progeny is “black”, no matter how light the facial hue.

Obama dealt neatly with this inherently fascist obsession with bloodlines. He marketed himself as an African-American to minorities, but his white grandmother — and his obvious devotion to her — reassured many socially conservative whites.

Whatever the tactics of race in U.S. politics, Obama himself has a self-deprecatingly robust attitude to his racial antecedents. When the Obamas went dog hunting last week for a White House pet, the one option was a “shelter dog”. “A lot of shelter dogs are mutts,” the president-elect was quoted as saying. “Like me.”

The transracial world represented by Obama should give us hope. In California, one of six children born is of mixed race. In the United Kingdom, the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights notes the “astonishing rise” in the number of mixed-race Britons, and predicts that they will be the single largest minority group by 2020.

If we humans lack the imagination and generosity to treat all groups equally, the solution is what the bigots call miscegenation, the creation of a racial puree in which the constituent parts are impossible to identify. Go forth and multiply.

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