Mamphela Ramphele

Fig leaf of colour coding at the heart of our woundedness

2019-05-07 08:43

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Why would "race" be a plausible explanatory variable for inequalities in the face of so many engineered structural inequities that remain engrained in our social relationships, asks Mamphela Ramphele.

Our woundedness was again laid bare by the publication of a study by Stellenbosch University during the Easter weekend that purported to demonstrate that "coloured" women had lower cognitive development than the rest of humanity, especially those with the least education. 

How could Stellenbosch University's ethics committee grant permission for a study of "racial" attributes in 2019? Neuroscience has now established clearly that multi-generational humiliation undermines the capacity of human beings to realise their full potential.  The history of "race" attributes is one of disgraceful abuse of science to justify iniquities. There is only one race – the human race.

"Coloured" women have been the most violated indigenous people given that they were amongst the first people to encountered the brutality of colonial conquest, and white male supremacy. Colonists violated the bodies of indigenous women to satisfy their sexual and labour needs. In addition, "the dop system" that persists to date was deliberately used to enslave indigenous people and has destroyed the human potential of many generations. 

Why would "race" be a plausible explanatory variable for inequalities in the face of all these engineered structural inequities that remain engrained in our social relationships? "Coloured" women's bodies and souls carry untold stories of pain and humiliation.

The irony of is that the town of Stellenbosch, where this university is located, is named after Simon van der Stel, whose mother was a black woman. In the logic of our colour-coding obsession, his parentage makes him a "coloured" man. According to the logic of the study, he would have been a suspect of below average cognitive development.  

The election campaign discourse over the last few weeks has failed to grasp the nettle of structural inequalities that are the root cause of our national malaise of poverty, unemployment and inequalities. All parties offered a menu of promises to grow the economy, create jobs, build more houses, double social grants, and fix the ailing education and health care systems. None of the parties offered to name and tackle the root cause of our social malaise – our woundedness. 

The myth of 'races'

Our woundedness results from engineered multi-generational humiliation through structural and institutionalised inequalities. The myth of "races" and whiteness spawned colour-coded colonial socio-economic policies that justified the exploitation of indigenous people, inflicting deep wounds in us.  Colour-coding continues to shape our country's socio-economic system. 

African American psychologist, Resmaa Menakem, in his book, My Grandmother's Hands, examines the impact of this myth on social relations in the USA, detailing experiences that resonate with our own: "For all its fraudulence, however, race is a myth with teeth and claws, one that continues to tear bodies apart. Institutions, structures, beliefs, practices, and narratives have been created around it and have helped to perpetuate it. Until we recognise it for the collective delusion it is, it might as well be real." 

We are now 25 years old as a democracy and will tomorrow be electing the sixth administration to tackle the unfinished business of healing the wounds of our divided past. Healing is essential for us to become the nation we aspire to – a people known for their Ubuntu, and confident in our identity as Africans who respect others simply because they are human. 

Our socio-economic system was designed to serve less than 10% of our population and cannot be stimulated into serving the majority without major structural transformation. Our use of colour-coding over the last 25 years to promote Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) has spawned cynicism from most "white" large corporate business people who have successfully gamed the system to become even wealthier.

Most successful "black" people who have been assimilated into large corporates, may be fabulously wealthy, but they remain wounded and unable to transform these entities to become ecosystems for sustainable equitable development for the benefit of all citizens. 

Reconnect with African identity

Rev Doctor Isaias Chachine, a Mozambican and Anglican Chaplain to the University of Cape Town, in his sermon at St Georges Cathedral this Sunday, acknowledged that: "We should have given you as South Africans the space in 1994 to expose, lick and heal your wounds. This would have enabled you to understand that freedom and democracy merely open the door to a long journey of healing to secure human dignity, respect for self and others, and regaining your identity as Africans. Clothing your wounds in the Constitution prevents you from looking at them in their nakedness, licking them and healing yourselves." 

He challenged us to reconnect with African identity. South Africa cannot succeed without embedding itself in Africa. Our xenophobia that is directed at fellow Africans, who seek to live and work here, is a form of self-hatred stemming from our being conditioned to see those who look like us as inferior. We also see them as threatening competitors to those of us at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. Why else would we be so welcoming of European strangers and not of African ones? The darker the skin colour the more suspect strangers seem to us.

Healing starts with acknowledgement. Our political and socio-economic systems will continue to be vulnerable to capture until we discard the fig leaf of coding that perpetuates white privilege and black inferiority. State capture was enabled by the view that liberation movement leaders were entitled to capture the state as white people had done before them. Our leaders simply jumped into the shoes of the colonials before them, ministerial handbook and all!

The woundedness of those within the ANC, including many good people, led them to choose to close ranks behind the looters for fear of exposing black leaders as corrupt and fulfil racist myths about black people's morals. Freeing ourselves from colour coding would enable us to know that we are not defined by the misdemeanours of people who look like us – they do not represent us. We do not need to defend corrupt people simply because we fear giving racists a stick to beat us with.

The next administration needs to act with deliberate speed to create spaces for us to come to grips with the mammoth task of healing our nation so our nation can rise to its full potential. All public institutions should create spaces for civic education and conversations about the Public Service Code of Conduct instituted by former Public Service Commission, Prof Stan Sangweni, to embed the values of Ubuntu in all public servants. 

Young people in our society suffer from the neglect of civic education in our schools, homes, faith communities and workplaces. Many did not register nor to vote in these elections. Our schools should use Life Orientation in our curriculum as a space for civic education and conversations about what it means to live the values of Ubuntu. 

Teacher training, both pre- and in-service should also provide space for civic education and healing conversations to tackle racism, sexism and personal development of those charged with the development of our children. Tertiary institutions also need to prioritise the task of civic education and healing as part of student personal and leadership development to enable young people to graduate as well-informed critical thinking citizens. 

The private sector needs to acknowledge that the culture in most institutions perpetuate racism, sexism and authoritarian social relationships. Human resources and personal development functions need to embrace civic education and healing conversations to tackle the wounds of our divided society. Such interventions built trust and stimulate higher productivity as people learn to live, work and play together as citizens beyond colour-coding.

The task of healing our nation is an urgent one. The long-term future of our country will be shaped by the extent to which healing our wounds and discarding colour coding is tackled as a priority to free the human potential of all citizens.

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    race relations  |  race
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