The myth of non-racialism in SA and how the ANC contributed to it through sport

It could be argued that the current state of "race" madness is the result of the disjuncture between the ANC's ideology of nationhood and the ideal of non-racialism, writes Francois Cleophas.

As the media hype around the recent retracted journal article "Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Colored South African women" fades, new polemics are emerging around another equally nauseating sounding journal article, entitled "Intelligence and slave exports from Africa".

Shortly after the co-author of this article resigned from his university appointment, the former leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, was quoted as tweeting: "black privilege… is being able to loot a country and steal hundreds of billions and get re-elected. If people want permanent poverty for the masses they are going about it the right way. #BlackPrivilege"

This race madness calls for reflection on where South Africans are on their, clearly not arrived at, non-racial roadmap towards "nationhood" as espoused in popular rhetoric of ruling party spokespersons. Such a reflection illuminates two things: the broader landscape of South African race-based politics and the role that sport played in forging a "new race" based society under the guise of nation building. 

It could be argued that the current state of "race" madness is the result of the disjuncture between the ANC's ideology of nationhood and the ideal of non-racialism. A reading of the socialist and Robben Island detainee, Neville Alexander's One Azania, One Nation reveals that the ANC was never a non-racial organisation.

At a recent symposium where the "Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Colored South African women" article was discussed, Prof Jonathan Jansen correctly stated that South African society is socially constructed around four "race groups" – coloured, Indian, African and white. This is nothing more than the four nation thesis that was formulated by the ANC Youth League in the 1940s. In essence what this thesis states is that the African "nation" is the most oppressed while the other two (coloured and Indian) are least oppressed. Accordingly, there are also sympathetic whites who deserve recognition. Hence, the four nation thesis. This was the antithesis of the dominant South African liberation discourse prior to 1948.

This discourse was one where left wing activists were campaigning around non-racialism. First, the All-Africa Convention (AAC) emerged in Bloemfontein under the influence of Isaac Tabata in 1935. This was a campaign against the Hertzog Bills that proposed indirect representation for African people in Parliament. Initially, the ANC supported the AAC but later went along with the Hertzog Bills. In 1943 the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) was established in response to the government's suggestion of removing coloured people from the common voters' roll and establishing a Coloured Advisory Council (CAC). This was a government appointed body made up of coloured people that would advise the government on "coloured matters". What was unique about the NEUM and the AAC was their outspoken commitment to a non-racial society away from liberal tutelage.

Although there were ideological differences between the NEUM and the AAC around issues of land distribution and the former's adoption of the 10-Point Plan, both movements remained committed to a non-racial society. These movements, unconsciously, challenged the dominant eugenic science of the day. One eugenic study is of particular importance for understanding the type of race-based science that informed politics and sport, "A Quantitative Study of Race Stereotypes" by ID MacCrone in the South African Journal of Science in 1937.  

MacCrone's findings included amongst others that while white English and Afrikaans speakers are sport-loving and good natured, "natives" and coloureds are fond of gambling. Such racist nonsense not only passed as good science but also as good politics and MacCrone became principal of the University of the Witwatersrand. The liberal movement, that included the ANC, focussed their attention on proving that blacks were not as backward as that painted by the MacCrone type.

The epicentre of the ANC narrative was to be about "the triumph of the human spirit over adversity" through its four nation thesis and not about creating a non-racial society. During the ANC's political exile period, "race" remained its central focus area. It was only in 1978, at its Kabwe's national conference that coloureds, Indians and whites were allowed onto the national executive committee. The ANC leaders who were imprisoned on Robben Island introduced a course of study known as Syllabus A. This syllabus included a course on the history of the Indian struggle and the coloured people as if it was a separate struggle.

When the anti-apartheid political organisations were unbanned in 1991, a struggle between non-racialists and adherents of the four nation thesis was more evident in sport than in other areas. It was a time that the ANC found itself at the opposite end of the internal anti-apartheid sport movement under the direction of the South African Council on Sport (SACOS). The SACOS considered non-racialism to be both its goal and equally important, the means to attain it.  On the other hand, the mysteriously founded and short-lived ANC sport movement, the National Sport Congress (NSC) was overly keen on unification with the apartheid created "race" based sport federations at the expense of the SACOS demands of developing community sport and education around the principles of non-racialism. The NSC outmanoeuvred the SACOS on this count.

What emerged was a sport and education environment reflective of the four nation thesis that retains a white hegemony through the retention of apartheid era symbols and quota players in representative teams. There was no psychological transformation of attitudes towards "race" that accompanied the rhetoric of nation building, nationhood, reconciliation and democracy.

Unsurprisingly, it is out of this environment of "nation building" that post-graduate sport science students and researchers can create fictitious scientific conclusions in the research paper mentioned above that coloured women with low education present low cognitive levels. Ironically, the walls of the sport science department where this article was produced is painted with the words of Nelson Mandela: "Sport has the power to unite people in a way that little else does."

- Dr Francois Cleophas is a senior lecturer in Sport History at Stellenbosch University.

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