Mmusi Maimane | We must reject race and culture wars

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Disparate groups of protesters in Senekal on Friday.
Disparate groups of protesters in Senekal on Friday.
PHOTO: Pieter du Toit/News24

Race and cultural issues are being used by some political parties as a growth strategy and this could have an impact on democracy in the long-term, writes Mmusi Maimane. 


Who benefits from racial divisions in South Africa? Who benefits from culture wars and increased public conflict? Surely it is not the average citizen? These divisions do not make the workplace more productive, they do not improve the quality of life and they do not create the necessary conditions for quality debate.

South African politics is quickly following the path that American politics has taken - a politics of racial and cultural division have witnessed the American spiral to mayhem. One wonders if this is something that we should readily embrace. It has clearly not improved the quality of discourse or law-making in the USA, if anything the race and culture wars have been a noisy distraction from the hard work of thinking through the modern challenges of democracy and solving them with maturity and due concern for the most vulnerable communities in society.

In our country, we must stand firm and say that race matters.

We cannot ignore that the apartheid system organised around race and allocated social and economic rewards on the basis of race.

We cannot skip ahead to a non-racial utopia without doing the hard work required to undo the injustices of apartheid; we have done some of that work, but the job is incomplete.

Our present goal should be to create a society that is racially cohesive, where there is empathy for injustices of the past, tolerance for difference and a deliberate pursuit of redress for those left behind.

READ | Opinion: As a nation how do we move from hopelessness to hopefulness?

We must affirm that people can be seen for the colour of their skin and that's okay as long as seeing their colour does not lead to discrimination against them because of their colour.

We are not weak because of our racial diversity, actually together we make a beautiful diverse society. We must avoid the current trend towards racial toxicity. We must avoid the acceleration of political race entrepreneurship. 

Locally, the beneficiaries of race conflict are the populist political movements and the liberation movements who want to keep up a narrative of an incomplete liberation struggle, borne out of a liberation movement and their offshoots.

Dominant party states 

A liberation movement must affirm liberation credentials permanently against the backdrop of failures in other areas. So they benefit from any events that they can use to shape a narrative, reminding citizens that "we liberated from you the oppressive race, and whilst we may have failed on the economy and education, we are still liberators".

If we can all agree that dominant party states are part of the problem in Africa, we must examine what they use to retain popular support. Robert Mugabe was especially good at this, he positioned himself to Africa as the one true defender of Africa against the white colonial settler, his favourite target was Tony Blair.

In the USA, the beneficiaries of the race divisions are the extremist politicians and the extremist movements. They are able to gain traction and funding from the fanning of racial divisions. Ultimately, it is not in their interests to find pathways to unity, they are rewarded by continuation and escalation of conflict.

Some opposition parties are also using the race and cultural issues as a growth strategy, but this is something we must not readily welcome. It poses a long-term threat to the stability of our democracy.

READ | Elmien du Plessis: Senekal murder: Whichever lens you are using, we are affected by the same issue

In SA, the challenge to create unity is profound. We have to work towards creating real economic equity, which is to say, creating real pathways for those who have been economically marginalised to access social mobility and dignity.

This work remains largely undone, and it requires a different atmosphere to the one currently being created by those who benefit from the politics of division and confrontation, the politics of conflict rather than a politics of cohesion.  

The outcome of conflict politics based on race and culture wars is that, ironically, it preserves the historical spatial and economic legacy that keep our divisions in place.

Our political discourse is unhealthy for democracy and is unsustainable. We are fighting each other, rather than fighting the real and common enemy. 

In simply terms, our enemies are those who abuse power and poverty. 

Let us build afresh and break down political parties who divide us on race. 

Let us build a new movement. 

- Mmusi Maimane is Chief Activist of the One South Africa Movement

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