Oscar van Heerden | Racism – the final frontier

Students march against racism at Stellenbosch University last week Thursday.
Students march against racism at Stellenbosch University last week Thursday.
Gallo Images/ER Lombard

Oscar van Heerden reflects on the recent incident at Stellenbosch University, and writes that pretending there's no white privilege and continuing with our head in the sand as it relates to racism just won't cut it any longer.

Alas, this ugly thing called racism will live on forever in South Africa if we don't make a concerted effort to combat it in all its forms. 

In an article for "The Thinker", I wrote about this challenge and how I think we should tackle it as citizens of this beautiful country. It was at the time of Penny Sparrow and Chris Hart's utterances on social media which were racist. And now we see yet another racist incident at one of the residences of Stellenbosch University. It has resulted in a massive public outcry as did the previous two incidents mentioned above.

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What to do about this consistent relic called racism? Pretending there's no white privilege and continuing with our head in the sand as it relates to racism just won't cut it any longer.

When considering that racism so prevalent in South African society and wanting to have a correct understanding of the phenomenon, it is essential to look at all three aspects of racism: individual, institutional and structural.

Colonialism as a special type

The historical injustice of the South African chapter of racism can be found in a very neat theory coined by the ANC as 'Colonialism of a Special Type'. This theory, in short, states correctly that the coloniser and the colonised live side by side within the same borders, which is different from the more typical situation where the coloniser is indeed a foreign power located afar. This is an important theory, and it explains a situation that gave rise to legal segregation of the races, later known as apartheid, which obviously was upheld by fundamental institutionalised racism.

According to Professor Vernellia Randall in a paper titled, 'Speaking Truth to Power', institutional racism must be understood as an interaction between prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice, she states, is an attitude that is based on limited information or stereotypes. While prejudice is usually negative, it can also be positive, she contends. No one is entirely free of prejudices, although they may not have any significant prejudice against a particular group. Oppression, she says, is a systemic subjugation of a social group by another social group with access to power.

READ | Cyril Ramaphosa: Stellenbosch - We need to understand what is causing racist incidents to flourish

She goes on to say that power is the ability to control access to resources, the ability to influence others, and access to decision-makers. Discrimination, on the other hand, is behaviour, intentional or not, which negatively treats a person or group of people based on their racial origins.

In the context of racism, power is a necessary precondition for discrimination.

Randall further states that racism depends on the ability to give or withhold social benefits, facilities, services, opportunities, etc., from someone who is entitled to them and is denied on the basis of race, colour or national origin. She concludes that the source of power can be formal or informal, legal or illegal, and is not limited to traditional concepts of power.  

Inequalities in power 

So, what gave white South Africans this power?

Because of how structural racism normalises white dominance and superiority, it entrenches and perpetuates inequalities in power, access, opportunities and treatment.

Because of structural racism, race is not a proxy for disadvantage – it is always and remains a form (if not the only form) of disadvantage.   

UCT's Professor de Vos provides us with a solution in which he indicates that one does not address the consequences of structural racism merely by creating opportunities for black people to 'assimilate' into the normative white world. Instead he says, you transform the society and challenge the basic meaning-giving assumptions according to which society operates and in terms of which goods, services and opportunities are distributed. 

READ | OPINION: Rich Mkhondo - Every day we are haunted by racism

In short, you attack and dismantle white privilege, which is the flip side of the coin of structural racism.  

Institutional racism is not always manifested knowingly and intentionally: its power lies exactly in its ability to make itself invisible. This allows its beneficiaries to deny its existence (and genuinely believe in its absence) while benefiting from it.

The national question

I contend that the current ANC's inability to manage our national question coherently places South Africa at the gravest risk.

But let's first backtrack a little. What is 'the national question'?

The 1997 ANC document titled 'Nation Building: The national question in South Africa' outlines the contradictory consequences of colonial conquest in South Africa. On the one hand, colonialism brought together different communities into one nation-state. On the other hand, the colonisers deliberately prevented the unity of the colonised communities into one nation.

The paper explains that 'the national question plays itself out in ways that are specific to the concrete conditions in various parts of the world. Nevertheless, it is fundamentally a continuous search for equality by various communities which have historically merged into a single nation-state, or the struggle for self-determination and even secession by communities within such states.'  

The paper goes on to outline 10 theses which should be taken into account in the South African context:

  • 'Colonialism of a special type' which means that the national character of the National Democractic Revolution (NDR) necessitates the resolution of antagonistic contradictions between the oppressed majority and their oppressors, as well as the resolution of national grievances arising from colonial relations. (This remains an on-going struggle to this day)
  • National oppression and its legacy are linked closely to class exploitation and so can only be successfully addressed in the context of socio-economic transformation. (Hence the populist politics of attacking White Monopoly Capital)
  • A nation is not equivalent to a classless society. The NDR requires that all classes and strata – both black and white – act in a way that promotes South Africa's true interests.
  • Apartheid was victorious in crippling working-class unity. Reference is made to the Indian and coloured questions as expressions of fear among the working class.
  • The national question is also a superstructural phenomenon at the level of consciousness, "feelings", and perceptions. It is noted that the feeling of pride in being South African cannot be sustained without socio-economic transformation.
  • Individuals will have multiple identities, but the main purpose of the NDR is not to promote fractured identities but to encourage the emergence of a common South African identity.
  • The main content of the NDR is the liberation of black people in general and Africans in particular.
  • The main content of the NDR should find expression in the leadership structures of the ANC, and indeed the country as a whole (commonly referred to "African Leadership' but requiring that we do' ethnic, racial, language, gender and class arithmetic' in composing leadership structures.
  • The national question can never be fully resolved. We must retain a healthy equilibrium between centrifugal (disintegrative) and centripetal (integrative) tendencies.
  • The struggle itself was an important and conscious act of nation-building.

Each one of these above can, off course, be unpicked and elucidated upon, but I won't do that here and now. It must serve as food for thought as we engage in this very critical debate about racism and our part in it.

- Dr Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He is currently the Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Fort Hare.

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