Ferial Haffajee is gate-keeping the struggle for black liberation

2015-05-21 11:39

In her column titled ‘Old white men, a younger white woman and the state of black outrage’, Ferial Haffajee said many problematic things but not all can be taken up simultaneously. Whilst they are all related in how we deal with the past, they are also distinctly different in content and form.

Haffajee has been obsessing about rising to the occasion of being the voice of ‘reason’ whenever discussions and debates on race surface in our national discourse. She attempts to edit and chart a path all should follow. However, she fails dismally through self-contradictory claims. She admits that there exists ‘apartheid’s legacy imprinted on us, cruelly, like the branding on a slave’. But she descends into a pit of contradictions and trivialises many contemporary struggles that are intended to dismantle the very legacy she acknowledged.

Poor grasp of the need to discuss the past

Haffajee likes the tag of ‘race thinking’. Yet, the cruel legacy that is ‘imprinted on us’ is fundamentally grounded on race discriminatory thinking. You are not going to redress, dismantle, denounce and unshackle yourself from this legacy without being shrewdly honest on the question of race and racism – in its historic and contemporary contexts. People who are tired of being party to these necessary discussions should sit down and stop attempting to trivialise necessary conversations. Progressive Editors like that of the Sowetan are busy opening up spaces for honest reflections on the past. Evident in the recent Sowetan Dialogues titled ‘Is it time for an economic CODESA?’ a question that has gained traction in the last five years.

Editors like Haffajee are interested in cosmetic beautification of the race discussion if it must be conducted and at worst they want to shut spaces for it in order to kill this ‘race thinking’. This proposition must be dismissed because it tampers the necessary progress needed for us to birth a new South Africa that is truly reconciled on the core issues that divided South Africa along race lines for centuries; the land and economic deprivation for black people. This is why the question of an economic CODESA gains traction. The shallowness of Haffajee’s interpretation of power is exposed here:

“White people are, by population statistics, a diminishing minority, yet the South African lexicon still treats the generalised topic of “whites” as majority power – it is a narrative that does not know South Africa is comprised of a black majority in power and with say over everything from the fiscus to the cool”.

The differentiator between political power and economic power is important. So too is the one between voice about and control over the country’s economy. It is ignorant to brush aside respectable statistics that show that the economy is fundamentally white owned and managed. White people (the ‘diminishing minority’) still hold about 70% of top management posts and just over 60% of senior management posts. Take a look at this page of CEOs who will be partaking on a sleepout initiative on the streets and see the face of who runs the South African economy. Of the companies listed in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) less than 25% are black owned.

There is still a great deal of foreign ownership in our economy, another problematic reality in the long run. This is so because the commitment of a foreign investor is elsewhere, putting interests of profit making at all times beyond the needs of the country. Business people react differently when crises hits operations that affect their own country as opposed to those operations far afield from home.

To further trivialise this despicable reality that does not reflect the South Africa we envision; Haffajee attempts to sedate us by calling on black people to admire the likes of Bonang, Casper and Minenhle as symbols of transformation. Whilst we may celebrate them, we are astutely aware that the TV Production companies, the owners of equipment in the entertainment industry, the owners of the Magazines on whose front pages they appear are all largely white owned.

Haffajee wants us to celebrate the exploitation done on black talent to advance white economic interest. In the same way that black talent in mines is undermined with slave wages to advance foreign owned economic interests. I call the job of mineworkers talent, because it requires a special skill, tenacity and strength many would never measure up to. Having been underground in different mines in South Africa, especially in the platinum sector I hold this view strongly.

Out of touch with reality

To demonstrate her being out of touch with reality, Haffajee joins a choir of old people who have been soiling the contemporary struggles against racism, the colonial and apartheid legacies. She takes an ill-informed view on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Unfortunately, to paraphrase a student speaker in the UCT’s assembly, the future is moving faster than her consciousness. We cannot be blamed for that, evident in her crude usage of Steve Biko whose teachings are in fact consistent with what transpired in the University of Cape Town.

She said, “Maybe, this and the catharsis that is offered when a colonialist statue is ripped off its plinth provide black South Africans with the sense of being in power they were robbed of in 1994. (I say “they” because I am part of that growing minority who revere and appreciate how Nelson Mandela made us a nation, all of us who live in it.)” A lot is convoluted here but I focus on the wrong interpretation she holds about the Rhodes Must Fall movement.

Dr Max Price, Vice-Chancellor of UCT, recently wrote that “the recent protest action has added urgency and given impetus to our thinking and efforts on transformation. There has been an outpouring of emotions, views and analysis from all sides. We have tried to listen carefully.”

Clearly, Haffajee has not been listening. She is in the company of those naïve elders who refused to see any sanity in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, reducing it to a copout from tackling ‘real’ issues. They refused to see the statue as merely an entry point into a larger debate. Elsewhere, I described the statue as ‘a keyhole to view the darkness filling the UCT campus with relentless anti-transformation policies. The UCT saga as a whole is but a microcosm of the broader South African reality. To overlook this nuance is to undermine the very authenticity of the Rhodes must fall campaign.’

Yet, these very elders in the company of Haffajee remind us youthful citizens of their demonstrations during apartheid. Today, demonstrations are suddenly scorned and frowned upon. There is a reason for this.

Elders like Haffajee think that they did enough to usher this current youthful generation into an era of less robust, less confrontational and less demanding forms of protest. These elders also think that they did enough to usher my generation into an era of sophisticated engagement with power, away from television cameras carrying our cries as young people. Away from the limelight, as this embarrasses them and leaves them feeling as though we are not maximising on the institutions bestowed to society by their apartheid era days of struggle. In short, ‘the old is refusing for the new to be born’. They want us to live in their shadow. Rhodes Must Fall campaign created a significant rupture with this dogmatic and anti-progress resistance from elders of Haffajee’s ilk.

Antonio Gramsci warns about the perils of this. He says, "When the old refuses to die, and the new is struggling to be born, monsters appear.”

I have continued to communicate my sense of having been impressed by how Dr Max Price responded to the protests in UCT and allowed the new to be born. I am fully aware that some UCT students may say he did not do enough. However, Vice-Chancellors across the country are generally hostile to student activism. Lesiba Seshoka in one article last year labelled them as ‘charlatans’. Insofar as the championing of academic freedom and robust engagement within the parameters of their institutions; indeed many are charlatans. They speak left and walk right. Price broke with this convention a great deal.

UCT students should be glad that the likes of Haffajee are not the incumbent VC in their University. Because they would not have measured up to the commitment that Price led his Executive to undertake. He put it this way, “It has been important for us to hear all voices, as uncomfortable as it may get, and to approach these discussions with open minds, in order for us to learn.”

Because of this, students’ concerns, demands, frustrations, visions and suggestions did not fall on deaf ears. As a result, a series of changes are going to happen in UCT. These range from curriculum review committees that will include students to a revision of the promotions policy ahead of the next round of promotions. These include the Transformation Services Office being reviewed and overhauled; admissions policies will be back on the table again. A lot is happening whilst others live in ignorance. Life has been disrupted and accelerated towards the attainment of transformation.

Haffajee’s simplistic infantile concluding claim is laughable but tragic. She says. “I see a generation saying it is enslaved in a system of white supremacy – I feel I live in another world in one country; my freedom is precious and I would yield to nobody…. I imagine no white supremacy because freedom means I don’t have to countenance it any longer. And if found, you can today, kick it away like a cowboy boots away a piece of tumbleweed in a Western.”

If all black people took this attitude, the structural embeddedness of white supremacy would be felt by generations to come with little chance of escaping it. White supremacy does not only talk to the visible markers of black people’s negative displacement in positions of power within corporate South Africa. White supremacy also finds itself through subliminal racism, the normativity attached to knowledge production of Western scholars and local white scholars, mainly attributed to men with women’s scholarship suppressed. This white supremacy is identifiable in how African Universities are being universalised using Western standards through global rankings that decontextualise the work of African Universities. The average white household has five times the income of an average black household. In a world whereby money talks; white supremacy is bred by this economic deprivation of black people.

These things cannot just be kicked away ‘like a cowboy boots away a piece of tumbleweed in a Western’. If they could, all black people would be singing Uhuru. There is agency and urgency needed in how they are confronted. There is a need for concerted effort to lead resilient movements against the arrogance of anti-transformative forces that refuse to repent for the past injustices. The new is being born and the old like Haffajee must allow this, lest they breed monsters.

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