Of Slavery, Race and Democracy – Quo Vadis, South Africa?

2016-02-02 08:51

There is a debate raging in the media about whether there is a difference between white racism and black racism. Some commentators deny the very existence of black racism, claiming that it is a response to centuries of white racism and should more appropriately be termed “black anger”. Their argument suggests that a long history of domination by whites and brutality going back to the days of slavery are at the root of such anger.

So - their argument goes - blacks are not inherently racist, but whites, because of their sense of superiority are - although the words of a government employee on Facebook, (which created far less of a furor than the Penny Sparrow comments) suggests otherwise. He wrote: “Whites deserve to be hacked and killed like Jews and to be got rid of as ‘Hitler did to the Jews in Europe”.

There can be scant doubt that others share this view.

Of course, the intercontinental trade in black slaves was a shameful era of human exploitation that took the institution of slavery to depraved extremes. But - paradoxically - that is also what led to its global demise.

When the international trade in slaves came to the notice of the clergy and philanthropists in nations colonizing new territories, it was scrutinised, campaigned against, and eventually abolished. It is also arguably one of modern Christianity’s more notable achievements, since the church played an important role in exposing and campaigning for an end to the centuries old institution of slavery.

From a humanitarian point of view, this was a watershed time because throughout human history the practice of owning, exchanging and disposing of slaves had been commonplace. (Even today, and notwithstanding its formal global abolition, it is still practised in parts of the world, mainly hidden from view).

The big difference was that – like stealing from or harming others in society – a point had now been reached when it was just no longer OK to possess slaves. From having previously been reconcilable with peoples’ lifestyles, moralities and religious convictions – it then ceased to be.

SO who do we have to thank for the abolition of slavery? In large measure, the much maligned Europeans.

Focusing on the race aspect, it is worth noting that much of the original slave trade happened within Africa itself, with stronger tribes and chieftainships promoting it at the expense of weaker ones, harvesting their populations according to the stronger tribe’s need for labour. With the advent of European explorers and traders, black leaders and warlords often promoted slavery on behalf of foreign clients and helped them with the sourcing of slaves. Arab slave traders were likewise active in the brokering of slaves and encroached as far as into the interior as Lake Malawi.

So slavery was hardly a white dominated institution.

Now we need to ask ourselves - given the erstwhile universality of slavery and its relatively recent demise, does the “institutional memory” argument – i.e. that blacks are justifiably hardwired for anger towards whites because of slavery – hold any water? Is it a reasonable argument? Don’t memories fade through generations - rather than amplify issues?

And at a purely practical level, what merit can there be in determining whether there is or is not an institutional memory among blacks as a result of the slavery legacy? What would the exercise achieve and what could be resolved by defining the black state of mind as either anger or “racism”?

Given the demands of this country, surely verbal esoterica should make way for society’s more tangible and concrete needs.

Perhaps we also need to ask if it is healthy, appropriate and in keeping with a viable democracy to suppress racial commentary and discussions on race? It strikes me that this flies in the face of free speech – a cornerstone of our constitution - and seeks to deny the intellectual and cultural plurality of our society.

Resetting Priorities

Instead, should we not be examining some real issues that get conflated with race - courtesy of misguided politicians?

Real Issue #1 - Equality

The notion of “equality” is widely promoted by politicians as representing a necessary and noble goal, a holy grail in pursuit of societal equilibrium. It is anything but.

Equality has been absent since the Voyages of Discovery when advanced civilizations discovered others less advanced. With colonialism and conquest, inequality between peoples came into focus and developed into a social issue - so much so that nowadays there is a measure of income inequality called the Gini Coefficient.

Indeed, our governing party at one stage boasted – no doubt to bag votes - that the nation’s “Gini Coefficient” had fallen since 1994. At the time I argued that that was irrelevant at best – and (on account of our questionable national economics) actually symptomised a worsening economic situation, because a low Gini coefficient does not imply any alleviation from poverty. Low Gini Coefficients characterize, among others, Ukraine (26,44), Afghanistan (27,82), Pakistan (30,02), Bangladesh (32,12) and other nations widely accepted as being either dysfunctional or dirt poor or both.

I argued then – and still do – that we do not need equality. We need growth and employment, both of which might well create even greater inequality. But what of it? More people would be better off.

“Equality” is both a myth and a red herring.

Real Issue # 2 - A Strong Work Ethic

The second issue for me is the need for the repeal of multiple damaging race based laws and the establishment of a strong national work ethic.

Racial preference laws purporting to address previous racial injustice abound, but in practice hurt the very people they should serve. Furthermore, racism and “black anger” (if you prefer that term) are exacerbated by a stagnant and worsening economy that fails to create work.

Our state driven economy protects dead wood and vested interests – from the president’s coterie at the top - to the shop floor at the bottom, serving as a patronage network to ensure ongoing support for the ruling party.

I am unpopular with people when I say that Mandela let the nation down badly when he failed to emphasise the need for a strong personal work ethic and frugality. Had he led from the front he might have watered down the stampede for the trough that has characterized the ANCs tenure of the past two decades.

Instead, corruption and unemployment thrive and our economic resources have become tools of institutionalized black racism, cronyism and patronage.

Our economy has failed everyone.

Real Issue # 3 - Education

The new government made a bad start by encouraging white teachers with a wealth of experience to abandon their careers – so that black teachers could move in and have their day in the classroom. That was a moment critique for the new South Africa.

The new government packaged off - at taxpayers’ expense - the finest bank of accumulated educational working capital that money could buy and replaced them with a crop of raw teachers ranging from mediocre to plain useless - with few notable exceptions. Still more dead wood - shielded by a strident and militant trade union.

An overwhelming priority for this nation is the establishment of quality state education. Instead we now have one of the worst state education systems in the world.

So, what now?

Against this background is it in any way appropriate to debate whether blacks are racist or just angry? It does not really matter because they should be angry - at themselves and the government they have elected. It is a government that has levied huge opportunity costs on all and, through its actions promoted white racism. So no matter what you call it - racism or anger - it is not very difficult to figure where it all started, is it?

Multiculturalism and Democracy

Indeed the issues go even deeper and we need to ask ourselves whether we are qualified to be governed in one single polity - since reconciling multiculturalism and many of the pillars of democracy is becoming impossible as the noose tightens around the freedoms enshrined in those institutions.

Here is an example.

One Gareth Cliff – no stranger to controversy in recent weeks – has often been involved in such issues and one anecdote in particular illustrates the point.

Remember the happy demise of one Nanto Tshabalala-Msimang, previous health minister, back in 2009? She was notorious for being a drunk, manipulating the medical profession to serve her needs and acquiescing (along with Mbeki) in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of AIDS sufferers by concocting a hoax remedy for AIDS using beetroots and stalling on the introduction of ARVs.

After her death, Cliff said on air

“Manto is dead. Good. A selfish and wicked bungler of the lowest order. Rotten attitude and rancid livers – all 3 of them…”

His response was somewhat crass – his style - but typified the response of people outraged at her abuse of position and power and her destructive incompetence. I do not know anybody who disagrees with these sentiments.

But the response from her constituency – party hacks, ANC stalwarts and black traditionalists was totally different. It was one of outrage: how could one show such disrespect for the dead?

And since Cliff is white, that clearly made him a racist.

Clashing Cultures – Democracy’s Nemesis

Democracy demands a lot more of people than many in our country are able or prepared to offer – the governing party and its followers being prime offenders.

Democracy demands not only tolerance of others but the capacity for robust dialogue and an ethos of intelligent debate between people with differences. So when accusations of racism and disagreements rage about what races are entitled to claim redress and which not (because of their colour) - we really have lost the plot, haven't we?

The capacity for an intelligent meeting of minds is absent - and democracy is in the balance. And when all is said and done, the slave trade and “black anger” have had precious little to do with it have they?

No - it is all the result of institutionalized racism, courtesy of the African National Congress!

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AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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