The Death of Multi-racialism?

2014-06-30 22:10

Lindiwe Sisulu volleying insults at the DA's Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille (CityPress)

20 years after the abolition of white minority-rule in South Africa, the dream of a multi-racial nation seems perilously jeopardised. If the last month in Parliament is instructive, the highly emotive and racialised attacks which occurred during the debate on President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address demonstrates just how much still needs doing in order to heal the deep wounds that Apartheid, and colonialism before it, have inflicted on our collective psyche.

What is significant about these attacks is that it demonstrates that racism cuts both ways: it is intra-racial (as with the case of Lindiwe Sisulu’s ‘hired native’ jibe against Mmusi Maimane) as well as inter-racial (like when EFFers labelled Pieter Mulder a land thief given that he is Afrikaans). On the one hand, and as we know, this shows us that race can be used as a proxy for conflict between groups. But, importantly, it also shows that it can also be used as a means to police membership of those groups themselves.

Both these aspects of racism are important. They are guilty of a crude form of race reductionism. They create racialised identities based on predetermined characteristics, over which the individual has little control, and ascribes certain qualities, beliefs, behavioural patterns and values to people who seem to fit the mould. The problem with this should be obvious: it is akin to broad, unspecific and generalised stereotype. And, as with most stereotypes, there always seems to be more exceptions to the rule rather than those who conform to it. This fact cannot be downplayed: reducing people to their race, who are physically and psychologically differentiated as a result of both inherent and environmental influences, does them a disservice. In choosing to believe that black people are incompetent at governance or white people are necessarily better at it, as Sisonke Msimang has written of, threatens to elevate unsubstantiated assertions to the status of fact. Over time, correlation can be substituted for causation even though they are not the same thing.

The challenge, then, is how do we strike a balance in allowing space for individual and group identities to be created? And how do we allow neither of those to stop us from integrating across all those ‘identifiers’ which may otherwise separate us? This means more than the formal ability to exist in the same space as someone who is visibly different to oneself. It refers to a deeper level of social interaction where the things which may seem to separate us do not operate as a barrier to association, affiliation and assimilation. Because a third, and often unrecognised aspect of racism, is how it warps our ideas of ourselves.

This is important because both individual identity (valued by liberals) and group identity (valued by collectivists) are important. This is the case for those who choose to accept, and reject, those identities they construct for themselves, or which others may construct for them. It should not be the case that identity, as complex question, should be determined and applied to people without allowing them to feel as if their complexity is captured by whatever means they choose to identify. A one-size fits all policy limits the individual’s ability to negotiate these complex and, sometimes, irreconcilable differences. By forcing people to choose whether they are ‘black’ and ‘liberal’, or a particular type of ‘black,’ for example, is as cruel as it is unjust. Individuals must be able to choose their identities not based on how they look or appear but on what they recognise as speaking to, and for, them. And even if that means they do not necessarily fit either conflicting political theory that they seem to represent – race realism and liberalism for example – we should recognise that these questions are complex and not seek to manipulate the difficulty that people face in dealing with them for our own advantage. And our politicians are no exception.

In determining their political programmes, political parties must not aim to accumulate power based on racial numbers. The ANC must avoid the temptation, especially in light of an assertive EFF, to adopt a racial nationalist agenda – where race, in this case blackness, determines the basis of one’s standing in society. So too must the DA, in the face of an emerging racialist nationalist dialogue, seek to mobilise minorities in order to shore up support. If a recent TimesLive analysis of this year’s election results are anything to go by, it would seem that multi-racial political support is tepid at best. The advantages are clear: each stakes a claim on the electoral market and holds onto them as their own. But, in doing so, they would deny the fact that, for our history, both groups need each other in order for their own, and our collective, prosperity.

While both parties do speak in multi-racial terms, the creeping tendency of racialised incidents among the political class and the overtly racialised policies which are being considered threaten the ability of both main parties to adopt the centre ground. The ANC is being pulled leftward by the EFF, and the DA must avoid a challenge on the right from the likes of the FF+. Though the election result shows that both parties have, by-and-large, managed to fend off such challenges; as the EFF fights for more publicity and the FF+ reacts to them, both the ANC and the DA must avoid that the centre-ground is not hijacked by the fringe.

That is not to say that parties, or people, cannot be critical of race and what role it plays in policy-making or social discourse, for example. On the contrary, we can all be very alive to the fact that in South Africa race and (economic) inequality have an undisputable relationship and which make (economic) redress a vital part of our government’s agenda. But, at the same time, we can also recognise that racial redress can, and has, been abused for political (patronage) purposes in ways that undermine the very aim of those policies themselves. It requires a fortitude of purpose and a courage of conviction to not give in. One can only hope that our politicians, in this case, do not fail us and allow multi-racialism to die on their watch. The consequences for the Rainbow Nation, ideationally and practically, would be disastrous.

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