Comment and Analysis

Race as a value in itself

Bryan Rostron

Identity 'chauvinism' leads South Africans down the road to authoritarianism.

The “national question”, always a bitterly destabilising factor in the history of the ANC, has suddenly resurfaced. “National”, this being South Africa, is actually a euphemism for “race” or “colour.”

It is a “question”, despite President Jacob Zuma’s exhortation not to reopen the race debate, that will not go away. Will it cause yet another split?

This year saw the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Pan Africanist Congress after a walk-out from the ANC over this issue. The year also marked the 40th anniversary of the ANC’s Morogoro Conference, in Tanzania, which finally opened the organisation to “minorities”. But that, too, led to a split when the dissident “group of eight”, who felt the party was being hijacked by the white-dominated SACP, were expelled in 1975.

Now the status of “minorities” has been raised again within the ANC.

What seems most striking about those who raise the “national question” this time round, however, is the reductionism of their arguments. Our race obsession in some ways mirrors Trotsky’s savage attack on Lenin in 1904, when Trotsky predicted: “The party organisation substitutes itself for the party, the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation and, finally, a ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.”

All identity “chauvinism”, especially if centred on race, runs the risk of eventually substituting “colour” for values (such as justice and equality). Race instead becomes a “value” in itself, almost inevitably ending up—as we did before—with authoritarianism.

Trotsky remained critical of Lenin until 1917. He should have heeded his own warning. Stalin, Trotsky’s nemesis, was the logical incarnation of “substitutionalism”.

Stalinist substitutionalism still runs in the ANC, most ruinously in the primacy of ideology over science regarding HIV/Aids during the Thabo Mbeki era. Our former minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, trained at the Moscow institute, influenced by Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favourite “scientist”, who applied Marxist dogma to biology with terrible results. Recently, in a minor echo, the ANC Youth League told the world, over the Caster Semenya debacle, that everyone knows that there is no such thing as hermaphroditism.

In both cases this wilful denial seems prompted by a doctrinaire desire to lay all blame on the West, racism and imperialism: a circular process impervious to logic.

Too many “chauvinists”, as some call the resurgent African nationalists, simply dismiss criticism with insult: whites can be swatted away as “racists”, black critics can be dealt with by substituting labels for argument. There is a clear, obnoxious increase in the demeaning of black opponents as “coconuts”, “self-hating blacks” or “house niggers”.

The substitution of race ideology for facts was seen most recently in claims that the suspension of Transnet executive Siyabonga Gama was a “racist” ploy to put him out of contention for the vacant post of chief executive—despite the fact that he had never been shortlisted and the three actual candidates for the job were all black.

Yet this did not prevent some of the loudest yells of outrage coming from senior figures in the ANC. The trio of ignored black candidates, perhaps because they are not politically connected, is somehow suddenly airbrushed out of the picture. They become “non-people”.

But a far more ominous substitutionalism, in true Stalinist style, is where one black African (always a man) gets to represent all black people: a reverse of the racist paradigm. This seems to be the attitude of some apologists for President Robert Mugabe. Recently in the Mail & Guardian Andile Mngxitama wrote: “Zimbabwe is destroyed because Robert Mugabe thought he could touch the sacred white skin and get away with it”—as if Mugabe hasn’t displaced, harassed, had beaten, tortured or killed more blacks than whites.

You have to wonder whether there’s some kind of ratio operating here: for every white “skin” Mugabe “touches”, we’ll turn a blind eye if he does the same or worse to black Zimbabweans. As a retaliation in World War II, for example, Hitler ordered a quota of 10 Italians—mostly civilians—to be executed for every German soldier killed by partisans.

By this logic the majority of black Zimbabweans perversely become “un-people”.

It is a mirror image of white supremacist fantasies where “colour” substitutes for everything else. This is, whichever variety of chauvinism, profoundly reactionary.

Tragically, the originator of that fierce attack on Lenin came full circle after the Russian Revolution when Trotsky himself employed the ultimate “substitutionalist” argument. In I924 Trotsky declared: “The party in the final analysis is always right —”

The South African equivalent is: “My colour is always right.” Bollocks.

This debate, which reduces all “non-black” groups to “minorities”, is probably a key reason the ANC has never really got to grips with the Western Cape. A recent study revealed that this province contains the most genetically diverse population in the world. Something, surely, to celebrate?

Instead, the ANC remains suspicious of the Western Cape and its complexity. In public celebrations the party never seems to include the Khoisan in the grand narrative of “black liberation” history, for example, despite the fact that these groups were the first to resist European incursion.

This history, and its consequences for today, should be central to any “national question”. Yet in South Africa the “question” is always only framed in black and white.

Zuma says he doesn’t want the debate on race reopened because he feels it would take the country backwards. Pushing the debate underground, however, would be potentially toxic, especially in a country where race is seldom far from anyone’s thoughts.

The old socialist mantra says: white men exploit black, yellow and every colour of man and woman, as well as other white men and women. You don’t have to look far in Africa to see Africans exploiting other Africans, or even in capitalist South Africa today.

The only way to avoid exploitation is a commitment to a struggle for justice and equality. That won’t be delivered by the “national question.” But it needs a national debate.

Bryan Rostron’s new novel, Black Petals, is published by Jacana

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