Why we MUST talk about race

In certain circles it has become old-fashioned to talk about race and class as categories through which to make sense of the behaviour of people around the world in general, and in South Africa in particular. The funeral hymns for these concepts, Adam Habib provocatively reminds us, are surely excessively premature (”Elites and our racial quagmire”, December 20). For Habib, “race” has become “politicised” by elites who are invoking it for the purposes of self-interested class desires.
This is a powerfully persuasive argument. But it is analytically flawed and politically short-sighted.

Its not that race has become politicised. Race, after all, has always been a “political” issue — not only in South Africa. The political, economic and cultural effects of race as a classification, and their meaning in social practice, are bound to both history and location. In other words, the challenge might be to understand the particular ways in which race, both as a concept and as an experience, changes historically across time and space. 

In South Africa we know that there were at least two broad responses to the state imposition of racial identity. Both responses from within the liberation movements sought to resist the imposed identities. One did it through redefining victims of apartheid as black, as a political experience, rather than a racial identity — the Fanonian inspired response of Steve Biko and others. Another response was to seek to go beyond the recognition of racial identity altogether by promoting “non-racialism”. This response we can associate with the later version of the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front in the 1980s. When Habib, for example, registers his profound contempt at being racially defined as “Indian”, he is articulating his legitimate desire to not be classified through categories that were imposed on subject people by the apartheid state.

My concern is that we have continued to use an understanding of the meaning of race and its relationship to class, which was developed in our colonial and apartheid past, to try and understand our post-colonial present. This may not be inherently wrong, but it does require some self-reflection about the way in which we think about race as it relates to the present. The way I have read, or misread, Habib’s piece, he seems to be saying we should not talk about race. The only people who talk about race now are either elites who want to advance their positions on the corporate ladder or those at the bottom holding the ladder up watching as others climb up a path blocked to them because of their racial past. In other words, on both ends of the ladder, racial prejudice is a strategically invoked experience: a case of people saying one thing to get other things.

While there is some substance to it, this argument has an unfortunate blind spot in my view. Race, and more particularly, racism, is still very much a lived experience in South Africa. But we seem to not want to give this experience autonomous recognition as a valid experience. Here the extra-parliamentary left and the new elites share something. Both want to obliterate discussions of race in the public sphere. One because it thinks class is the “real” issue, and the other because to talk about it might jeopardise the fragile “rainbow nation”.

We witnessed this anxiety with the Mbongeni Ngema affair. The new elites, “African” and “Indian”, hurriedly called for the removal of the song from the national public air space. And most on the left went along with this chorus. Both sides missed a crucial moment to talk about the lived experience of many people who suffer daily humiliation at the hands of bosses and madams whom they see as “Indian”, and whose behaviour they explain through stereotypes about “Indians”, whether we like it or not. That is an actually lived experience. And that’s the way they make sense of it. And it would be better to bring that discussion out in the open so that the stereotypes can be shown for what they are, rather than talk about people’s experiences in ways that invalidate them. Cornel West summed it up aptly with the title of his book, Race Matters. Habib seems to suggest that talking about race is historically irresponsible. On the contrary — historical experience seems suggests that it is more dangerous to not talk about it.

The settlement in South Africa, as Habib astutely points out, was caught from the very moment of its birth in the paradox of redistribution and reconciliation: between justice and reconciliation. And these two projects can pull in opposite directions — but that doesn’t make them inherently contradictory. And, yes, there were trade-offs made by the ANC, with the apartheid establishment and European and American political and economic interests,  in terms of how the economic domain would be governed. And the social effects of the ruthless economic model being followed are becoming increasingly apparent. But it would be lazy to see the transition in such neat terms, with a beginning, middle and end. We still have actual racialised experiences of prejudice, which confront black political and economic bourgeois elements in their places of work and in the state bureaucracy. The national liberation struggle, in other words, has changed modes of struggle, and sites of battle, but it is not a thing of the past. On the contrary, it animates the political project of the Mbeki government with its two nations thesis, and the repackaging of an idea already tried out on the rest of the continent in other forms — the African renaissance. To think of the new elites as all being ethnic entrepreneurs selling a product only useful to themselves is to miss one of Marx’s points about the fetish of the commodity. It not only that it is appropriated for private consumption, but also that its seduction lies in its social dimension as both necessity and desirable — this is its “fetish”, the dimension that takes our eyes off the actual conditions of its production in the way that a skilled magician plays with our senses. The point is that the masses are not just dupes or moegoes who go with whatever the elites say. Using the concept of “ethnic entrepreneurism”, as Habib does, unfortunately tends to suggest this kind of robotic relationship. Racism is clearly both an experience inside the structures of power, and an experience that resonates widely with those who were historically marginalised.

In essence there are thus two analytical flaws in Habib’s argument as I see it: one is a failure to be prepared to give a racialised experience of marginalisation serious intellectual attention. This has been a historic blunder of the Western-Marxist inspired left in South Africa — both academics and activists. (A blunder that still needs it own truth and recognition committee.) And the second is a failure to give the nationalist struggles within the emergent post-apartheid state, that is, inside the state bureaucracy and the agencies of governing, rigorous intellectual analysis. The failure to analyse both experiences results in two familiar frustrations: first, an inability to understand why a new left-wing movement, which speaks about class-based issues — land, jobs, privatisation — will have difficulty in the short term in penetrating the magical spell of the nationalist movement. And the second frustration is the continued inability to understand the behaviour of the ANC government’s political and economic policy twists and turns other than calling it a sell-out, albeit in more sophisticated terms.

Why does the ANC see criticism from the left as so harmful? What animates this “us” and “them” world view? What’s going on inside the state bureaucracy? What kinds of battles are happening in different micro-levels of government departments, agencies and portfolio committees? What happens at the global forums government officials and representatives attend? How do dominant sections of the South Africa government want to position the country in relation to the rest of the continent and the powers that be elsewhere? What common sense rationales are developing about governing, and how are these being distributed through the system, and how do they become internalised? And how do we learn from the experiences of other African, and settler-colonial states? These may be research questions worth pursuing. 

My concern in the end with Habib’s argument — stimulating and incisive as it is — is that it further obscures the object of its analysis rather than illuminating it. If our answers to problems are not working it may not mean that we should find new answers. It may mean that we are asking the wrong questions. So instead of giving old answers to old (and new) problems, we may need to be asking different questions about the post-colonial moment we live in.

Suren Pillay is a lecturer in the department of political studies at the University of the Western Cape

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