Economic democracy breeds non-racialism

Statistics, it has been said, are used in the same way a drunk uses a lamppost: more for support than for light.

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that varying interpretations of the results of the census 2001 have been heard in the past week or two, according to the different agendas the statistics were used to prop up. President Thabo Mbeki has welcomed the census results as an indication that “we are not standing still, we are going somewhere”; the African National Congress said the census pointed towards “key achievements of the first decade of freedom” and the “increasing pace of social and economic change in this country”.

Cosatu economist Neva Makgetla says in the Mail & Guardian (Government gets birds-eye view, July 11) has pointed to the fact that “there may be more money going out but there are fewer people getting it”. In other words, the gap between rich and poor is increasing. This has also been the view of the Institute for democracy in South Africa, whose researcher Judith February has been quoted as saying that South Africa’s democracy might be threatened if the gap between rich and poor widens further.

The results come at a time when the issue of racism in our country is being discussed in what has become known as the great race debate. It is therefore helpful to connect the two debates — the data provided by census 2001, even with its reported inaccuracies, could provide us with a framework on which the racism debate can be based. Questions of identity, whether expressed in racial terms or otherwise, and material circumstances should not be considered in isolation. As we are constantly rightly reminded, in the feel-good slogans of the advertising industry or in the Proudly South African campaign, that South Africans have come a long way since the overt racism of the apartheid era. It seems fair to say that tolerance of “the other” has increased significantly.

Now and again our dreams of a harmonious future are shattered by thugs, such as those belonging to the Boeremag. But those incidents might even act precisely to isolate racism in the form of some abhor- rent extremism that does not really permeate our society. That might be true. What, however, does permeate our society is, as census 2001 has pointed out, a profound inequality on a material level that coincides with the racial divides of the past. Was anyone surprised at hearing that 50,2% of black people are unemployed versus the 6,3% of whites? Or that the biggest category of earners (Mail & Guardian, July 11) is paid between R801 and R1 600 a month? That only 12% of black households have a landline telephone? That 2% of black households have a computer compared with 46% of white households?

While we can refute the scientific concept of “race” as much as we like, the material experience of racism in South Africa is still everywhere to be seen. While we can deny the concept of race as a myth, the discrimination on the basis of that myth in the apartheid system wrought effects that are undeniably still lived today. In a society structured along these lines, it is not surprising to find that race is still a powerful signifier.

This is why, as recently pointed out by political scientist Amanda Gouws and quoted by Mbeki, the concept of reconciliation between races would have to take place not only on attitudinal, but on grassroots level as well.

Of course we want to get away from defining ourselves in terms of the categories set by apartheid. Of course we want, someday, to be a non-racial society in which identity is based on other determinants than skin colour and essentialist notions of racial origin.

In some ways this is already happening. In the embryonic cross-cultural forays in art forms like kwaito, hip-hop, the emergence of post-apartheid literature and theatre and homegrown soapies, new forms of identity are being experimented with. But identity and cultural transformation cannot be divorced from material factors and historical legacies. Material factors mitigate against new identities coming into being, since cross-cultural movement is hampered by the structural divisions in South African society. Geographically, socially, culturally, South Africa is still divided along racial lines. Race might not be the overriding issue in post-1994 South Africa, since formal apartheid legislation has been scrapped. However, race is important insofar as it points to the extent to which material inequalities still remain in our society, and how that precludes greater social and cultural changes from taking place.

Census 2001 has shown us that race and class still coincide in South African society, almost 10 years after the formal end of apartheid. It is important that “playing the race card” should not be a way of escaping criticism or denying interlocutors a position from where to constructively engage in a dialogue to change things for the better. But race as a determinant in South African society cannot be wished away. While it should inform the approach to redressing material inequalities, this should not be restricted to changing faces in boardrooms — it should also take the form of a restructuring on ground level, so that the legacies of the past may someday be erased. Only by changing material circumstances in the country will we be able to change the ways we experience each other and define ourselves as South Africans. Only then will we be able to shape new identities without being encumbered by the ghosts of the past.

Herman Wasserman is co-editor, with Sean Jacobs, of the book Shifting Selves: Post-apartheid Essays on Mass Media, Culture and Identity, published by Kwela earlier this month.

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