We dare not erase 'race' from debate

There has been much debate at the University of Cape Town (UCT) since Professor David Benatar’s inaugural lecture on Justice, Diversity and Affirmative Action several weeks ago. Benatar essentially argues that “race is a lazy proxy for disadvantage” and that affirmative action “does not succeed”. He proposes the implementation of “equal opportunity affirmative action”.
This action “does not require us to enter the fetid terrain of racial classification and racial preference”. Soon after his lecture, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Martin Hall took Benatar on in a debate that added fuel to the fire.

Equity debates have often been emotive, but this does not mean that “emotional” interlocutors should be dismissed as irrational. Apartheid involved more than just political and economic oppression. It involved the daily humiliation of black subjects through demeaning encounters with the apartheid state apparatus. Various laws and practices ensured that black people were constantly reminded of their inferior legal and social status. Apartheid—and colonialism in general—was more than just a legal, political or ethical issue; it was a deeply emotional issue. It continues to be so.

When Benatar implies that equity appointees are likely to be less qualified or skilled than their white counterparts, he hits a nerve laid bare by several hundred years of colonialism and 48 years of National Party rule. When Hall says that UCT does not view race in the same way as the biologically essentialist apartheid state viewed it, I believe that he does so with the knowledge of the continued impact of racism on the hearts and minds of all South Africans. I am not convinced that Benatar is equally sensitive to this issue.

Once you erase the term “race” from debate on equity and social justice, you underestimate the impact of apartheid; the country’s large class divide is still split along racial lines. When you erase “race” from talk of social justice, you strip subjects of a vocabulary that allows them to articulate their continuing experiences of marginalisation and discrimination. This vocabulary is vital in an apparently post-apartheid nation that has to contend with pressure from the likes of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation, whose economic policies widen the racialised class divide between North and South. If we are to make sense of these global iniquities and their impact on UCT, then we dare not erase “race” from debate on social justice.

What does it mean when black students enter universities? Are the playing fields now level? Many black undergraduates rub shoulders with white classmates whose parents and grandparents had a university education, and who have great economic as well as cultural capital that give them a significant head start. This is not so for many black students. The same could be said of black academics.

How do we acknowledge these differences and how do we counter Benatar’s assumption that such academics’ credentials are to be doubted? How do we challenge the view that white professionals are automatically more qualified or skilled than their black counterparts?

Benatar argues: “The more weight an affirmative action policy attaches to ‘race’, the weaker a candidate of the desired ‘race’ can be in other ways while still obtaining the place or position for which he or she is competing.”

I challenge Benatar to identify black UCT academics who are not suitably qualified or skilled or else withdraw his inference as empty rhetoric. The aspersion cast on black professionals indicates that Benatar attaches importance to “race” after all.

Benatar also contends that “the rectification imperative is strongest for those who are most disadvantaged by injustice,” and that “these people are least likely to benefit from affirmative action”. In essence, the gap is so wide that only those blacks who are already advantaged benefit from affirmative action. He identifies a problem that supposedly unravels UCT’s attempts at transformation, but does not propose a sound solution. Civil society groups and government programmes are trying to bridge key gaps, while UCT academics and students have launched community projects to address these matters. The people who drive these initiatives are pursuing transformation, not obstructing it.

It is revealing that Benatar presumes to speak for “these people”. I taught some of “these people” at the University of the Western Cape and, briefly, at Peninsula Technikon. Many students lived in informal settlements or came from impoverished rural areas. One of my colleagues was once shamed into silence after chastising a student for producing sloppy work. It turned out that the student’s home burned down during a fire in his informal settlement over the weekend.

I suggest that Benatar explore the world beyond sophisticated rhetoric to discover the agency of “these people” whom he summarily dooms to failure.

Adam Haupt is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

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