/ 4 August 2008

Unravelling a world of white and black

Let’s face it, since 1994 many leading black figures in the middle, professional and upper classes have played the ”race card”, often opportunistically, to gain preferential headway and leverage, to deflect attention from serious misdemeanours and to expedite and hasten advances in careers, business or politics.

The acrimonious divisions that erupted in the judiciary and between it and the political establishment over Judge John Hlophe’s alleged attempts to influence the outcome of cases against ANC president Jacob Zuma is a striking case in point.

Though not prominently articulated, behind-the-scenes racial power perceptions and politics are playing a big part in this matter, seemingly at the expense of well-established juridical and constitutional principles.

Given our highly racist history, invoking race and racism can be a powerful discourse in its own right and therefore entirely valid, but it can also be used as an expedient and disingenuous discursive tactic for self-advancement or political self-justification.

Sometimes things are so complex and convoluted that it is hard to distinguish the one from the other. But any observer of the media will know that since 1994 race has been used primarily by middle and upper-class blacks rather than by the working class and poor, even though it is the latter who have suffered most from the effects of continuing racism and the advent of neo-liberalism in the economy and society at large. This is largely because middle and upper-class blacks have had easier access to the media and have used it to advance their interests.

In this intricate race-class configuration, a few sobering truths have emerged since 1994 that disrupt the simplistic white-black dichotomy in all facets of our society. Increasingly, there are no neatly homogenous white or black constructs that inherently possess the attributes of good or bad, progressive or retrogressive, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary.

The truths that have emerged run much deeper and criss-cross race-class barriers, inconveniently revealing a far more complex and unpredictable set of realities that defy any simplistic racial analysis.

The horrific recent black-on-black xenophobic violence is only the latest illustration of my point. We have seen some of the worst forms of intra-racial and intra-class violence in this country, taking one back to the internecine violence we witnessed between black hostel dwellers and township residents in the 1980s, the brutality meted out to ordinary black shoppers by black youth during boycotts of white stores in the same period and the ”necklacing” of suspected black apartheid collaborators, sometimes mistakenly.

We must stop expecting good, right or progressive thoughts and actions from people purely on the basis of race, colour, class and geography.

For example, stereotypical racial preconceptions — in the media, other professions and in public discourse — will blind us to the fact that there are good black and white journalists, commentators, thinkers and activists. There are also many whites in these fields who are more progressive in their thinking and views than many of their black counterparts, who also often use race, black nationalism and sometimes a plain Africanist majoritarian chauvinism to advance class or career interests, overtly or covertly.

There are countless other examples that show that this race morality is imploding. Who were the people attacking ordinary black women for wearing mini-skirts recently? Backward, crudely sexist and chauvinist thugs from the ranks of the black working class. People from that same class recently turned horrifically on their brothers and sisters from Zimbabwe and other African countries.

The time has come for us to take off our racial blinkers and become more cautious, discerning and courageous about asserting the uncomfortable truths that lie beneath the surface of the starkly black-and-white world that is setting the intellectual agenda. We need to start thinking outside the racial boxes bequeathed to us by apartheid and which post-apartheid neoliberalism is unravelling. We will find a much more dynamic and exciting world that has little in common with hardened — and often brittle and false — racial preconceptions.

Ebrahim Harvey is a political commentator and a former Cosatu unionist