/ 4 March 2011

Manyi is not alone in his racism

Manyi Is Not Alone In His Racism

Anyone who thinks that Jimmy Manyi, after his comments about coloured people, is simply an aberration on the post-apartheid landscape is hugely mistaken.

Manyi, like Butana Komphela, is merely saying the kinds of outrageous things that many of his ilk among the powerful (and the restless, economically disen­franchised and powerless) think but lack the courage to say openly about the people they dub “coloured”.

Manyi is a perfect product of our racist past: he categorises humanity into the four racial boxes of apartheid, assigns biological and social essences to the people in each of them and then damns them accordingly.

I once sat on a panel with this man discussing affirmative action and employment equity, and I was astounded by his lack of reflection, his incapacity for generosity and the racial and ethnic determinism that shapes his thinking.

The fact that the man is protected by so-called black (read “racial African”) lobbies and receives a light, laughing tap on the wrist from powerful political parties tells you that Manyi-type thinking enjoys considerable support among the elites.

That he holds positions of influence makes the man’s thinking dangerous in the extreme. What he spewed out and now receives support for is no laughing matter. This is precisely the kind of racist discourse about others — “there are too many of them” — that preceded the ethnic genocide in Rwanda. It is the language of scapegoating, and our skins should crawl when faced with this kind of provocation.

A quick but necessary aside: I am not and never was coloured, so I do not speak here with any sense of ethnic or racial defensiveness. I was detribalised a long time ago — and so I write here as a human being still committed to the rebuilding of our nation from the ruins of the apartheid past and still hopeful about the possibility of a non-racial and non-ethnicised South Africa.

Of course, Manyi is not the first quasi-politician to make derogatory statements about coloured people. People in the Western Cape remember the racist comments of Marike de Klerk, the late wife of the former president, who referred to coloured people as “non-person(s)— the people who were left after the nations were sorted out. They are the rest.”

These oortollige (leftover) people, as she called them, were also slammed by a one-time Cape Town mayoral adviser, one Blackman (yes, really) Ngoro, as “beggars, homeless and drunk on cheap wine”.

And then, of course, there is the most recent excretion of racist bile, by Sunday World columnist Kuli Roberts, in whose peculiar world coloured girls “breed”, are sex machines, lack front teeth, act violently in public and “eat fish like they are trying to deplete the ocean”.

These deeply racist beliefs about coloured people stretch far back into the colonial and apartheid imagination, infiltrating social mores, religious organisations (there still is a specific Dutch Reformed Church for coloured people), school textbooks and even literary works.

One of the most important pieces of scholarship demonstrating such racist representations of coloured people appears in Jakes Gerwel’s classic study, Literatuur en Apartheid (Literature and Apartheid) where, for example, the jollie hotnot (happy coloured) shines through as a durable stereotype of the group. That was then.

So where does this vitriol come from, more than 16 years after apartheid officially ended? It is a direct consequence, says thinker Neville Alexander, of what happens when a race-obsessed society fails to deal with the categories inherited from apartheid. Instead of doing away with the racist notions of four socio-biological groups of human beings — white, Indian, coloured and African — we embraced this ideological baggage in the name of equity.

I no longer attend conferences of over-energetic black scholars who, sensing material opportunity in retaining apartheid’s categories, insist that we continue with this sliding scale of humanity with resources favouring the racial African.

This kind of discourse is standard fare among the black nationalists when they talk about favoured categories such as “Africans in particular”. They do not even stop to think about the irony of doing exactly what the white nationalists did when they created an evil system that favoured white people in general and “Afrikaners in particular”. And look at the mess that came with such divisive tactics. We refuse to learn.

There is nothing inherently wrong with social and cultural groupings of people who identify themselves on the basis of religion or language or other ties of tradition. What we are dealing with here, though, are racial and ethnic categories imbued with a terrifying violence and destructive prejudice that did not suddenly disappear with the legal end of apartheid. This is a very, very important point to recognise in politics and policy if we are to avoid disaster in the near future.

Why would people who once fought side by side to end apartheid start to turn on each other? It’s quite simple really and has happened in other postcolonial societies. As governments fail to deliver on their promises to people, the poor and desperate turn on themselves. And what better target than other poor people who are perceived to be relatively better off?

But for the first steps towards ethnic cleansing (social and economic, if not yet physical) to take place, the textbook formula has already been discovered by any number of writers on ethnic conflict and genocide across the African continent. And you will find the elements of such conflict perfectly contained in the dangerous words of Manyi, Ngoro, Roberts and others:

  • Make your neighbour, with whom you otherwise enjoyed a comfortable relationship, your enemy;
  • Depict those enemies not as human but as animals who breed and over-breed, so that there are too many of them;
  • Assign to them a common set of degrading attributes — drunks with no front teeth is a good start — again rendering them non-human;
  • Remind the vulnerable group that the enemy is different to you and can never be you, for they are irredeemably vulgar, coarse and corrupted;
  • Pretend that in making racist comments you were just being funny or that you did not really mean what you said; and
  • Present your new enemy — the over-breeders — as threatening your livelihood and existence: if there were less of them, you would be fine.

The rest is easy.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is the rector of the University of the Free State