Born out of the crucible of the struggle against apartheid, the idea of nonracialism is arguably one of South Africa’s most potent contributions to modern political thought and practice.
At its most utopian, nonracialism gestures towards a future when the structures of racism will be dismantled and all forms of racial injury and trauma will be healed.
Race as a category of political organisation and an index of social identification will become irrelevant. The distribution of the means of life and survival will be made on a basis other than mere claims of descent.
The utopian ideal of a world free of the burden of race has powered the struggles of the oppressed since the advent of the modern age. It gave meaning and purpose to the campaigns for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. It was central to the decolonisation struggle, the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and some of the radical attempts to change the world in the 20th century.
As racism has kept mutating, though, so have forms of intersections between race, class and gender. Although local in its manifestations, racism has always been a global phenomenon and part of its persistence is a result of its globalisation. Furthermore, the force of racism in our world stems from its capacity to mutate and to reappear constantly in ever-changing forms in the most unexpected sites of everyday life.
The weakness of most antiracist struggles is the result of our inability to keep up with the mutating structures of racism and their virulence. As racism worldwide takes on a genomic turn and is now propelled by the war on terror, various anti-migratory policies, the resurgence of compensatory forms of nationalism and mass incarceration, South Africa is caught between various contradictory processes.
The first is the unilateral intellectual disarmament undertaken by the ANC over the past decade. Twenty years after the end of apartheid, the movement is intellectually dead. This intellectual disarmament has paved the way to the bifurcation of public life and the capitulation of the elites to the kind of bureaucratic instrumentalism that now dominates public culture.
Bureaucratic instrumentalism rests on the false belief that the current South African predicament is of a purely materialistic order – that our problems are technical and can be resolved through purely technical means. We need to tackle poverty, but we do not need ideas. The politics of value is irrelevant because all that is needed is to feed the hungry and shelter the poor.
Having deserted the sphere of ideas and having delegitimised values as a primary site of the political, the former liberation movement has depleted most of the moral and symbolic capital accumulated during the struggle. As a result, it has been unable to give any positive, future-oriented meaning to the project of nonracialism: nonracialism is meaningless in the absence of values.
To do so would have required a sophisticated, noninstrumentalist understanding of the work that arts, culture and memory perform in periods of transformation. It would have required harnessing the intellectual traditions and the cultural history of black people as well as the articulation of an Afropolitan position that could embrace those forms of white-African identity we need in the struggle for racial justice.
Having failed to turn white guilt into a moral debt, the ANC has let the most reactionary sectors of white society off the hook while chasing away those progressive and antiracist whites who could have supported the idea of a radical transformation of the society.
Reactionary and conservative forces have co-opted nonracialism, which they now equate with colour-blindness. They use nonracialism as a weapon to discredit any attempt to deracialise property, institutions and structures inherited from an odious past. Rather than promoting affinities, they invite us to celebrate our differences – in an ironic twist that tragically reveals the extent of apartheid’s posthumous victory.
Reactionary forces also mobilise the discourse of nonracialism to silence those who point to any trace of racism in the present, or call for some form of reparation for the injustices of the past. Instead, they now pretend that the government is practising “reverse racism” in a country in which not one single former oppressor lost a cent as a result of the transition away from centuries of spoilation and dehumanisation.
Nonracialism is also under attack from forces that equate it with a politics of accommodation or capitulation. Indeed, for many, nonracialism is nothing but ideological cover for the failure to address the inequities of the present. It is no different from earlier attempts at justifying unequal coexistence. Instead of nonracialism, what is needed is a resolute antiracist politics.
And yet, properly understood, nonracialism is not opposed to antiracism. In fact, it is the necessary supplement to all forms of antiracism. It allows us to project ourselves into the future in a way our current struggles hardly allow.
A proper nonracial project is not the equivalent of colour-blindness. Under current conditions, colour-blindness simply means “keeping blacks in their place”.
The legacies of South African apartheid cannot be eradicated through exclusion constructed by self-serving notions of meritocracy or by privatising public spaces and services. The market has never been an engine for racial equality.
Given South Africa’s history, the effect of colour-blindness is to render invisible and to leave untouched the structures of white privilege and the way they are woven into the unexamined institutional practices, habits of mind and received truths.
Concentrated racial poverty can only be altered by directly confronting the white privileges that sustain them. This is what the ANC government has so far failed to do.
As Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage argues, nonracialism begins with the necessity of uprooting racism from the sinews of the present. It implies depriving the racists in our midst of the power to externalise their racism.
It requires that everything be done to prevent the racists from successfully making the racialised hate themselves. For it to succeed, the victims of racism must be supported and the troubling gaps in life chances between blacks and whites must be reduced.
Those who have been racialised and dehumanised must be empowered to recover a modicum of self-agency and, if necessary, the kind of healthy narcissism that has been crushed during the long centuries of brutality.
Any effective policy to combat racial inequality today must confront the complex relationships between race, class and gender in South Africa.
But more importantly, it has to be future-oriented. An antiracist politics that is simply preoccupied with the present is always at risk of reproducing, in the structures of its outcomes, the very racist terms it pretends to overcome.
Achille Mbembe is at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Institute for Social and Economic Research. He is a co-convenor of the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, of which this paper formed a part.