/ 4 February 2016

Racist rants expose Mngxitama

Irrational: One cannot describe all whites in the #ZumaMustFall march as fascists and racists.
Irrational: One cannot describe all whites in the #ZumaMustFall march as fascists and racists.

Andile Mngxitama recently argued that the ANC does not grasp the race question in this country or the ways racism is expressed, and that it is not equipped to combat it. But Mngxitama is himself a prisoner of his own myopic and dangerous views on race and racism.

The relevant literature makes it abundantly clear that, no matter how pervasive racism is in various facets of post-apartheid society – either overtly or subliminally – unambiguous clarity about its definition and its articulation with various class and socioeconomic elements is imperative for a correct understanding of it. These are deep, multi-layered and complex phenomena.

But treading cautiously is foreign to Mngxitama. His race-based demagogic tirades are unhelpful. His approach and style are too crude, inflammatory and polarising – the last thing we need in trying to understand the complexities of how race, racism and class are expressed and articulated.

As difficult as it is, we need to try to discuss the combustible topic of racism dispassionately.

In December, Mngxitama wrote that all the whites who supported the #ZumaMustFall campaign were racists and fascists. How on earth could he arrive at this crude generalisation about those whites who participated in that march?

Knowing our history, does he want to stoke a racial conflagration with provocative allegations?

He is a vociferous black nationalist with, I argue, increasingly apparent racist overtones in how he regards white people. He is locked into a dogmatic, binary blindness that literally treats a very complex topic as simply black and white.

The irony is that, in post-apartheid South Africa, significant class formation among blacks and an equally significant loss of economic power by whites makes references to homogenous “black people” or “white society” mythical, at best.

Last week Mngxitama again takes up his theme (Mpofu nails his colours to the mast). He asks whether Dali Mpofu’s defence of radio personality Gareth Cliff, on what was essentially a charge of racism, aided or harmed “black interests”. What does “black interests” mean? It is a nebulous phrase.

Mngxitama likes labelling people racists, fascists and reactionaries. Not even Zwelinzima Vavi escaped. In December, Mngxitama chastised the “reactionary” Vavi for joining an anti-Zuma march alongside the “racists” and “fascists”. Such recklessness with words denudes them of their elementary meanings.

There were some conservative whites among the anti-Zuma marchers, but one still can’t describe all whites on that march as racists and fascists. It appears that Mngxitama’s raging blood takes over his head and he abandons any scholarly approach to race and racism.

The problem is that the more we entertain such diatribes the less we can see of the bigger systemic picture – capitalism and class, with which race and racism intersect.

Utterances like Mngxitama’s also deflect attention from what it means to cultivate and build a genuinely nonracial and antiracist ethos, and prevent us from confronting the social crisis afflicting the black, working-class majority.

Mngxitama has avoided a nuanced balance between race and class in his analysis. Race and racism are indelibly woven into the historical fabric of capitalism in South Africa, as in many other parts of the world, though it is also a mistake to reduce all racism to a class or materialist analysis.

Black writers and thinkers such as Mngxitama should avoid crude reductionism – the view that all class and economic factors necessarily and always boil down to race and racism.

The real truth, both historically and socially, lies not on one or the other side of the race/class pendulum but in their simultaneity of motion.

Mngxitama must urgently disabuse himself of the gravely mistaken notion that only white people are capable of racism, as well as the idea that all white people are necessarily racist.

We can see just how dangerous it is to advocate such views in the light of the call made by Velaphi Khumalo for black people to do to whites what Hitler did to the Jews. Racist provocation cannot get worse than that.

Everyone, including black people, is capable of racism. Black and white are not homogenous groups but themselves riven with class, social, political and ideological differences and conflicts.

But Mngxitama treats white and black identities homogeneously, confers analytical status on the terms, and is then able to come to sweeping conclusions.

In my view, many racist comments have been made by many black people over the years, including by Mngxitama. Today, social media is awash with them.

Many were quick to label the words or actions of white people as racist, such as Chris Hart and Penny Sparrow, but failed to detect or condemn racism such as Jimmy Manyi’s comments about coloured people in the Western Cape a few years ago.

Mngxitama is deluded in the belief that his “blackness” gives him a total monopoly on all the wisdom about racism.

Discursively, he represents a narrow, crude Africanist majoritarian chauvinism that has little to do with building an ethos of genuine nonracialism and antiracism. I am not seduced by the notion of “blackness”, as if it automatically possesses a political status beyond the necessary analytic rigour needed to deal with racism.

Clearly, we need to raise the bar in debates about race and racism, and stop entertaining racial and sometimes racist tirades by the likes of Mngxitama. To regard all whites as racists is itself arguably racist, which is why the very definition of racism is an ideological and political struggle. It is a time for new confrontations in our discourses about race and racism.

Ebrahim Harvey is writing a book on racism in post-apartheid South Africa