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Will colourism be SA’s red scare?


South Africa’s tenuous relationship with the rest of the continent is not a novelty. Nor is it a unique component of the post-apartheid state.

When Afrophobic anti-immigrant violence broke out in South Africa a decade ago, and more recently in 2015, the explanations and commentaries iterated in media and academic spaces were curiously superficial, avoiding deeper analysis into the colonialist bedrock that configured and reconfigured identity.

Instead, emphasis was placed on specious arguments about poverty, unemployment, criminality and competition with outsiders for scarce resources.

Minority citizens were not spared from the 2008 and 2015 xenophobic attacks. These ethnic minorities — deemed “too dark to be citizens”, whose belonging hinges on where on the shade spectrum they exist —also have experience of how living in South Africa is a violent process, where inclusion in this democracy can be intricate and confusing.

The fraught experience of not being a “proper” citizen is evident in how darker-skinned citizens (particularly those from the northern part of our country) are labelled by certain sections of South African society as not “belonging” here.

For instance, in their quest to expose Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba’s lies and ties to the Guptas, members of the Economic Freedom Fighters have begun to engage in what can only be described as McCarthy-style rhetoric, questioning whether he is “really” South African.

It seems South Africa, with colourism as its vehicle, will go through its own McCarthyism, with foreign origin as its red scare.

Colourism, as a term, was developed in 1982 by Alice Walker in a collection of essays, articles and reviews titled In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. The term describes the phenomenon of individuals being treated with prejudice based on varying degrees of skin colour, which is typically demonstrated both interracially and intraracially by the favouring of light-skinned individuals over dark-skinned individuals.

Colourism can further divide already marginalised communities. Those with darker skin will feel alienated among their own people, on the basis of something beyond their control — their skin colour. Outside their communities, they will still face racial discrimination for being black. They have to face more discrimination, even from those who are meant to understand and accept them because of their shared history.

Although racism and colourism exist on the same plane, they are not synonymous; they appear and function on different levels.

Colourism is subsumed by racism, making it less clear and at times less visible. The difference between colourism and racism is that colourism pertains to social meanings associated with gradations of skin colour, whereas racism refers to social meaning attached to race.

For South Africans, colourism is a key question related to nationality: “Gigaba is navy; it’s obvious he’s not a real Zulu.”

To conflate criminality and a dingy moral compass with noncitizenship, as some politicians have done to Gigaba, is not just dangerous, it’s wildly obscene. In the public discourse, the many lies he is alleged to have told about his relations with the Gupta family now serve as a function of his otherness, hence the comments about Gigaba’s dubious nationality: the implication is that he is a liar who allowed the state to be stolen because it was never his state to begin with.

“What is offensive when people ask you about your nationality? It happens every day when we apply for visas, and when we travel people ask us about our nationalities. Isn’t this an opportunity for you to clarify where you were born?” EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu asked Gigaba during the Eskom parliamentary inquiry.

The insinuations made by members of the EFF about Gigaba’s origin and citizenship, in place of reasoned, factual critique, reflect the underlying problem of colourism in South African society. To call Gigaba an “unpatriotic pathological liar”, as EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi did, suggests Gigaba is some sort of Manchurian candidate who has infiltrated South Africa for a foreign master. It is a diversion from the vital debate about state capture before and after the arrival of the Gupta family.

Whether any proof of Gigaba’s “otherness” actually exists doesn’t matter. For the EFF and the minister’s many detractors, the evidence is written all over his face.

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Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.

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