Class exists but can we say the same of race?

IDENTITY

Is South African society made up of races or classes? Or, if it is both, which of the two is more fundamental?

This debate, which raged among intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s, is back, not least in recent Mail & Guardian articles by Eusebius McKaiser (“Nothing fuzzy about complexity” and “Race debate elicits fatal fallacies”). He reports on his debates with various political figures concerning this question, and, most recently, has argued passionately for complexity, against the simplistic thinking of certain populist and leftist personalities who would choose just one of these explanatory concepts. Complexity, in the sense that he defends, consists of an acceptance of both race and class in defining the singular nature of South African society.

READ MORE: Race debate needs to enter more productive terrain

So far so simple, and perhaps many South Africans would regard this as common sense. But there is more to it than this, and it turns around the notion of a “social construct”. McKaiser concedes that race is a social construct but points out that this does not mean that it does not exist. After all, if people believe in witchcraft then it is simply a fact that they believe this, and this belief can have consequences. So witchcraft is important, if only because people believe in it; the same with race.

Class is somewhat different. It is, in a sense, also a social construct rather than a fact of nature. Classes have not always existed; they have evolved with society. But the existence of classes in society is a demonstrable fact and not a fact about people’s beliefs. Karl Marx offered a clear definition of class, which makes it verifiable. In a nutshell, class is an individual’s relation to the means of production. These social relations can be investigated empirically to give us an idea of the social class composition of society. Marx’s definition has become widely accepted by mainstream social science.

So race and class seem to exist on two different ontological levels, two levels of existence. But am I not getting ahead of myself here? Could it be that McKaiser and I are wrong and that races exist objectively, regardless of whether anyone believes in them or not? This does appear to be the way in which many South Africans see the matter, if one listens to the ways in which they talk about it. But the scepticism of the Marxian view towards this kind of racialised thinking is justifiable, not for the sake of doctrine but for the sake of progress. And it is here that the avowedly liberal journalist does not help us much regarding the way forward.


As an English word, “race’” goes back to the 16th century, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and it originally had the meaning of lineage, descent or breeding. It could thus refer to a clan, a tribe or nation, even a family. So, in a typical example, the Irish would be seen as a different race from the English. So would the Dutch.

But the more modern English usage arises within the later, imperial phase, corresponding to the need to understand the various subjugated natives in different parts of the British Empire. What did the natives look like anatomically? What were their different customs, religions and languages? What was the state of advancement of each race, their forms of economic activity, and so on?

“Race” combined all of these into a compendium of characteristics, according to which each type of native could be understood. Each characteristic seemed to find its explanation in race. So if a certain group had not yet developed a system of writing then it could be assumed that this was explainable by the “racial nature” of this group. Their race (somehow) worked against the development of a writing system. Something to do with the shape of the head, perhaps? Enter the science of phrenology.

So “race” has come to encompass many meanings, the relationship of each meaning to the others remaining fairly obscure, yet increasingly taken for granted. It can mean a gene pool, a skin colour, a shape of the face, a culture or form of society. It can even be a metaphysical sort of notion, as in “God created the races to be different from one another and to have all these differentiating characteristics”. The portmanteau nature of the construct makes it impossible to verify it scientifically so as to justify a belief in it.

This obscurantism, however, is what made the notion uniquely fit for purpose. The colonised native could have a specified place in society as a worker according to his or her “nature”. Some could even be regarded as suitable for administrative work (notably in India — see Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute on Education of 1835), whereas others were only deemed suitable for manual labour, perhaps only for slavery. This could be determined by race, of which observable signs such as physical appearance or accent would serve as handy means of identification.

In the context of the post-South African War period and the formation of the Union of South Africa, the project of white unity became an imperative to counter the black threat to British colonialism. It would surely not make sense anymore to regard the Boer as being of a different race to the English. The racial divide was now placed firmly between European and native.

A belief in the objective existence of races in this sense is dangerous to society and to the postcolonial world. It has been internalised by people of all backgrounds, contrary to the views of those populists in South Africa who argue, often with great force and invective, that only a white person can be racist. This is to confuse the origins of the concept with its subsequent fate. It may even be that, in South Africa, racialised thinking has been internalised by the formerly colonised more than in any other country. One would have expected the apostles of Frantz Fanon, with his profound psychiatric and philosophical insights, to understand this phenomenon.

To take just one example, it is quite possible to hear a black South African (that is, an African language speaker) say that a “coloured” person has no culture, and that this is somehow related to “mixed blood” — this in distinction from the “pure blood” of white and black people. Such beliefs and opinions do indeed remain on a level no different from that of witchcraft, whoever holds them. Nevertheless, they exist. Though white/European racism may well continue to be the most virulent form of racialised thinking, wherever any belief in race exists fuzzy thought has won the day and racism of some form will not be far behind. That is why it is dangerous and retrogressive to pussyfoot around the concept of race, as if it is just a fact of life that must be accepted.

READ MORE: Identity by race does matter

Like McKaiser, I studied at Rhodes University. I remember believing at that time in the objective existence of distinct races. I have long since shed that belief but it took a process. I know today that “race” is simply bad ideology and humanity urgently needs to find a better way of talking and thinking about people than this if our species is to thrive.

A duality of race and class, far from being complex, seems terribly, perhaps fatally, simplistic, and it has a paralysing effect on thought.

Surely the more progressive view today would be to drop race classification and start to look more clearly and closely at the differentiated needs of South African citizens: as workers, as speakers of particular languages, as the unemployed, as women, as people with specific educational needs, as shackdwellers, as landless peasants and even as people who value certain traditions over others. Can the liberal agenda help us to get to this point?

Tahir Wood is an extraordinary professor in the faculty of education at the University of the Western Cape

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