Cliff and Steenhuisen are wrong. Here’s why race matters in South Africa

In last week’s episode of The Burning Platform podcast, the host, Gareth Cliff, and one of his two guests on the programme, John Steenhuisen, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, weaved an ahistorical, dishonest and incoherent web of assertions regarding the relevance of race and racism in South Africa. 

In response to Mudzuli Rakhivane, a member and advocate of the One South Africa Movement, who questioned whether the DA had fed racial tensions by erecting its controversial election posters in Phoenix, Cliff asserted that racism was not a priority in the 1 November local elections and claimed that no one was interested in identity politics. As Rakhivane was articulating a response, citing her own experience of racism, Cliff interjected to assert that her “personal experience is completely anecdotal and unimportant to all of us”. 

Examining Cliff’s and Steenhuisen’s assertions allows us to obtain clarity on why some self-proclaimed liberals, both white and black, confidently and continually fail to grasp the uncomfortable reality of racism. Moreover, assessing their remarks allows us to see how their political imaginations are held hostage by culture-war talking points exported from the US. 

What needs close inspection is not just the antics of Cliff or Steenhuisen as individuals, although their outlooks provide insights into how messy and potentially debilitating our conversations about race can be; their perspectives exist within a long tradition of toothless non-racialism that claims to recognise the social construction of race while separating it from its historical roots and economic underpinnings. 

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Andile Zulu
Andile Zulu is a political essayist who runs the Born Free Blues blog.

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