Race and Ethnicity in Contemporary South Africa

In 2010, conservative Republican Senator from Arizona, Russell Pearce in motivating for Bill that would strip immigrants in the US of any rights said the following:

I saw the enormous fiscal and social costs that illegal immigration was imposing on my state. I saw Americans out of work, hospitals and schools overflowed and budgets strained. Most disturbingly, I saw my fellow citizens victimized by illegal, alien criminals”.

The relevance of this quote on an article dealing with issues in contemporary South Africa is to illustrate the warped nativism of conservative white America, who driven by prejudice and the ideology of white supremacy perceive themselves to be the legitimate “owners” of the USA. This narrative downplays the legitimate struggles of the Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos. The ideological basis of the views of a Russell Pearce is so embedded within sections of mainstream America that Donald Trump, campaigning on a ticket that mobilizes sentiment against the ‘other’ is currently the Republican front-runner for President.

Nativism as an ideology is witnessing a resurgence globally with significant negative impacts on the human rights and security of people viewed as being the outsider. The plight of migrants in Europe and also here in South Africa are testament to this. South Africa’s liberation struggle had different approaches to dealing with race and racial divisions. The New Unity Movement and others had a stance that suggested that the best way to deal with race and racism was to constantly debunk race as a construct and deal with how the ideology of white supremacy was using race as a means to divide people for the purposes of capitalist exploitation. The UDF and the ANC were of the view that we needed to acknowledge race based thinking, identities and ideologies as only through engaging with the realities of peoples self identification, which is referred to as a ‘false consciousness’ could we realistically build a society based on non-racialism.

Twenty-one years after liberation and after more than 100 years of struggling against colonialism, racism and working towards building a non-racial society, we are confronted with the resurgence of nativism, racism and ethnic divisions. The search for a positive identity amongst those classified as “coloured” under apartheid has led to the formations of movements seeking to self identify as Khoi and San and other essentially first peoples identities. When this self-identification is done as a means to reclaim a legitimate African identity it needs to be supported as it may lead to discussions important to the formation of a unifying African identity for all South Africans.

A unifying identity devoid of the legacy of the four nations theory of ‘Africans’, ‘Coloured’, ‘Indian’ and ‘White’, created by colonial – apartheid racist ideology.

There are, however, strands within embrace of a first people’s heritage and identity that has become divisive and that serves to entrench racism and ethnic chauvinism. This done through a deliberate differentiating from other black South Africans who are often described by some commentators in these movements as the marauding ‘bantus’ who migrated to South African from West Africa. When this negative approach is co-joined by a more overt Coloured Nationalism under the mantle of the ‘Kullid’ movements that appear to be positioned to oppose other black people and a black identity the positive search for identity descends into the kind of nativism so evidently displayed by the likes of Donald Trump. The same kind of nativism is unfortunately also evident in the narrow African nationalism discourses that still describe those South Africans classified as “coloured”, “Indian” and “European” as non-African. This brings about the anomalous situation where people are at the same time ‘South African’ but not ‘African’. When this is combined with the enduring racism informed by the ideology of white supremacy and a growing tribal consciousness then we are facing a South Africa with fragmented identities that are constantly at odds with the ‘other’ in our society.

Given this, it is time that we break from the kinds of narratives and ideologies from our past so that we can build a society that is truly anti-racist and more equal. This includes looking at what we as the ANC and as government are doing that may inadvertently be perpetuating racial, ethnic and tribal consciousness. This does not mean we should not implementing redress policies that seek to deal with the inequities of the past. The challenge we face is how can we build a more equal society, employing equity-based policies without continuing a racialised discourse and practice. The situation we find ourselves in, is aptly captured in the following statement by the late Neville Alexander:

The terribly simple fact is that “race” is not real; it is racial prejudice and race thinking that are real. By compelling us to declare whether we belong to this or that so-called “race”, the state forces us into a racial mould, whether we like it or not. Eventually, a racial habitus takes hold of us so that we take it for granted that we belong to this or that so-called “race” and we assume the relevant racial identity. This is what happened during the colonial-apartheid era and this is, preposterously, what continues to happen in post-apartheid South Africa..”

It is time that the ANC and the government it leads acts to break this racial habitus. This does not mean denying the inequities that we inherited and that persist based on the racism of the past as is argued within the liberal paradigm. We require innovative policy approaches that do not entrench the racial narratives of the past. As we engage with this growing negative nativism that co-exists with the old racist thinking and structures we inherited, we also need to discuss the other false ideology in our midst, which is cultural chauvinism. In particular, the accommodation of patriarchal notions of culture and power that provides political cover for the continued discrimination against women and sexual minorities in our society.

Note: This article first appeared in The New Age newspaper on the 31st August 2015

Comrade Jessie Duarte is the Deputy Secretary General of the ANC

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