Gcobani Qambela
Gcobani Qambela

What does a ‘non-racial’ SA look like?

The University of California Humanities Research Institute’s Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory in conjunction with the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research’s (Wiser) Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism kicked off yesterday at the University of the Witwatersrand. The theme is “Archives of the Non-Racial“. It began with a conversation between Ahmed Kathrada and Achille Mbembe, which was chaired by Adam Habib, the vice chancellor of Wits.

The exchange between the three titans — lasting nearly two hours — covered topics relating to race, SA’s history (through Kathrada’s life story) and issues related to debates on admission to medical schools at predominantly white institutions and challenges getting traditionally white student residences to reflect a more cosmopolitan picture that does not exclude students from marginalised groups in particular by class and race.

Habib observed the ways in which “non-racial” is approached is problematic and that the ways in which many “white” institutions in South Africa have handled race has the effect of disintegrating South Africans more than getting us to interact with each other. Critically, he asked “what is the non-racial in 2014?” and importantly how do we get to the non-racial when we have had such a racialised past?

What I found thought-provoking was the way in which Kathrada showed how through personal relationships, family and friendships many people were able to transcend apartheid legislation and form relations against restrictive laws and policies. He said what he remembered most growing up was that the relationship between his family and white, Indian and black South Africans was “very warm” to the extent that “Boer” music makes him very nostalgic.

This shows the complex ways in which even under brutally racialised societies, individual choices especially in small communities can have important ramifications for the society we ultimately end up inhabiting. He told stories of a white man who even under threat of the Immorality Act chose to co-habit with a black woman without hiding it, how when Kathrada could not be admitted to a black or white school the principal of the black school gave him assistance to help him catch up with other kids, and later how Anglican priest Reverend Michael Scott played an important role in the anti-apartheid struggle by presenting evidence to the United Nations.

Yet Kathrada said moving to Johannesburg was the first time he really got to understand and experience explicit institutionalised racism. He said this was confusing because as kids they played across races, and yet he could not understand why then he could not go to the same school as his friends. This reminded me of an incident I really haven’t been able to forget. I’ve been subjected to countless incidents of racism, yet the one that touched me the most occurred last year at my nephew’s school Christmas concert.

My nephew attends a predominantly “white” public school in a predominantly “white” area. When my sister and I were ushered to our seats at the concert, there was a young white girl (about 8/9 years) who was seated behind us. Because we’re tall, we asked the young girl to move to my sister’s seat so she could be in front of us and get a better view. Her parents, who were seated elsewhere, wanted to know what was going on. We explained, the mother understood, but the father was fuming.

What stuck with me about this was not the father’s reaction, but seeing the embarrassment and shame on the mother and daughter’s face. This was coupled with what looked like fear. I thought about this young girl who has to go to a school where she encounters black kids as equals and yet probably goes home not only to a patriarchal home but also to a father who perhaps refuses to let her have any interactions with people outside her “race”.

Listening to Kathrada speak about the emergence of “a pragmatic humanity” even at height of apartheid where people across races refused to see themselves other than anything but human reminded me of this instance. I wondered whether we will ever get to the non-racial. Habib said we will get to non-racialism “when non-racialism becomes the everyday experience of life [for everyone] and not [just] a political project” and extends beyond mediations of blood into new forms of kinship and friendships.

If 20 years into “freedom” young, white kids are still soaked in racism and many black kids suffer the indignities people like Kathrada worked to end, it seems “non-racial” is still a euphemism for apartheid.

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    • Heinrich

      “Non racialism” was never a political project. It may have been a brief but sincere yearning in the hearts of some individuals, but basically was just a strategy to shift power to the ANC.

      The very opposite is at present in fact a “political project” of the current regime. It is in their interest to have a clearly defined and easily recognizable attribute which they can pitch against a clearly defined and easily recognizable “enemy” – colonialism and apartheid. Therefore they promote and encourage racism.

      Why is their still today the Black Management Forum, the Black Lawyers Association, Black Conciousness – the Black this and the Black that? Why does one still have to declare one’s race on official documents?

      True. After 20 years there is no ( governmental ) movement away from racialism. The fact that the author still points fingers at apartheid, and sees the distant past as the only manifestation of racialism, is an indicator of the success of the current regime propaganda and strategy.

      The sooner we totally de-politicize our society, and get rid of this self seeking political party system, the sooner we will realize the dream of a truly non-racial South Africa.

    • Rainer

      As is usual the whole debate is about white racism. The participant convincing themselves that black racism does not exist.

    • bernpm

      You say: “If 20 years into “freedom” young, white kids are still soaked in racism and many black kids suffer the indignities people like Kathrada worked to end, it seems “non-racial” is still a euphemism for apartheid.”

      My question: “If 20 years into “freedom” black people are still soaked in racism and many white people experience the indignities of non-acceptance which people like Kathrada worked to end, it seems that “non-racial” is still a euphemism for reversed apartheid.”

      Read the article by William Saunderson-Meyer on June 28th, 2014, titled “Sports quotas: At last, a role for designated whiteys” .

      I experienced this article as a fresh way of looking at the current racial behavior of our new masters of the ANC. A solid dose of sarcasm and jokes about the current demands of the new black masters seems the quickest way to live with it.
      After all mutual respect would be the end game. Respect can only be deserved by proper leadership into a prosperous future for all.

      Your closing sentence says it all. stil feeling sorry for all these “poor black kids”, overlooking many of the black kids who are making firm strides into society and are respected for what they are and what they are doing.

    • RollPlayer

      It may be worthwhile to try a discussion about race that shifts beyond the typical form of mutual accusation that now seems to be the norm.

      I can quite appreciate that black people will not be shoved along by the insistence of many white people that racism is all over, it’s in the past, I had nothing to do with it and if race is still an issue it’s all the fault of black people for still focusing on race.

      That is not a helpful way to talk about race, particularly when people who speak like that resort to a final line of defence which is “well, you started it with your affirmative action and your corruption”.

      There’s a great debate that was provoked in the US by a writer for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates. The title of the piece that provoked the fresh debate was something like “Pathology (or Pathologies) Of Race”. People who disagreed entirely were still able to have a reasoned debate. The way things are, that’ll just never happen here.

      And what would be the point of trying to have such a debate locally? There are writers on Thought Leader and a couple of other platforms who are just as unwilling to engage with the many varieties of a “white” point of view. It seems simpler to lump them all into one caricature of a “white” view and to demonise that relentlessly, primarily because it’s a white view, not because of the argument.

      Like it or not, race will continue as central to our national DNA. We should at least try talking about it in a new way.

    • mtuka

      Well-said, Rollplayer. I can’t agree with you more.

    • http://www.aspo.org.za Yaj

      A non-racial South Africa will emerge only when we redistribute and share the wealth of this country in a fair and non-discriminatory way through systemic changes in macroeconomic policies that do not discriminate on the basis of race such as a universal basic income, a public banking system, 100% reserve banking, the scrapping of income tax and VAT and the implementation of a land value tax and a levy on all financial transactions.

    • DunsScotus

      South Africa will one day become non-racial when race becomes a non-entity, irrelevant, non-identity, and so on. Race became a question of identity when persons were classified, characterised and ‘ideologised’ as this or that type (as in typology).
      Unfortunately, identities are not things that can be switched on and off. Identities are products of history, and we are historical creatures. We may be filled with self-loathing — both the children of oppressors and the children of the oppressed — and this sense of self is something we have to cope with. Living as a post-apartheid South African is to live condemned to a live of coping with our selves and other selves, both of which are constructed by and in history.
      Affirmative action, BEE, etc., are mechanisms of coping with self. It is to be condemned to a freedom I cannot truly experience; as whites feeling excluded by BEE are condemned to a freedom they cannot truly have.
      One day, AA and BEE will suddenly seem irrelevant, redundant.
      We will have reached the on-apartheid era.
      The children whose identities were formed in apartheid will be dead (‘black’ and ‘white’). Freedom will have been deferred to those who never knew apartheid.

      Think of the Israelites liberated from Egypt. None of them ever reached the Promised Land. Only their children, who had never known the slavery of Egypt, reached that land.
      Non-racial South Africa is a promised land deferred to those who can only see oneself as another.

    • Baz

      We will move forward once we sort out our differences and be more productive
      and have a mind shift change towards all who are living in this so -called rainbow nation of ours. Every attitude towards a non racial divide will count.

    • mark

      the anti-apartheid movement was started to fight for the equal rights of black people in RSA who were oppressed by a dictatorship. That face of that movement (ANC) should have been disbanded with a new party being formed based on the principles set out in the freedom charter which subsequently became the backbone of the constitution.

      This was never done and the ANC have now perverted the quest for emancipation with the need for power. As we have learned from history, power corrupts and greed has replaced the goal of uplifting people who need it.

      So in this construct you can see why keeping race as a burning issue in RSA is important to a government that wants to deviate attention away from what they are doing, by keeping the public defensive, partisan and fighting.

      Its easier to keep a strangle hold on power when you can rebuff criticism as racist and maintain support by presenting a threat to supporters.

      Most people don’t care who runs a country, but nobody fights for common issues of governance when the common theme is to keep the public divided.

      Its far more lucrative to have white people being defined as racist minority capitalists and black people as inept at their job or criminals. because this diverts attention away from a government that sits there and does nothing for us.

      We have common issues in this country that should unite us, but race is the great divider created by those who want to remain in power.

    • Dee

      Hey there, Sorry to say it but, white or black or brown, it would have been better to give the young girl your seat so she could sit by your sister, rather than by you. What is also sadly alive and well in South Africa along with racism is a poor rack record on gender and sexual assault, including of children. This might have been one reason behind the family’s discomfort in that theatre. Do you think the father may have been more suspicious of a black man than a white man in this situation due to racist preconceptions? Maybe – which is of course wrong. But I still I think it is important to keep gender and child protection in the picture along with issues of race, and be sensitive to these too.

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    • Owen_Mshengu_Sharif

      After 20 years of our first free and democratic elections – where everyone had expected to see a rainbow brush gently wipe across a multi-coloured people of diverse ethnicity, culture, tradition and religion – not forgetting the many disparities of standards of living and skills based on levels of education our country is still caught up in the vortex of a “Time Warp” mentality.

      My five trips back home (two of which were failed attempts to relocate) I became aware of the “invisible” wall of divide – lack of understanding, knowledge, respect and tolerance. iGoli – Gauteng, various parts of KwaZulu-Natal, where I constantly heard abhorrent outbursts of covert racism – left my soul sorely vexed.

      I yearn for the much promised cohesiveness so absent from our Raindow Nation.

      We may have won the war – per sé – but we have many-many battles to overcome for the electoral victory has yet to manifest itself with any meaningful examples of empowerment.

      If the government – specific departments of administration and administration are failing our people – we need to ask ourselves “What are we doing to contribute and help our people move away from the darkness of “The Past?”

      We should take a page out of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s notebook: “No citizen of Africa can languish in the comfort of his own self-respect while the majority are denied empowerment – merely for being born and discriminated for who they are”.