One Young World
One Young World

Race against denial

By Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh

There is a growing inclination in South African public discourse towards the idea that race no longer exists. This is a different claim to whether or not it should exist. One of the main consequences of this claim is that selection policies should no longer focus on “race” but on other indicators of disadvantage. One such indicator is the murky concept of “need”. Our emotional heartstrings are plucked by questions such as “how can we still judge each other by the colour of our skin?” and “if we continue to use apartheid-era racial categories, our children will grow up with discriminatory paradigms”. The latest voice in this chorus is Jonathan Jansen’s. Jansen stays true to form by arguing that we should stop “seeing race” in our university admission policies.

It is understandable why the position is so attractive to many South Africans, who have an interest in moving away from racial classification as soon as possible. The policies sometimes (although minimally) result in the direct disadvantaging of certain “classified groups”. The policies also make reference to a period of guilt and shame that it is often more convenient to pretend never happened. Many “black” (sorry, I mean currently historically needy) apologists also publicly favour this view because they get to appear to “white” (presently un-needy) supporters of the view as reconciliatory and rational proponents of “nation building”.

But when we examine its effects, the denialist view — the view that race is no longer important in determining disadvantage in South Africa — is far more dangerous in the long term. Pretending that race does not exist makes South Africa’s already difficult healing process much harder than it needs to be. This is because it takes race “underground” and makes it an unspeakable. If anything, this is worse than the act of open categorisation. Denialism gives rise to categorisation in secret, while in public masquerading behind ever less comfortable racial blindfolds.

It makes black South Africans less likely to participate in “nation building” because they feel as though the racial discrimination that they still face in their schools, universities and workplaces is being ignored or disguised into a palatable alternative. It makes the majority of our country teem with undercurrents of anger at the thought that they can be told that they are in townships and rural areas because they are “needy” and not because they are black.

Perhaps equally importantly, it is also bad for white South Africa’s healing process. The idea that race no longer exists postpones, or even rules out, confrontation with the historical significance of their racial identities. What is more, it marginalises progressive white South Africans who are calling for race to be maintained in our policy decisions. It now takes a remarkably brave white South African to stand up and declare that they “see race” and are working to change what the connotations of it mean, let alone one who openly supports race-based selection procedures.

I’m afraid that all this talk of how we should no longer “see colour” is contributing to a growing restlessness in the vast majority of our society. First, they were told that they were not allowed into universities, schools and businesses because they were black. Now they are being told by others that they should “stop making such a hoo-ha about all this race business”. The pleas for us to stop “seeing colour” can’t help but seem ignominious to me. The worst option available to us is burying our heads in the sand. We cannot wish race away by shutting our eyes tighter, but we can begin to confront it if we are prepared to open them.

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is a final year undergraduate at the University of Cape Town, majoring in philosophy, politics and economics. He is a One Young World ambassador, a rapper and the founder of a youth leadership training company called Grow2Lead.

  • brent

    Dave Harris, who tells howlers everytime he blogs. My view is based on interacting with many many whites over many years and is not a lie. Most people, especially you admit current AA is not working so why not try the DA’s sensible policy of using massive resources (not buying subs and fighter planes) in pushing AA from the bottom up (doing a reasonable job in the USA) especially in terms of training and education. Guess the real reason you shut your mind to this policy idea is that it might work and then you would have nothing to complain about.

    Brent