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The rainbow nation needs a paint job

By Franklyn Odhiambo

Theorists say race is a representation of social differences in a code that defends interests and conflicts by referring to apparent physiological characteristics and the treatment of fixities from these references as social facts and thus empirical truths. They say too that racism and a race project occur when a group has power to enforce these references to an ostracised group of people. By all accounts then, racism and racial supremacy are inconsequential without an element of power.

This power is employed to buttress the fixity and stereotypes that aim at referring to whole and complex groups of people as unitary in action, character, and intention. Thus, to the British for example, the Africans were “sullen people, half-devil and half-child” in need of redemption and civilisation. Racism is not biological, there is no proven difference aside from what we can see, it must therefore be tackled on a normative basis with the empirical facts that we can attest. This is where the rainbow nation missed the bus. Let me explain.

The current race project the world is grappling with is not in itself a new one. Humans have discriminated against each other for ages. The concept of race is as malleable as the society’s definitions, interests, and conflicts. In 18th century Europe, even “white people” had racial divisions in what might look today as a homogenous block, Protestant Saxons were superior, Catholic Celts were inferior. In the US, the Irish were not properly white before the 19th century. Italians, Greeks and Jews were white, but inferior white. In homogenous African societies, these differences were also religious, tribal, class-related and even cultural. One factor is true for all societies regarding discrimination, even when it was culturally appropriate by context, discrimination always employed social truths created to justify its benefits to one group at the expense of another. Enter South Africa.

Two processes facilitated the nation state of South Africa as it exists today and with both processes, concessions must be realistic and proactive if the country is to avoid socio-political turmoil in the near future. The first of these processes is apartheid and the privileges it created, the second is the positive discrimination that followed independence and the dependency it risks creating. I think a repudiation of these factors is responsible for some level of cognitive dissonance visible in South African society today.

Let’s start with privilege. South African whites must understand and appreciate the implications of their privilege if any social cohesion is to occur. This means understanding that human beings are products of the environments they reside in and that history has real and tangible implications on any future. Apartheid created systemic inequality by proffering certain advantages to one group of people at the expense of others by actively and intentionally disenfranchising other racial groups. Quite literally, by walking on the right side of the street, going to the right school, and employing the state machinery to one race’s advantage, systemic consequences followed. The key term here is systemic: it might matter what one individual does, or the effects of that, but ultimately, we can only understand race in its social setting. Therefore, yes, you can be white, poor, and with very little visible privilege as an individual. That does not change the fact that South Africa today is a result of a collective history, and your complicity in the creation of it, is immaterial. The issue is about benefits that implicitly or explicitly ensued from other people’s oppression. Accepting these as historical facts does not mean complicity, it means empathy and realistic dialogue on race in South Africa today.

While accepting their racial advantage, white South Africans cannot be indefinitely indebted to the black South African, there is no such thing as a post-racial, colour-blind society. If white South Africa is to check its privilege, black South Africa must understand that eventually there must be a place for merit in South Africa. Black empowerment as pertains positive discrimination must be an issue of justice and not only one of equality. Black South Africans must actively seek out economic and socio-political opportunity to compete and not expect to break racially constructed economic boundaries from government policy alone.

I’m speaking of xenophobia against foreign nationals who seem to be taking opportunities that black South Africans only notice when the foreigners have taken them. I’m speaking of subscribing to a politics that promises to entrench spoon-feeding rather than realistic policy that creates long-term proactive competitiveness and social cohesion in the rainbow nation. Black South Africa must keep the spirit of social justice burning for all people — including themselves.

Franklyn Odhiambo is a student of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

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    • Voldemort Rupert

      The way I understood freedom, we should have had the knowledge of all of South Africa’s cultures developed thru investment. There should be white people (for example) toy-toying to attend xhosa initiation schools. The restoration of the ancestral knowledge of all should have been a priority. Instead everyone is after the knowledge which enabled the oppression of their ancestors. Why is ‘white’ knowledge what we are fighting for??

    • Rory Short

      Race because it has been used to disadvantage some and advantage others has dominated South African thinking for centuries. The consequences of this distortion of the human environment play out at an individual level and in attempting to fix them; first, the legislative environment needs to be changed to focus on the individual rather than the race group, and secondly, the consequences of prior race based discrimination need to be grappled with at the level of the individual not collectively. To try to do so at the collective level, as the ANC has been trying to do since 1994, merely continues the distortion of the human environment but under a different name.

    • Samantha Napo

      It is impossible for South Africa to forget its history. I do agree with the fact that blacks need to uplift themselves and not expect the government to help them compete economically with whites. However, how does society change its mind set if our policies still have traces of our “sad narrative”? What is considered to be ample time for our policies to be more transformative, inclusive etc. and not just entrenched in race?

    • Pieter Barendse Botha

      I am a very privileged person !! My first job was to wash train couches and road motor buses shoulder to shoulder with my black colleague’s.Later on in my life my wife and I , as keen dancers, enjoyed the different multi racial dances in our country. What a pleasure to live without a racial outlook on life !!!!! Life is given to us to enjoy !!!

    • Rusty Bedsprings

      “white knowledge” – now I have heard everything.

      Angie and her team in the basic education department define the curriculum for schools, visit their website where they clearly state:

      “Our national curriculum is the culmination of our efforts over a period of seventeen years to transform the curriculum bequeathed to us by apartheid.”

      So, not “white” then.

    • Rusty Bedsprings

      My first job was to push wheelchairs and trolleys at a government hospital, although it was better than the year of unemployment before that. I guess I missed the “privileged course” at school…

    • Voldemort Rupert

      What is written on the website is Govt PR. I’m talking about what is actually happening in schools. They’re still not teaching ANY African ancestral knowledge. In fact the overall level of education here in Qwaqwa is no different from the broederbond system of the apartheid era.

    • Rusty Bedsprings

      Hmmm, Government PR. The root of all of our problems.

      What would you think is important in your idea of “ancestral knowledge” for kids of today?

    • Voldemort Rupert

      Everything. Less than 300 years ago our ancestors were supported in comfort and style without needing ‘a job’. To indenture one’s labour, i.e. to allow somebody to buy your will for a few shekels, is thinly disguised slavery.

    • Rusty Bedsprings

      I am not sure what are you going to solve by making this and the next generation ignorant of their reality.