Simon Howell
Simon Howell

The problem with ‘non-racialism’

Enshrined in the Constitution and serving as a basis for public rhetoric the ANC-led government has repeatedly billed itself and its policies as “non-racial”. I think however that this position is at best questionable and at worst actually makes more problematic the various narratives of race which the country and its citizens have to negotiate on a daily basis. This problem can be viewed from two different but interrelated positions. On the one hand if we are to look at the history of the party their version of non-racialism might more accurately be articulated as a restricted African nationalism. On the other, I would argue, the discourse of non-racialism prevents the country from adequately addressing the injustices of the past, the problems of the present, and the hope for a more integrated future.

The concept of “non-racialism” has been embedded in the ANC’s policy framework since it took over the reins of power in 1994, and even before. However, its actual history points to a very different understanding of race relations. When the party was founded in 1912 its membership was not open to all – only what they termed “African” people were allowed the full membership. It was not until 1969, a full 57 years after the party’s inception that membership was opened to “non-Africans” and only from 1985 that “non-Africans” could participate in the decision-making processes of the party. Even in 1957, when the party adopted the Freedom Charter (the preamble of which explicitly states that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, both black and white”), “non-Africans” could not participate in all the structures of the party.

Of course this is not to say that the party is somehow “racist” or that the policies it has pursued since coming to power have not been inclusionary. But the history, in and of itself, points to a fundamental understanding of different “types” of people that is at odds with the official policy of “non-racialism”. This tension has also been translated in a myriad of ways that govern our day-to-day lives. For instance, if the country is truly “non-racial” then why at every point do we have to use the same old classificatory system in order to identify ourselves? From IDs to passports and plane tickets the ubiquitous “race” box always needs ticking.

I have a further, perhaps more substantive worry with the official discourse of “non-racialism”. That being that the very logic of the narrative prevents us from truly engaging with the problems that race presents to our society. “Non-racialism” sweeps under the rug the very real differences that racial categories have wrought on South African society. There is no denying, for instance, that race is as much an economic concept as it is a political and social one. Not “seeing” race prevents serious engagement with some of our most desperate problems: the ever-widening chasm between the rich and the poor, a faltering education structure and the continued growth of South Africa’s townships for example.

Furthermore, South African society is decidedly racial and racially stratified. How can we ignore this stratification by simply claiming that we are all benignly “non-racial”? One only has to read the comments/hate speech on some of the online news media websites to realise the race is still very much at the forefront of our collective consciousness. These racial comments will continue to proliferate and continue to have currency so long as we look away from the problems to which they point. Problematically, however, race is still so sensitive a topic in the country that I find it rare that people will willingly engage with the problems which it creates, knowing that at all times one must guard against oneself being positioned as a “racist”.

Perhaps what I am saying is then that the time has come for us to have a very frank and serious discussion over the problems which race presents to our country, but in a manner that does not simply devolve into racial mudslinging. The conversation will be hard, and will need to be conducted in a manner that is sensitive, thoughtful and self-reflexive. It is however a conversation that cannot begin with the assumptions of “non-racialism” but must recognise, from the outset, that racial problems present a very real threat to the continued stability and integration of the country.

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    • Ms Ann Thrope

      Well said. White people (I’ve never heard it from a black person) have no idea how demeaning they’re being when they claim “to not see colour”.

      France, for example, pretends to be a paradigm of “non-racialism”, meaning that the government does not keep any race-based statistics on the population. While in a perfect world this is all well and good, what it means in effect, is that you cannot prove that any one race group is being marginilised (even though its really in front of your eyes).

    • DEREK

      Would a policy of ” non-discrimination ” or a philosophy of ” non- discriminationlism ” not lead to better outcomes ?

    • The Creator

      It is extremely tedious to have to correct the errors in this article, because they are errors made by huge numbers of conservative whites who are ignorant of South Africa’s political and intellectual history.

      The racial classification of the contemporary South African scene is obnoxious to nearly all non-racists, but it is also absolutely necessary. If we did not categorise South Africans by race in statistical terms, it would be impossible to see how far whites have continued to profit from the advantages they gained under the colonial and apartheid system. This is presumably why so many whites complain about this statistical categorisation. The fact that the post-apartheid regime has done very little to change the circumstances prevailing under apartheid is shocking, but we wouldn’t know about it if we didn’t contemplate the situation in racial terms.

      It is almost inevitable that racism has been driven underground by extreme stigmatisation. Africans, indians and to a lesser extent coloureds were extremely unhappy about the racial intolerance of the white minority as expressed through colonialism and apartheid, and when they gained authority, they suppressed the expression of white racism. Of course the racism did not go away. There were intensive opportunities made for this, however — the TRC and the “national reconciliation” project under Mandela — and it is regrettable that whites rejected these opportunities. That is not the ANC’s fault.

    • greatgodpan

      the anc has become totally and absolutly racist in my opinion……….in the last five years they have become increasingly ,openly racist….no longer are they merely racist in the normal kind of non politically correct way that most people in south africa commit by slip of the tongue from time to time…..certain and many prominent members of the anc and their alliance partners have adopted an active and militant campaign of absolute hate speech and racism…….certain member do nothing other than white bashing…..although i take the whole genocide senario with a pinch of salt it would be very silly not to take note that we stand on level 6 of the genocide watch……..

    • suntosh

      Gerhard Mare clarifies non-racism and non-racialism nicely:

      “racial problems present a very real threat to the continued stability and integration of the country” — only as long as the class divide is racialised.

    • ian shaw

      I can still laugh at the extraordinarily contradictory speech by Blade Nzimande, who in the same sentence of professing non-racialism, he refers to “Zille the white madam”.

    • Lennon

      @ Ms Ann Thrope: ‘Well said. White people (I’ve never heard it from a black person) have no idea how demeaning they’re being when they claim “to not see colour”.’

      How / why is that?

    • Wiseman

      To me, “not to see colour” is not to be taken literally. Obviously we “see” the colour, but it means that we do not judge a person by it but rather by what they say and do. Please explain to me how that can be demeaning?

    • The Critical Cynic

      I do see colour – I’d be lying if I said otherwise. I see my white skin and have attention drawn to it on a regluar basis
      I also do make generalisations based on race (Indians, Porras, Poles, Americans etc – I bet you do too) and also sometimes based on colour which theoretically also makes me a racist, whether the generalisations are positive or negative.
      How come when black people make generalisations about white people they claim this is not being racist?
      I believe the ANC are no different to many of us – in an ideal world they would be non-racist and so they express this idealistic viewpoint when it comes to policy statements etc, as do all political parties express their ideals. The reality can be very different to the rhetoric, which is why it’s the actions that count not the lip service. The same could be said of economic transformation, here and throughout the world. The rich and powerful don’t really have any intention of giving up very much of it without a fight.

    • http://thoughtleadermail&guardian patrick jaji

      The challenge that the author of the article faces is that he assumes to know the history of the ANC.He might have researched but unfortunately the history of this movement cannot be documented in its entirety.I am not going to respond in defence of non racialism because to some of us it was practised in real life and cemented on the trenches.I think of Helena Pastoors,Klaas de jonge,Hein Groskoppf,etc.It is sad that the author seems to be unaware that the following were ANC members and operatives during the time and some before the time that he claims membership was not opened to non africans.The following were white comrades,Brian Bunting,Sonia Bunting,Joe Slovo,Ruth First,Marion Sparg,Jenny Schreiner,Gwen Ansley,Jack Simmons,Conny Bram,Susan de Lange,Barbara Hogan,Janet Lowe,Muff Anderson,Trish Hanekom and Dr Rob Davies.The list is endless.Now,i do not know where the author gets his information.Remember in the past people would not publicise their membership of the ANC,lest the author forgets,it was a banned organisation and membership of same was a death warrant.We know because we survived assasinations and plots by enemy agents,askaris and black rightwing.The history of our struggle will be better told by those who took part not those who researched what we did.

    • Dave Harris

      Mandela’s vision of “non-racialism” has been hijacked by the DA and its supporters who use “non-racialism” to slow down transformation. To demonstrate their commitment to “non-racialism”, they’ve now resorted to the shameful “fronting” to give their white tribal party legitimacy.

      Due to the past discrimination on the basis of colour, its impossible to have land reform, education reform, affirmative action and other transformation initiatives to reduce racism and our racial socioeconomic disparity, without taking those race based categories that have been around for centuries – ever since colonialism.

      The DA has consistently opposed our government’s transformation initiatives under the guise of “non-racialism” while they continue to wallow in their privileges and ill-gotten gains from apartheid. The growing protests in the WCape, strikingly reminiscent of apartheid, is ample proof that the DA is slowly taking us back to the bad old days.

    • The Critical Cynic

      Really Dave, to many of us it feels more like the ANC are taking us backwards into a dark past of police state mentality and its the ANC who are the ones wallowing in their misguided belief that they are now above the law. it just goes to show how the same situation can be so different thanks to individual perspectives and experiences….

      Perhaps it’s because the DA continue to grow and continue to gain large (very large now) numbers of black folk that you feel the DA is going to take us back and not forward to better days? I know you say they are just fronting (hence my urging Helen to form a contemporary cabaret act, Godzilla and the Frontees, which has thus far failed horribly), but on another tack here Dave, doesn’t it concern you even just a little bit that you are now starting to insult quite a large number of black folk on a regular basis with your insinuation that they are not in control of their own choice by voting DA. it’s a generalisation here, but I would hazard a bet that the majority of the black folk now voting DA used to also vote for your beloved ANC party before the rot became apparent. Either that or they haven’t voted before, which would imply the DA are garnering ever increasing numbers of the black youth vote. Whichever is the case doesn’t really matter, the fact remains that you continue to call these DA supporters Rabid, or is that just reserved for the white DA supporters, lest you be accused of being a racist?

    • DeeGee

      @ Harris. The protests in the WC – are they unique to the WC? Or is it that similar protests are taking place in other provinces as well? If yes, does that not point to failings on both provincial governments and national government? The honest answer, as you well know, is yes…..

      Oh, and what you know about non-racialism is dangerous, what with your ‘White tribal party’ and such like.

      And lastly, you hypocrite, it was you who said the non-delivery of textbooks was a storm in a teacup. And now you claim the DA is apposed to educational transformation, when clearly the govt can’t even deliver the necessary tools to deliver education.

    • Brent

      Dave (BFL) Harris, if the W. Cape was going back to the bad old days why do thousands of people from the E Cape flee there every year, are they just stupid or is the ANC run E Cape worse than the W cape? I wait with bated breath for your wise answer. What transformation initiatives has the DA in the W cape opposed? Their view of affirmative action (which they officially support) is from the bottom up not top down,Seems the best action for fixing up SA to me.


    • Mary

      This is a discussion about non-racialism – so for the good of all concerned, and the well-being of well-meaning people, ignore Harris – he makes a living out of inciting racial divisions and anger. Rather focus on the positive people around you.

    • Tofolux

      @Simon, just another tired anti-ANC debate. If one looks at the conceptualisation one wonders how an approach could possible fly for a debate. As Churchill said “Where there is a great deal of free speech, there is always a certain amount of foolish speech”. I dont mind you getting on the anti-Anc bandwagon but this is very weak.

    • Mr. Direct

      I think they should fire all of the whites out of the DA. Get rid of every single one of them. Maybe, just maybe, the party would be seen as a credible opposition, rather than a “white” party. It may also transform Dave Harris into a sensible contributor to these debates (however I have my doubts due to how many times he manages to miss the point)

      On the other side of the argument, if the ANC could really improve South Africa without all of the stories of incompetence and corruption, perhaps it would be seen as a credible majority party, and these debates may not be so necessary (or at least as frequent).

      The whole thing about race is not to ignore it, but not to pre-judge on it. Given a chance, most people will surprise you….

    • Marianne de Leuca

      @ Mr Direct

      I think Dave Harris is so obsessed with the DA that he would find some way to say that the DA washes “whiter than white” even if it were a discussion about the various brands of washing powder.

    • Dave Harris

      @The Critical Cynic
      Ironically, Cape Town was more cosmopolitan during apartheid than it is now!! Its no accident that blacks are slowly but surely pushed into the apartheid ghettos and left to fend for themselves white taxes are redirected for the upkeep of wealthy suburbs and to keep the DA in power.

      Its no surprise that the blacks (African, Coloureds and Indians) that front for the DA are the same ones who collaborated with the apartheid regime ehose families also benefited handsomely from apartheid. The rabid DA’s gutter politics are engineered to exploit divisions among blacks to enlist more subservient blacks to front for a white tribal party.

      @DeeGee & Brent
      The protests in the WCape will undoubtedly increase in frequency and intensity in the coming months and years and move closer to Cape Town. Its just a matter of time.

    • Lennon

      @ Dave Harris: “Its no accident that blacks are slowly but surely pushed into the apartheid ghettos…”

      What a load of bollocks. There are more and more blacks, coloureds and Indians in my neighbourhood and the surrounding suburbs than ever before. More of the same catching the same bus into town. Again more of the same in all of the shops in the area; attending local schools and living it up in the pubs, clubs and restaurants.

    • Anti Racist

      The problem with SA’s political culture, and specifically the ANC’s thinking, is that it makes SA unique among all nations in this world. Namely, that racial grievance, race-based social engineering, and racial preferencing are core, intrinsic values of this party and by implication the SA government. No other country in the world has this. And no nation has ever succeeded under such toxic values.

    • jandr0

      Let me paraphrase Dave Harris:

      The ANC has consistently pushed “racialism” under the guise of “transformation.”

      Dude, either you distinguish officially according to race (which is then racist), or you don’t (which is then non-racist).

      If you really practice non-racialism, you will worry about and care for EVERY citizen equally. If the ANC did that, it would be proclaiming how many houses were built for ALL the poor, rather than proclaiming how many houses were built for previously disadvantaged.

      Building for ALL the poor is what true non-racialism would have done. Admittedly, due to our history, immediately post-1994 most, if not all, “houses for the poor” would have gone to previously disadvantaged (which would have been FAIR and achieved exactly the same outcome), but WITHOUT any need for the ANC to have resorted to race.

      We would have a country where we ALL care TOGETHER about ALL our collective poor.

      But no, the new NATS – the ANC, had to make a race issue out of it.

      If you compromise on the principle, especially for political expediency, then you have BROKEN the principle. The ANC opted for the short-term, populist, morally defunct approach.

      PS. Pride is built on achievement. People are not fooled. I make it clear to everyone in my company (mostly previously disadvantaged, that they are here because they are worth it – and they ARE worth it). That is what builds self-respect. Not “I got the job because of my race.”

    • jandr0

      @The Creator: You say: “The racial classification of the contemporary South African scene is obnoxious to nearly all non-racists, but it is also absolutely necessary.”

      I disagree. It is not necessary.

      All that is necessary is laws against discrimination on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, etc.

      For the rest, let everyone be treated equally and the best person (irrespective of race, gender, etc.) advance.

      Note: To say “business” will then entrench “whites” is the biggest load of crap that could ever be spewed.

      The invalidity of that premise is proven by the counter-examples (as per logic – syllogistic reasoning):

      I have taken an employee (who happened to be white) through disciplinary for absolutely poor performance, and the outcome is that this employee is no longer working for us.

      I am also doing everything I reasonably can to ensure we retain one (actually many more than one) of our top-performing employees (black), who I can happily say is still with us as a much-loved, appreciated and rewarded employee.

      However, it is not about race. It is only people like you who have an infatuation with race that forces me to think about and provide you the examples above in that way.

      For the non-racist, FAIR way to govern SA (which would also have overwhelmingly uplifted previously disadvantaged people) see a previous comment of mine.

      I so wish you could get over your preoccupation with race.

    • jandr0

      @Tofolux: You say: “Just another tired anti-ANC debate. If one looks at the conceptualisation one wonders how an approach could possible fly for a debate.”

      You fail to show the logical connection between the “conceptualisation” and “how the approach could possibly fly.”

      Aah, but I see, you use the word ‘wonder,’ so obviously logic is not implied by you, just a mind that is “wondering.”

      Fortunately, you also provide the reason for your decision not to apply logical reasoning:

      “Where there is a great deal of free speech, there is always a certain amount of foolish speech.”

      Thank you. I must say, very insightful of you to recognise your own foolish speech.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The real problem is they confuse racism with tribalism and nationalism – the French don’t want to be confused with the British, and the Canadians spend all their time abroad assuring people they are NOT Americans!

      So why would a Zulu not be insulted for being confused with a Xhosa, or a Kikuyu with a Massai, or an Afrkaner with a Brit, etc etc?

    • jandr0

      @Lyndall Beddy: You say: “So why would a Zulu not be insulted for being confused with a Xhosa, or a Kikuyu with a Massai, or an Afrkaner with a Brit, etc etc?”

      I beg the opposite question: Why should it be an insult if you are being confused, as you say, as a Zulu […] with a Xhosa, or a Kikuyu with a Massai, or an Afrkaner with a Brit, etc.?

      We are all human beings. so, logically, you would only feel insulted if you secretly believe “your” grouping is ‘better’ than the “other” grouping. Which makes you a tribalist, racist, sexist, etc…

      We are all human beings. It should not therefore be an insult. Please feel free to confuse me with any race or tribe that you want to. I will only start considering it as an insult if you propound that I am not a member of the HUMAN race (but first I will consider who made such a preposterous statement, and conclude that the individual concerned is actually revealing more of him/herself than of me).

      We really need to over this race preoccupation (which, in my opinion is being perpetuated by the ANC), and start taxing individual people on who THEY are: There are good and bad blacks, there are good and bad coloureds, there are good and bad whites, there are good and bad Indians, etc.

      There is no such thing as “all blacks are so-and-so” and “all whites are such-and-such” etc. Respond to the individual person (in all his/her wonders and foibles) in front of you.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Why is a Frenchman insulted at being called a Brit or a German? Why do Canadians spend their time telling everyone they are NOT American? They both do you know!

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Sorry – that should read “The Zulu had never been defeated by the Venda in battle”

    • Tofolux

      @Jandoe, it is as expected. The effect of social programming of 350yrs has taken its toll on your thinking. Suggest you go for some de-programming.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      But the Zulu King refused to accept Cyril Ramaphosa as president after Mandela because “The Zulus had never been defeated in Battle by the Venda”

      He seems to have thought Mbeki was a Xhosa not a Fingo, because the Fingo never defeated the Zulu in battle either!

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      The Brits and Afrikaner HAD both defeated the Zulus in battle,so were acceptable! The Zulus themselves had subjugated other tribes by victory in battle.

      Different strokes for different folks – cultures are NOT the same!

    • Jon Low

      Even in 1957, when the party adopted the Freedom Charter (the
      preamble of which explicitly states that “South Africa belongs to all
      who live in it, both black and white”), “non-Africans” could not
      participate in all the structures of the party.
      Of course this is not to say that the party is somehow “racist”

      Ahem… why not?