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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