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The race debate is a dead end

I’m an anthropologist and I study humans and in particular am fascinated by how they see themselves and create often strange and even contradictory things called “identity”. Most of us, and I would argue all of us, actually have multiple identities. And the answer is yes; this does create a rather schizophrenic species of great ape.

At base we are simply a type of ape that comes in a variety of colours and sizes. The differences we see and often mistakenly think are important are merely arbitrary expressions of a complex set of genes we all carry. The concept so viciously used to subjugate, oppress and categorise people has no meaning, biologically speaking.

It is clear from the online debates that these categories are given special salience in South Africa; hardly unexpected considering the apartheid past. What I find particularly troubling by the current debates is the constant use of apartheid’s categories as if they are still real matter-of-fact groups of people that share something in common. Most often these people actually do not share that much in common beyond a vaguely defined colour of skin.

The “white race”

The so-called “white” people of South Africa come from a wide variety of backgrounds and are descendents of various population groups from all across Europe. For example, I met a Croatian girl in South Africa a few years ago while she was visiting her relatives in Johannesburg. They had moved here in the early 1990s to escape civil war in the former Yugoslavia. They had never benefited from apartheid and come from an area that has seen some horrific suffering of its own. Should her family be included in the broad categories so used and defended with such vehemence? Her family was not part of Europe that benefited from colonialism and yet claims are often made that all “white” people have benefited from the subjugation of the rest of the world.

The “black race”

I have a San friend from Botswana who once spoke to me about the way “black” people treat the San. He is by all external appearances “black”. He does not fit into any stereotype about the San being short, yellow come-the-gods-must-be-crazy fame. How does he then fit into these crude blocks? And for the record he was not complaining about the way he is treated but discussing how they share their poverty in remote locations in the Kalahari. What he was highlighting was an ethnic distinction in language/custom etc.

What we have here are examples that contradict notions of race as meaningful groupings. South Africa needs to move beyond the race debate and begin to set race aside as a meaningful way to organise society.

Affirmative action

Affirmative action may be justified in the Constitution, but that does not mean it is right or needs to be defended in practice. If I applied for a job and the other candidate was equally qualified with the same experience, a PhD etc, and they were also “black” I would not mind that being the final deciding factor. In practice universities in South Africa hire the so-called previously disadvantaged when they only have a master’s degree; a “white” man with a PhD is bumped in the name of affirmative action. Is this affirmative?

This ensures that that department has reduced its capacity to supervise and train people to the level of a PhD. That means less students in the system can now get PhDs. The University of KwaZulu-Natal has less than 40% of academic staff with PhDs. Whole departments are incapable of generating new PhDs of any race group. How does this benefit transformation?

At a professional level affirmative action is a little ridiculous. People that have obtained high levels of qualifications have already benefited from the transformation of society and should not require an additional edge in order to compete. Some of the loudest voices I know defending affirmative action come from middle-class professionals who hardly need more advantages in life.

Even scholarships and bursaries for study should not be based on race. If these were based on need through a means test then the majority would still benefit and no scholarship would be wasted on anyone who has already benefited from transformation. This would see more poor people rising beyond their entrenched poverty and help in transforming society — even racially!

For those who say that the wealth is still disproportionately held by the minority white population; you are stating a fact, but not one changed by AA. What you will actually be defending is that wealth should be held in the hands of a new black elite and black middle class. I find this position often held by so-called communists who believe Blade should drive a luxury sedan and that ANC ministers deserve their fat pay cheques and car and housing allowances. I find a base hypocrisy at work where people are actually jostling for room at the trough as opposed to uplifting the poor.

Another common group I find in the race debates is the “white” middle-class person, who is gainfully employed, and defends AA with a righteousness usually reserved for ministers at the pulpit. They are secretly Stalinists who fight for redistribution of others wealth but never their own. Michael Sutcliffe of Durban infamy comes to mind. Are these people vacating positions to make way for racial transformation? The logical next step in AA would be the removal of “white” people from posts to make room for more “blacks”; is this feasible or fair? Or should AA only be at the hiring process and not for those currently entrenched?

Real transformation of South African society will come when people unify as one, not in triumphalist nationalism, but when they see each other as truly equal.

So ask yourself as you write a response below, are you defending the rights of the majority or merely being a self-righteous schizophrenic great ape? It is time to move beyond race and accept differences as a bonus in society.

South Africa is not unique in experiencing racism. It can be shown to exist in every country to varying degrees and with a vast range of effects. I am not arguing that racism is not a real problem that needs to be addressed. It clearly does need to be challenged, but reaffirming the categories as real does no good and no justice to those suffering discrimination. It is far more logical and a far better strategy to challenge the very notion of race as real and meaningful.

To put it another way a man should be uplifted because he is poor and not because he is a particular shade of colour. It may very well be that that colour of skin was what assigned him to degrading poverty and oppression, but to make his skin colour worth more than the next mans can only recreate the very thing people supposedly fought for in South Africa.


  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.