“Jean-Louis Belavoix had stood up amid the applause that followed Bates’s exhibition, and had begun all at once to speak in a loud voice. ‘How absurd, Mr Bates!’ He called down. ‘Are we really to believe that men differ from each other simply because of the funny angle under their noses? Is that why the German is stubborn, the Italian greedy, the English cunning, the Finn dull, and the French … charming? Will your facial angle explain why the Greeks were slaves to the Romans? No! You’re carrying it too far!’ Before an astounded audience, he had plunged his knife into Bates’s famous Chain of Races. ‘And what about our Semitic saviour? If the Englishman is going to be at the top and the Negro at the bottom, where will the brown Jesus stand in your chain?’ ” (Excerpt, Racists 2006)

In my ongoing attempts to unpack what race means, and to figure out how and why it continues to be problematic in present day South Africa, along with a few anthropological texts, I’ve taken another look at Kunal Basu’s novel, Racists. Add to this the continued racial profiling of sociopaths and terrorists, apparently based on their (perceived) ethnicity, and a whole new forum of race debate opens up.

It’s the year 1855. Two scientists are at loggerheads. One an Englishman and the other, a Frenchman. The issue is race. In an effort to resolve their dispute they design an elaborate experiment on a deserted island off the coast of Africa. Two samples are set up to settle the argument of race. A pair of infants: one black male and one white female. They are to be raised away from civilisation, with a mute nurse who must conform to the scientists “Ten Commandments”. No games. No stimulation. No happy and sad. No influence of good or bad. No punishment or play. Will their primitive natures dictate their development? This is the objective: “Which child will be master and which the slave?” They are to be observed over twelve years. And so begins the quest on the Dark Continent of Arlinda, to prove, discover and perhaps challenge the assumptions of the two scientists from the realms of colonial England and France. The deemed racists.

While the plot and the storyline moves along at a surreal pace, keeping reader attention in its often absurd but curious indications at defining race, the story tends to take its time getting to grips with the observations. The reader wants to see what happens to the children at the outset, and is made to first grapple with the issues of the nurse, the scientists and their assistant. Nurse Norah is a mute. The prejudice shown in choosing her as the caretaker is highlighted in the awakening of a somewhat maternal instinct that conflicts with her recommended duties as the sterile facilitator. And what of emotion? And compassion. And the tug-of-war between instincts of protectiveness and survival. It seems that the scientists have disregarded these obstacles in designing their project, as each already predict that the outcomes will prove their respective theories to be true.

The articulation of plot struggles to convince at first. The current-day reader needs more to be convinced, but curiosity holds to the end. Basu’s use of satire works well to taunt the imagination. The text is dense and readability tends to waver at some points. However, we must remember that Basu is writing for a time unknown to us. It takes some doing to drag us back two hundred years. As a social scientist, the theories of Frantz Fanon come to mind. At some point, it had me reaching for excerpts of Black Skin, White Masks and the famed Wretched of the Earth in order to decipher the disparities in the book’s research. While Basu touches on issues of race, blackness and whiteness, masculinity and femininity, the stereotypes inevitably prevail in some or other way. The notion of nationality vs racial identification is all too easily simplified as the background thread. The colonialist must be made to question his base ideals and the simplistic “othering” that occurs with his subordinates and the “samples” serve as nagging reminders, but not enough of practical prompts to this end.

“Did we rise from barbaric roots, Mr Darwin? he whispers under his breath, or have we fallen from a civilised Eden?”

And so we trudge on through the journey of words, especially because the conflicts and disaster that finally show out midway through the book, present further opportunity for contemplation about our own conditioning and prior assumptions about race and superiority, ethnicity and power. For as long as we continue to deem our countrymen, ourselves of constructed worth based on skin or eye colour, (really a case of phenotype and genetics) the superficial divides remain and provide resolute commentary for our understandings of human capacity and self-evaluation. Are we just a bunch of racists, after all? Is some recovery imminent? The cynics among us maintain that the laws may have changed, but our insistence on holding onto the superficial or imagined categories and their loaded stereotypes persist. Some might suggest that the comment boxes on blog posts are the perfect breeding grounds for covert racism to rear its ugly head. The jury is out on that for now. Identity matters. Dismissing someone on perceived difference in viewpoint, lending the dismissal to colour, completely unacceptable.


  • Shafinaaz Hassim is a sociologist based in Johannesburg. She is the author of Daughters are Diamonds: Honour, Shame & Seclusion -- A South African Perspective (2007), Memoirs for Kimya (2009), and the critically acclaimed novel on domestic violence SoPhia (2012). Her work has been shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Creative Writing Prize and the prestigious K Sello Duiker Award 2013, and she has been awarded in HayFestivals category of top 39 authors under the age of 40 in Africa during the London Book Fair 2014. She is also the editor of the Belly of Fire anthologies for social change series, which was launched in 2011. Her research focuses on biographical narrative in the interplay between personal and political spaces and she writes both fiction and non-fiction. She has lectured and presented seminars at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, Humboldt University in Berlin and at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.


Shafinaaz Hassim

Shafinaaz Hassim is a sociologist based in Johannesburg. She is the author of Daughters are Diamonds: Honour, Shame & Seclusion -- A South African Perspective (2007), Memoirs for Kimya...

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