Ryland Fisher
Ryland Fisher

Through the haze of that race cloud

My biggest fear in entering the debate about Jimmy Manyi’s comments on coloured people is that I will be seen as a coloured person speaking about coloured issues. My fear is that, because of this, my views will not be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, our post-apartheid society has become so racialised that we no longer look at the contribution people make; we look at what race they are, which political party they support and, within that political party, which faction they support.

We often dismiss good ideas and good contributions to debates in our country because they were raised by people who do not have the right credentials or the right political allegiance.

In an election year, this becomes even more pronounced. Solidarity will find an interview conducted with Manyi a year ago, and which nobody took any notice of at the time, and make news of it. And the DA will follow shortly with their own version of an interview Manyi did a while ago to prove a point about the racists who can be found within the ANC.

One cannot help but think that they have to be driven by a political agenda; to make us much noise as possible about ANC racism and in this way convince voters not to support the ANC in the upcoming municipal elections.

But Trevor Manuel did not have the same agenda — he is after all a national executive committee member of the ANC and a long-serving Cabinet minister — so what would have driven him to attack Manyi with the vigour that he did?

I would like to believe that the views expressed in Manuel’s letter, in which he called Manyi a “racist” and likened him to apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd, were genuine and that they were the result of a “gatvol” factor which I have noticed more and more in the Western Cape.

Manuel wrote in his letter: “I want to draw your attention to the fact that your statements about ‘an over-concentration of coloureds’ are against the letter and spirit of the South African Constitution, as well as being against the values espoused by the Black Management Forum since its inception.

“I want to put it to you that these statements would make you a racist in the mould of HF Verwoerd.”

Manyi, then the director general of labour, said in a show broadcast on KykNet’s Robinson Regstreeks in March 2010 that there was an “over supply” of coloureds in the Western Cape. Manyi was then and still is the national president of the Black Management Forum.

There is a growing number of people from the Western Cape, many but not all of them so-called coloureds, who feel betrayed by some of the present ANC leadership and who feel that this leadership does not understand the non-racial struggle that many people sacrificed their lives for, particularly in the 1980s.

There is a feeling among these people that the ANC has forgotten about the values enshrined in the Freedom Charter and our Constitution, which borrows heavily from the Freedom Charter, and that people like Manyi, who push an Africanist agenda, have hijacked the ANC, or a significant power bloc within the ANC, from its non-racial ideals.

There is also a strong feeling that the contribution of people from the Western Cape, and in particular so-called coloured people, to the struggle against apartheid has been forgotten or ignored.

Manuel is one of the people who spent a significant part of his life promoting non-racialism through his involvement in the United Democratic Front and other mass-based organisations in the 1980s. But more than promoting non-racialism, the UDF also promoted the participation of the majority of our people in decisions about our society.

This approach obviously differed from the approach of the ANC in exile who believed in tight decision-making, with limited consultation, and who basically passed on a “line” for its operatives to follow.

When the ANC was unbanned, it required a marriage of two different political cultures: the closed culture of the exiles and the open culture of what some people call the “inziles”.

It has become clear to me in recent months, that the marriage of these two cultures has not been successful and that there is a need for serious marriage counselling.

Manuel has become almost a lone voice within the ANC top structures, someone who has lived through the struggle for true non-racialism and who must be getting increasingly irritated by the utterances of people who can be perceived to be racist, including the Jimmy Manyis and the Julius Malemas of this world.

But while Manuel has remained loyal to the ANC, there are many people who fought alongside him in the struggle, who have long deserted the ANC. Some of those people would have said this week: we told you so.

Manuel obviously chose his words carefully in his letter to Manyi. He established his credentials and he questioned Manyi’s credentials before launching into his attack.

That in itself can be dangerous, because there are many people who played significant roles in the struggle against apartheid who have been discredited since then. I’m not talking here about people like Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa, who find themselves outside the ANC, but about people like Schabir Shaik, whose criminal convictions effectively counter-balance the contribution they made to struggle.

Surely, your anti-apartheid credentials should not be a major factor in determining the usefulness of your contribution to the very serious debates in South Africa today. Surely the only think that should matter is the quality of your thinking.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe was quick to point out, as Manuel himself did indirectly, that Manuel was not speaking as a coloured leader but as a national leader of the ANC.

Mantashe was aware that there would be some of Manyi’s supporters who would accuse Manuel of speaking out only about an issue that affects so-called coloureds.

I believe that it is important to hear views such as those expressed by Manyi, otherwise we will not know that those views exist. But when they belong to the Cabinet spokesperson or a senior government official, as Manyi was when he made the comments, then we have a serious problem.

Too often we make the mistake in South Africa of conflating ANC and government. They are two separate entities even though the ANC dominates government. But government has to work in the interests of all the citizens of South Africa, irrespective of their political allegiance. The ANC only needs to worry about their members and supporters.

And this is what distinguishes Manyi from someone like Malema. Malema can make as much noise as he wants and, even if we don’t like it, it is his right to make that noise. After all, he is appealing to a specific constituency. He does not have to care about anyone outside of that constituency.

Unfortunately, Manyi, as a senior person within the Zuma administration, cannot be seen to be partisan or, as he has been accused, racist. This becomes even worse because he is now the Cabinet spokesperson and, whatever he says, will be seen as being endorsed by the Cabinet.

Would the Cabinet accept Steve Hofmeyr as their spokesperson if he had communication skills (which thankfully he does not have)? No, because he does not share their philosophies. So the question is: does Jimmy Manyi share the Cabinet’s philosophies or, more importantly, does the Cabinet share his?

This is probably the dilemma Manuel found himself in and that is why he decided to speak out. He could not, by association with Manyi, be seen to be endorsing his racist views.

The way forward for me would be for the president to find an honourable exit for Manyi, maybe get him a job in the ANC where he can make as much noise as he wants without the same potential harm to government. (I do not see Manyi in the diplomatic service because he would not be able to restrain himself from saying things that would embarrass the country.)

Then we should have an urgent national discussion on race and the harm it has done to our society and continue to do to our society. This discussion should be driven by the President and the leadership of government.

We have many unresolved issues in our beautiful country. We have moved from a society with immense conflict to one where we have reconciliation. However, along the way, there are many issues we just did not deal with. We hoped that they would disappear if we ignored them.

Ultimately, the debate is not about coloured or Indian people, but about how all of us can contribute to the economy of our country.
We need to move this debate along from one that appears to impact only on so-called coloureds to one that impacts on all South Africans.

It is in all our interest for the majority of South Africans to be employed and to be productive. Failure to do so could mean that our economy will not grow at the desired rate.

Let us continue to talk about race, but let us also talk about the things we need to do to make this country great. We should be thanking Manyi (via Solidarity) for at least putting these issues on the national agenda.

  • This article first appeared in the Star on March 4 and the Weekend Argus on March 5 2011.