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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.