It was 1994 and a Canadian comic at a South African festival thought that given our apartheid history, he’d be edgy by poking fun at race. He got mere titters and derisory silences from the audience. He didn’t realise: we got race.

We South Africans had been through race, come back and turned it inside out. We had lived it, been poisoned by it, and were on the road to recovery. We were acutely sensitive to it, and we knew two things:

First, the moral position that racism is wrong. The Oxford definition of racism is lucid enough: “The belief that each race or ethnic group possesses specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities that distinguish it as inferior or superior to another such group” and “discrimination against or antagonism towards other races or ethnic groups based on such a belief”.

Secondly, (and this forms the basis for the first categorical imperative that racism is immoral) the scientific fact that there is no such thing as race. The scientific / biological proof is incontrovertible; race exists only in the sense that it is a pigment of the imagination.

This was of course not always the position of scientists (nor philosophers — Kant, the father of the categorical imperative, had racist ideas of his own). But the scientists who set out with their cameras, callipers, measuring tapes and eye charts to justify their racial theories, in the end only disproved themselves.

Under apartheid, debunking racial mythology was a moral obligation. After liberation, I thought we had slain the beast. How naïve.

What I did not take into account is the extent to which racism gratifies people. To put it somewhat crudely, it allows them to get their rocks off without having to exercise their brains. The emotion it usually satisfies is anger; anger based in despair, powerlessness, revenge or guilt. “The whites are criminals and must be treated as such”; “Blacks can’t run anything, look at the mess they have made of Africa”; “Don’t come here with that white tendency”.

When Census 2011 confronted me with the question: ‘How would (name) describe him / herself in terms of population group? Black African / Coloured / Indian or Asian / White / Other’?, I answered, “Human” (taken from Robert Sobukwe: “There is only one race to which we all belong — the human race”).

The census question was carefully worded. It does not use the word race. It pretends to give me the power to describe myself, to choose my identity. But then in negates this by suggesting I must think in apartheid categories. It demands I give them legitimacy.

To impose this question today on a 17-year-old South African (born 1994) and demand they classify themselves, I think is repugnant. Or what of a child with a black skin who has been adopted by white-skinned parents and is now 13 or 16 years old? Or what about someone who went through the trauma of being reclassified during apartheid, must now answer this question again because the State wants to know? I can think of many more examples where this question is clearly degrading.

(I am keen to see how many ‘others’ there will be in the final result. Under apartheid you could be “other coloured” and “other Asian”; it got you an ID ending with 06 or 07. Am I an “other white”?)

Personally, I do not and never have held my identity in “white”. I can at best think of myself in terms of “whiteness” as a social construct (for example, at Frankfurt airport I’m unlikely to be searched as I disembark from the plane; I can trespass and not be chased away without first being asked what I want, etc). But does it count as a “privilege” to be treated the way all human beings should be treated?

Defining another individual by the colour of their skin is anathema. If there was one black-skinned man in a room of white-skinned people I’d still rather refer to him by some other means than say the “black man”. Ridiculous? Perhaps, but my interlocutor might look more closely at the individuals in the room.

(Some might say that I am inventing a new paradox: by acting in a non-racial way, you are denying that racism exists. But that is clearly illogical.)

We all know people whose attitudes to others are defined by race. It is also an awful reality for people with black skin that they have little choice but to take on board the racism of others and try to overturn it. Then there are the Afrikaans and American white supremacists, Scandinavian Nazis, North Korea’s ideologues (someone needs to tell the admiring ANCYL leadership that “blacks” are regarded as subhuman in that country) etc who invent a racial mythology affirming their superiority.

I am in accord with Neville Alexander, that if we are serious there are other ways than using the ignominious and inaccurate shorthand of ‘race’ to achieve legitimate affirmative action.

We must as a matter of principal break this paradox of using apartheid ideas to redress apartheid legacies. It will lead us into the demeaning practice of racial quotas; has corrupted a nation into a myriad, shady practices; produced moral hazard; and spawned such unedifying debates as: are Chinese “black”? are Coloureds African? Governments often use clumsy tools, and the blunter the instrument, the more collateral damage.

My contention here is this: race can never be used in a positive way. Race is a false and pernicious concept; it contaminates and makes society sick. By deploying it for progressive ends, we have once again become insensitive to racism. In the public discourse black and white are used glibly; people are once again being labelled and thought about in racial terms.

When I write or blog, I try my damnedest never to use the words ‘black’ or ‘white’, unless I am using the term in its historical apartheid context or describing the factual colour of someone’s skin or discussing racism (eg. “white racism”, “white blindness” i.e. the inability to see one’s white status).

It is an exercise I highly recommend any writer or commenter try. It forces you to think about issues more accurately, to define more precisely who you are referring to. “Predatory elite”, “vested interests”, “the political class”, “homeless”, “landless”, “rural”, “working poor”, “lumpen radical”, “capitalist”, “wage labourer”, “middle class” and so forth; all far more useful terms in most contexts that reducing an issue to “whites” versus “blacks”.

So when Nco Dube (fellow Thought Leader blogger) keeps referring to ‘White Inc’, he then finds he must clarify that not all members of White Inc are “white”, that some “blacks” are very much a part of White Inc, that some “whites” are not part of ‘White Inc. Finally, the label White Inc is, Dube explains, “not a racially descriptive one but rather of a heterogeneous group not necessarily working together but all seeking to protect white interests” (whatever these are: are white interests property rights? capitalism? homosexuality? monopoly power? hate speech laws? anti-poor policies? free trade agreements? regime change in Zimbabwe? the market economy? cession for the Western Cape? pornography on television? a self-regulating media? private hospitals?).

His definition is totally circular. We are back to “white interests”. But what about those white-skinned people who do not share these interests – the “whites” Dube has just told us are not in White Inc? And what about the black-skinned recipients of BEE scheming and crony capitalism who are included? Dube wants to say they have aligned themselves with “white” interests, well those “white” interests that not all “whites” share. So there are “blacks” with interests embedded in White Inc.

There are some white-skinned people who have found that their economic interests are best promoted when aligned with their black-skinned co-workers in the unions. There are also white-skinned “ultra-leftists” (a pejorative term employed by the ruling party to marginalise opposition to its neoliberal policies and self-enrichment). Surely we should know by now that you cannot know a person’s politics, what they think or the morality of their character, from the colour of their skin?

I understand his sentiments, but I hope Dube will admit that White Inc is simply an unhelpful term. Perhaps it’s that it provokes the people he wishes to provoke – those denialists who won’t own up to their historical advantages, and the newly privileged who are “disloyal” to Africans. In other words, it rewards an emotion.

(Taking the stance I have, one might be accused of trying to deny that we live in a very racially (in apartheid categories) skewed class structure. But I can’t see how this follows.)

Rather, redeploying race terms may blinker us and obscure important truths. It fuels prejudice even as it seeks to undo it. It can lead to a false diagnosis.

The much quoted widening Gini coefficient needs a gloss. Hein Marais has pointed out: “inequality between population groups is very high” (after half a century of apartheid), but “inequality within groups [both “black” and “white”] has worsened dramatically” (after 18 years of ANC policy). President Jacob Zuma has warned that we can’t blame apartheid for much longer.

Economist Sampie Terreblanche deduced already in 2002 that inequality was starting to track class not racial lines. Stats SA in 2008 confirmed that the highest inequality is now within the African population (Marais, 2011).

Cosatu President Sdumo Dlamini tells us at the ANC centenary that 80% of the JSE is white owned. Besides the fact that I am not sure the 80% figure is correct when you consider pension fund holdings (and its membership), international capital – which is global (and therefore unclassifiable by race), American, Chinese, Indian, Malaysian etc – my question is: do we not run a risk of being blind to class issues when we think about capital in race terms? What does race add to our strategy to deal with “transformation” or “economic freedom” for our citizens?

Dlamini wants to indicate that little has changed structurally. Historical injustice persists. But why? Is it really white-skinned racists? Is it not deeper than skin — the economic system? How do we defeat both these?

Not by engaging in a cultural war that is for sure. I doubt we want to end up like the economically enslaved populace of the USA who waste all their political energy and capital by fighting over gay marriage, abortion, gun control, evolution and “who is more American?”, while they sink en masse into poverty.

I propose: 1) we need to be vigilant and condemn racism where and whenever it raises its gorgon head. Pierre de Vos has pointed out how few people take advantage of the Equality Courts. We must expose, unpack, and shred it. And that includes the denial of racism (which is in itself racist). Or the grossly insensitive, “Oh can’t we just move on from race!”. Racism is alive and as toxic as ever and experienced by many people on a daily basis.

2) We have to be much more cautious in deploying race in our rhetoric and analysis (when not discussing racism itself).

Here is why. Let us imagine now that government’s BEE was successful, and that President Zuma takes the lectern and proudly boasts to the nation, “Today, a mere 18 years since democracy, more than 60% of the JSE is in the hands of black capital”. Let us picture this success. Would that indicate to us that the workers were better off? That there was more employment? Less poverty? Less inequality in the country between rich and poor? I do not believe it would. We already have too many examples of BEE businesses engaged in ruthless labour practices, while tenderpreneurs further impoverish (if not actually kill) the poor. Corruption is equally spread amongst those with the opportunity, whatever their skin colour.

The inevitable endpoint of race politics in our context is this: it will entrench a new elite disguised as transformation. Race is used to perversely legitimize neoliberalism. “Look at our black millionaires, isn’t this wonderful? Let us drink champagne on your behalf.”

And here is the nub of race: it alienates us from each other and it dehumanises the self. The tragedy of the apartheid legacy is that there is little social solidarity. Unlike for instance the protestors on Tahir Square making common cause, race has destroyed an essential shared civility.

There are many South Africans who have white skins who remain ignorant, who still lead separated lives along colour lines, and it is easy for them to say, that grinding poverty over there, that misery and despair, that has nothing to do with me. Sadly, they do not identify with the suffering of their countrymen, and they never will as long as the message is: this is race war and not a class struggle; we don’t want your civility. And if that is the only answer, then we are as morally bankrupt as we ever were under apartheid.

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Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary...

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