By Franklyn Odhiambo
Theorists say race is a representation of social differences in a code that defends interests and conflicts by referring to apparent physiological characteristics and the treatment of fixities from these references as social facts and thus empirical truths. They say too that racism and a race project occur when a group has power to enforce these references to an ostracised group of people. By all accounts then, racism and racial supremacy are inconsequential without an element of power.
This power is employed to buttress the fixity and stereotypes that aim at referring to whole and complex groups of people as unitary in action, character, and intention. Thus, to the British for example, the Africans were “sullen people, half-devil and half-child” in need of redemption and civilisation. Racism is not biological, there is no proven difference aside from what we can see, it must therefore be tackled on a normative basis with the empirical facts that we can attest. This is where the rainbow nation missed the bus. Let me explain.
The current race project the world is grappling with is not in itself a new one. Humans have discriminated against each other for ages. The concept of race is as malleable as the society’s definitions, interests, and conflicts. In 18th century Europe, even “white people” had racial divisions in what might look today as a homogenous block, Protestant Saxons were superior, Catholic Celts were inferior. In the US, the Irish were not properly white before the 19th century. Italians, Greeks and Jews were white, but inferior white. In homogenous African societies, these differences were also religious, tribal, class-related and even cultural. One factor is true for all societies regarding discrimination, even when it was culturally appropriate by context, discrimination always employed social truths created to justify its benefits to one group at the expense of another. Enter South Africa.
Two processes facilitated the nation state of South Africa as it exists today and with both processes, concessions must be realistic and proactive if the country is to avoid socio-political turmoil in the near future. The first of these processes is apartheid and the privileges it created, the second is the positive discrimination that followed independence and the dependency it risks creating. I think a repudiation of these factors is responsible for some level of cognitive dissonance visible in South African society today.
Let’s start with privilege. South African whites must understand and appreciate the implications of their privilege if any social cohesion is to occur. This means understanding that human beings are products of the environments they reside in and that history has real and tangible implications on any future. Apartheid created systemic inequality by proffering certain advantages to one group of people at the expense of others by actively and intentionally disenfranchising other racial groups. Quite literally, by walking on the right side of the street, going to the right school, and employing the state machinery to one race’s advantage, systemic consequences followed. The key term here is systemic: it might matter what one individual does, or the effects of that, but ultimately, we can only understand race in its social setting. Therefore, yes, you can be white, poor, and with very little visible privilege as an individual. That does not change the fact that South Africa today is a result of a collective history, and your complicity in the creation of it, is immaterial. The issue is about benefits that implicitly or explicitly ensued from other people’s oppression. Accepting these as historical facts does not mean complicity, it means empathy and realistic dialogue on race in South Africa today.
While accepting their racial advantage, white South Africans cannot be indefinitely indebted to the black South African, there is no such thing as a post-racial, colour-blind society. If white South Africa is to check its privilege, black South Africa must understand that eventually there must be a place for merit in South Africa. Black empowerment as pertains positive discrimination must be an issue of justice and not only one of equality. Black South Africans must actively seek out economic and socio-political opportunity to compete and not expect to break racially constructed economic boundaries from government policy alone.
I’m speaking of xenophobia against foreign nationals who seem to be taking opportunities that black South Africans only notice when the foreigners have taken them. I’m speaking of subscribing to a politics that promises to entrench spoon-feeding rather than realistic policy that creates long-term proactive competitiveness and social cohesion in the rainbow nation. Black South Africa must keep the spirit of social justice burning for all people — including themselves.
Franklyn Odhiambo is a student of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.