Race in S.A.

PANKAJ MEHTA pankay at physics.rutgers.edu
Mon Dec 30 15:49:06 MST 2002

My South African friend sent me this:

Ya always want to understand South Africa?  Here is the first piece of
truely insightful commentary I have seen in a good long time...


Elites and our racial quagmire
Adam Habib
24 December 2002 11:58
Race has been politicised and kept firmly on the national agenda.
About six months ago I was invited to the University of Pretoria to
participate in a debate with Xolela Mangcu, the drector of the Steve
Biko Foundation, on why race (and ethnic) relations seemed to be more
contentious as the transition progressed. My argument then, as it is in
this commentary, focused on the role of elites and the effects of our
macroeconomic policy.

During question time, a member of the audience expressed reservations
about my criticism of aspects of our democratic transition and
attributed my views to the fact that I was “Indian”. I protested both
at my classification as “Indian” and the attribution of my views to the
pigmentation of my skin. I informed him that I was fourth-generation
South African, had never been to India, and did not even speak an
Indian language. And I stated that even if my ancestry lay in India
some five generations ago, who was to say that this lineage did not
extend further to Mongolia or England a few generations earlier, or
even to the Spanish peninsula and the African continent a couple of
centuries before that.

I was, I claimed, a child of humanity, a product of its great and its
deplorable moments, a creation as much of its technological feats and
its love stories as of its horrendous wars and its exploitative
atrocities. My response was well received, but I ended the meeting
uneasy. I got the distinct feeling that for a significant proportion of
the audience, across all racial groups, my words had no effect. I was
“Indian” and that is what defined me.

If this had been an isolated case, I would not be worried. But it is
not. A colleague of mine, Jonathan Jansen, recently appeared on radio
as a guest on a talk show programme. Responses to his remarks were
largely influenced by the fact that the audience thought he was a white
Afrikaner. Only when they were informed that he was a black person did
the audience respond more positively to him.

And then there is the celebrated case of Jeremy Cronin and the racist
diatribe he was subjected to by follow national executive committee
member Dumisane Makhaye with the implicit sanction of the African
National Congress leadership. If somebody with the political
credentials of Cronin can be subjected to racial charges, who can be

Add these cases to Mbongeni Ngema’s song, the killing of farmers, the
murder of farm workers, the taunting and torture of black prisoners by
white policemen, and the daily columns in national newspapers by one or
two black columnists tarring critics and investigative journalists with
the brush of racism, and one has to ask: what is going on? How is it
that an anti-racist struggle with a non-racial goal can culminate in
these kinds of developments? Why are race and ethnicity more
politicised in 2002 than in 1994? Why do race relations tend to be more
tense eight years after than at the dawn of the transition?

I believe that there are two reasons for this state of affairs. First,
racial and ethnic identities are more politicised now because it suits
the interests of political and economic elites. Race has been
politicised and kept firmly on the national agenda to enable elites to
project their class interest as the national interest.

Let me cite a few examples to support this assertion. In corporate and
business circles, a black skin is a very valuable commodity. In a lot
of ways it is seen as a form of capital and it makes sense to see it as
such if you are a black businessman. Because of our history, you do not
have the financial resources to compete on an even footing with white
businessmen in a market environment. So you use your historically
disadvantaged status as a bargaining chip. It becomes a resource to
enable you to compete effectively in a market environment.

Similarly, our political elites (those in government and our public
service) use race to compete effectively in the political arena. When
senior civil servants are subjected to criticism about delivery and
even corruption, race becomes a useful tool to defend themselves.

Our politicians also resort to race all the time. Despite all their
protestations, our politicians, both in government and in the
opposition, use race as the defining criterion in their electoral
campaigns. There is no doubt that the Democratic Alliance deliberately
went into the last few elections to canvass for a racial vote, and the
ANC’s campaigns, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape,
were similarly influenced by racial considerations.

So in a lot of ways, politicising race in different ways is in the
short-term political and economic interests of elites, and they have
been instrumental in reasserting it back on to the national agenda.

The second element contributing to the politicisation of race is our
macroeconomic policy. The fundamental compromise of our transition was
not in the political sphere, but in the economic. Confronted by the
overwhelming power of corporate capital largely as a result of global
developments (collapse of the Soviet Union, mobility of capital as a
result of the technological revolution), the political elites in our
society struck a deal to abide not only by a market economy, but also
by neoclassical economic policy prescriptions.

The quid pro quo was the acceptance of black economic empowerment. In a
lot of ways this was a deal to deracialise the apex of the class
structure, while leaving the other levels largely untransformed. The
effect of this has been to polarise the environment. A shrinking
economic pie means access to a job is a life-and-death matter. The
neo-liberal model of accumulation has effectively pitted the poor of
all racial groups against each other.

This is the only way to understand the “Indian” and “coloured” vote.
Conventional academic and journalistic analyses suggest both the
“Indian” and “coloured” communities as homogenous groups voted against
the ANC. This is simply not true. Careful analyses of the results in
the last few elections would indicate that there is a clear class
divide in the electoral vote of these communities.

Richer sectors of these communities voted for the ANC, while the poorer
sections voted for the DA, New National Party or other parties to the
right of the ANC. Again, this is perfectly understandable. These poorer
sections of the minority racial groups are the most vulnerable to
affirmative action. In an environment where skills are scarce, the
unskilled are the most vulnerable.

Let me clarify lest I be misunderstood. The problem is not affirmative
action. It is its application in a neo-liberal economic environment,
for this effectively forces us to make choices between different
sections of the poor. It robs the poor to benefit the poor. Should we
then be surprised at the politicisation of race and its re-emergence?

Let me use another example to illustrate this point. The most serious
weakness of the Mandela presidency was its attempt at reconciliation
simultaneous with a neo-liberal economic experiment. The two projects
pulled in diametrically opposite directions. The one tried to bring
different sections of our society together. The other polarised our
society by accelerating economic inequalities and marginalising large
sections of the population. Is it much wonder, then, that large
sections of the black population feel that there was too much
appeasement of minority concerns and too little recognition of the
plight of the victims of apartheid? Again the net effect was to
politicise race and reassert it on the national agenda.

Now, where do we go from here? Three factors need to be considered.
Firstly, I do not believe that the reassertion of racial identities is
a positive feature, as some intellectuals have come to argue. Indeed, I
believe that it is dangerous.

Moreover, I think it will come to haunt this elite because it
legitimises all kinds of ethnic entrepreneurs who will begin to play
the ethnic card when they don’t get their own way. This will be a
slippery slide to a factitious and politically divided society.

Secondly, I am convinced that we have to review our macroeconomic
policy. Our historic responsibility is not simply to achieve growth. It
is both to achieve growth and address poverty and inequality. To focus
on growth but not poverty and inequality is not only morally
unacceptable, it will also destroy our society.

Thirdly, I am aware that policy options and outcomes are not simply the
product of technocrats. They are the product of a particular
configuration of social forces in our society. In a lot of ways the
growth, employment and redistribution strategy is a manifestation of
the imbalance of power in our society. One of the factors informing
this imbalance is that the electoral vote can be taken for granted. The
ANC knows that the electorate has nowhere else to go, and there is, as
a result, no incentive for them to make concessions to this electorate.

This is why it is so necessary to support initiatives aimed at
establishing an opposition party to the left of the ANC, and new social
movements. Not necessarily because you support their goals or
ideological orientation, but more because their presence addresses this
imbalance of power in our society. And only when this imbalance is
addressed will alternative policy options become feasible.

To put it more abstractly, unless the political will and institutional
space emerges for a reconfiguration of social forces in our society, we
are unlikely to realise a sustainable project that will address
poverty, development and racial polarisation.

South Africans will do well not to take their democracy for granted.
Democracies all over the world have foundered on the rocks of racial
discord and polarisation. And in a number of cases, particularly on
this continent, this discord and polarisation arose primarily because
elites were allowed to project their material and class interest as the
national (read racial) interest.

The result some 30 to 40 years later is that the vast majority of the
population is still immersed in poverty, the real beneficiaries were a
thin band of elites who monopolised the fruits of liberation, and these
societies remain prone to incidents of ethnic cleansing and racial
strife. It is a lesson well worth learning for our own future.

Adam Habib is director of the Centre for Civil Society, professor in
the School of Development Studies, University of Natal, and a part-time
research director in the Human Sciences Research Council

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