||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
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
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 exempt?
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.