Deconstructing Decolonisation – Can racial assertiveness cure imagined inferiority?
The reader of the short critique of decolonisation I’m about to give should keep in mind the question of what might lie behind the embrace – almost miraculous in its sweep and speed of acceptance – of the flawed idea of decolonisation. Even this potted history suffices to show the enormous problematic of determining when to date colonialism in the various parts of what became today’s South Africa. By JEFF RUDIN
It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness – Karl Marx 1859
There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. Decolonisation is one such idea.
From seemingly nowhere, decolonisation hit South Africa when a few students at the University of Cape Town threw shit at a statue of Rhodes in March 2015. Since then it has blown across the whole of South Africa to be inhaled as fresh air. Conferences on the subject are big business; there’s even a Decolonisation Foundation. To be anything less than exhilarated by the whirlwind is to run the risk of being roughly attacked as racist or reactionary. The gale has especially shaken universities: their need for a thoroughly decolonised makeover that includes what is taught and by whom is the new orthodoxy.
Yet what, precisely, is meant by decolonisation remains unclear. Those who shout the loudest and claim to know often end up making fools of themselves, for either their ignorance or the contradictions of their conclusions. The proposed rejection of science as a non-African, white Eurocentric imposition made news across the world for its utter stupidity or fundamentalism. Less well known but in the same league are the medical students who rejected a practical on ankle injury because the lecturer, attempting to make it real life, had linked the injury to football and football was deemed to be an alien, non-African colonial import. In similar vein is the automatic rejection of reading lists on technical subjects purely because the authors are from Europe or the US. Subjects such as architecture have been disavowed for being non-African.
It is easy to dismiss these and similar sentiments of ignorance, dogmatism and racial bigotry. Yet, to do so is too simple. In the first instance, decolonisation is the dominant and (virtually) unchallenged idea of now. This fact alone invites taking it seriously, despite its seeming simplicities. Then there is a trope that connects these views to the wider and concurrent student upheavals of the past two years, in which violence, intolerance, book and artwork burnings and seemingly mindless destruction by students of their own buildings have been prominent. Moreover, it must be asked whether student activism is part of an even larger context of a new and narrow black nationalism that, for the first time, includes the ANC as a promoter of racial chauvinism?
Before offering an outline of the deconstruction of decolonisation and showing why and how it links to issues that shape the fundamentals of where South Africa is today, let me make explicit and unequivocal that colonialism was both real and a primary determinant in shaping our history and socio-economic architecture. In addition, the rediscovery of colonialism is essential to the final burial of the idea that apartheid – the racial organisation and structure of South Africa – began only in 1948, when the Calvinist Afrikaners, unlike the nice, liberal English, took over the running of South Africa.
Let me also invite the reader of the short critique of decolonisation I’m about to give to keep in mind the question of what might lie behind the embrace – almost miraculous in its sweep and speed of acceptance – of the flawed idea of decolonisation (as it’s being popularised and increasingly used). Sympathy for some of what might lie behind the eruptions of the previous two years does not preclude subjecting the eruptions themselves to unapologetic critique (and thereby being prepared to face an expected response of racist invective from some quarters).
In anticipation of my conclusion to this article, I offer an alert to the aphorism at the beginning of the article; a quote with an old idea containing a liberatory essence that still awaits the coming of its time, 158 years after it was first penned.
It is not for no reason that we still await a comprehensive, coherent and cogent definition of decolonisation, notwithstanding repeated requests for one. The multiple problems to be confronted begin with a historically accurate understanding of what is colonial. “Colonial” is much more than just contact between different people; a defining feature must be conquest by one country over another that, ultimately, is usually recognised in international law.
Dating the beginning and end of colonialism in South Africa
When, then, did colonialism in South Africa begin and end? The standard answer is April 6, 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck first landed at what became Cape Town. However, this is very far from being the implicit colonial conquest of what became South Africa, only in 1910. Most of South Africa in 1652 was still entirely precolonial. Indeed, it took until the end of the 18th century for the outpost of Cape Town to expand northwards into the territory of what became the Cape Colony that was finally ceded to Britain by the Dutch in 1814. The British Colony of Natal was proclaimed in 1843, 191 years after van Riebeeck’s landing. Moreover, Zululand did not become a formal part of Natal until after the Anglo-Boer war. The end of that war, in 1902, also resulted in the ending of both Boer-governed territories, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. They were replaced by the British Colonies of the Transvaal and Orange River respectively. Britain created the new nation of South Africa by combining four of its South African colonies into one country, and granted full sovereignty to the Union of South Africa in 1931. The nominal allegiance to the British Crown formally ended in 1961, with the establishment of the Republic of South Africa.
Even this potted history suffices to show the enormous problematic of determining when to date colonialism in the various parts of what became today’s South Africa.
Moreover, a narrow focus on colonialism adds yet another layer of confusion: It obliterates that what is now being called colonialism is, in fact, the natural development of capitalism. Lost in the attack on colonialism is the capitalism that gives it its 19th and early 20th century specificity: without the search for raw materials and new markets for both manufactured goods and the export of capital there would have been no colonial conquests and no “scramble for Africa”. A critique of colonialism is therefore much more accurately a critique of capitalism; and not just a historical capitalism but of a capitalism as contemporary as today.
What is to be decolonised
In addition to the problematic of dating colonisation, in the complex of South Africa’s history, is determining what is to be decolonised. Insofar as there are any answers, they are highly selective. The broad consensus appears to be that everything of a non-African origin is up for decolonisation.
To the already mentioned science, architecture and football, cricket and rugby immediately come to mind. So, too, do the host of inventions of a non-African origin – including the misnomer of “Western medicine”.
However, little, if anything, has been said by anyone about abandoning English as a language, or Christianity as a religion. Nor has anything been said about the alphabet and numerals used by missionaries who, indeed, having created the original written forms of all the various Bantu languages of South Africa, have irreparably polluted everything written in all these languages.
Education enjoys the loudest call, with the broadest support, among the issues needing urgent decolonisation. Yet this call is assiduous in its selective avoidance of these various thorny issues.
This selective avoidance is similarly to be found in one of the more articulate and thoughtful attempts at explaining decolonisation. Academic Joel Modiri concludes one of his more recent Daily Maverick pieces thus:
And after 22 years of manufactured reconciliation and fictional equality, it should be obvious that the racial conflicts in South Africa will not go away until our colonial history is fully addressed by means of a programme of substantive historical redress and corrective justice.
Yet he fails to give any substantive content to this “programme of substantive historical redress and corrective justice”.
What is Africa and African?
Compounding the question of what is colonial-waiting-to-be- decolonised are two further questions: What is Africa and African? For it is these latter questions that provide the answers regarding what is to replace the colonial.
The very name Africa is (almost certainly) of European origin: either Latin Aprica (meaning “sunny”) or the Greek Aphrike (meaning “without cold”).
Moreover, Africa is no more than the current continent accidentally formed by plate tectonics or continental drift. Moreover, Africa is young when seen against the 4.5-billion-year-old Earth. It began being formed “only” 250-million years ago and was almost in its present shape and place a mere 65-million years ago. And it is already breaking up. What remains of the continent is due to collide with southern Europe in a mere 50-million years or so. Yet this transient and accidental land mass is imbued with mystical powers and value-laden importance. (Relative to the other continents, it does have a specifically geographic importance. However, this applies not to Africa as a whole but only Sub-Saharan Africa.)
This brings us to the meaning of African. What or who is African?
A convenient beginning to the answer is to say who doesn’t qualify, at least according to those who dominate in the demands for decolonisation.
The requirement of somehow being “African” has further heightened the sense of exclusion already felt – or now beginning to be felt – by South Africans of Asian descent. This also applies to those “coloureds” with “foreign blood”. As for South African citizens, officially classified “white” (despite the repeal of the hated Population Regulation Act of apartheid South Africa) they are, unconditionally, turned into the colonial enemy by virtue of their skin colour alone. (Let me confess to being one of them.)
Depending on one’s viewpoint, South Africa ceased being a colony in either 1910 or 1931. If the former date, there probably are still a tiny number of “whites” who are at least 107 years old. If 1931 is taken as the date when South Africa ceased to be a colony, then those who are at least 86 years old are covered. Calling them “colonial” does at least make some literal sense.
Drawing attention to the literal implications of the word does underscore the need for a definition of requisite specificity that nonetheless avoids being narrowly legalistic. Absence the specificity and the term becomes little more than a swearword; a label of disapproval. A single recent article in the Daily Maverick underscores how colonialism has come to mean almost anything: the list includes “patriarchy”; the structure and rules of meetings that necessitate “disrupting the colonial order of things”; to “decentre whiteness”; and “rules that favour a legalistic… approach”.
The point to emphasise is that all South Africans of non-African decent are condemned to perpetual foreigner status, no matter how long they have lived here and, indeed, no matter what their contribution might have been to the long and bloody struggle against colonial conquest, racism and national oppression. To be sure, the same applies to all non-Africans no matter their contribution since 1994. Being “African” born gives a sense of importance to those who exclude everyone else; a central theme that will be developed shortly.
So much for the exclusions. Who, then, are those privileged to truly belong to Africa?
Adding to the chance formation of the continent called Africa is the equally accidental peopling of Semites and Arabs in the north of the continent, with physical features, religions and customs distinctly different from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Notwithstanding the largely nominal African Union (AU), which claims to speak on behalf of a united Africa, the advocates of decolonisation effectively mean black Africa, that is, Africa without a north. When required, this decapitated Africa does nonetheless lay claim to Pharaohs’ Egypt – but exclusively in the name of black Africa.
The meaning of Black Africa has still further exclusions. The proponents of decolonisation choose to ignore that being black is often not enough; one also has to be South African. Black South Africans – in large numbers – have a special animosity for foreign blacks. They are the despised amakwerekwere who are subject to xenophobic attacks on their person and property: being too black among black South Africans results in mistaken identity, with death as the ultimate penalty.
Who are South Africa’s ‘First People’?
Implicit in the general call for decolonisation is that the main black groups in South Africa – broadly and conveniently represented by the nine African languages recognised by our Constitution – are the only rightful, precolonial owners of South Africa. They are the true Africans; everyone else living in South Africa is a settler, in one way or another. As settlers, they and their offspring are outcasts in perpetuity.
Apart from many other possible objections, this claim is suspect even in its own terms of reference. Although tellingly still without an uncontested name, the first people in the Cape and, indeed, in much of today’s South Africa – the people whose rock paintings are everywhere – were neither Bantu-speaking blacks nor, indeed, black at all. They were the original browns. When not killed by the presence of foreign germs – be they brought by black or white settlers – they were killed in very large numbers by both blacks and whites. Many of those who survived had both black and white sexual partners and, today, form an important part of the group who still bear the apartheid name of “coloured”.
Today, people claiming to be the descendants of those original people are claiming original title to much of South Africa. The government is not amused; black nationalists accuse them of being divisive; the only political parties supporting them are the ones they have formed themselves. Their cry for decolonisation falls on deaf ears among the latter-day decolonisers.
What all decolonisers do agree on is the identity of the enemy: Europe, in general, and Britain in particular. While it is at least historically accurate that all the formal colonial powers have been European, not all European countries have had colonies. Indeed, many of them have been the colonies of other European powers. Just think of Britain’s occupation of Ireland or of the now all but forgotten Austria-Hungary Empire that, before World War I, was the largest political entity in mainland Europe and was entirely made up of conquered peoples and regions of Central Europe. One doesn’t have to be black to have been colonised.
Adding to the complexity is that the US is now often not only included among the colonisers but identified as the main culprit. While this does represent current power relations and, ignoring the fact that the US was itself a former British colony (and, is thus a reminder that being a colony is not a necessarily permanent condition), it does further compound the problem of colonialism meaning almost anything.
Nonetheless, the US does give some credence to the other dominant idea that colonialism is “White”, in some causative way. In yet another case of selective blindness, the decolonisers choose not to see the much talked about current Chinese colonisation of Africa. When it comes to Africa’s mineral extraction, India and Brazil can be included as junior colonisers. What China and India remind us so plainly is that one doesn’t have to be “white” to be a coloniser.
Specifying the Precolonial
The final questions to be confronted here is (putting aside the many problems arising from the previous questions, namely: what is colonial-waiting-to-be-decolonised and what is Africa and who are the Africans) are: What is precolonial and what bits of it are to fill the space created by the cleansing out of the white colonial?
An immediate answer to both these questions points to the enormous difficulties involved. The government’s current attempts to codify and update customary law, complete with customary borders and customary leaders, dramatically underscore the challenges. Apart from the still to be made public latest version of the Traditional Courts Bill of 2009, the difficulties of the Traditional Leadership & Governance Framework Act of 2003 through to the current attempt to update it – the Traditional & Khoi-San Leadership Bill – begin with the challenging fact of a deep and widespread opposition directly from the customary subjects themselves: they don’t want what is being proposed in the name of tradition. The problems then move on to the proposed borders, which just happen to be precisely those created by colonialism and extended and institutionalised by apartheid as either the “tribal areas” or Bantustans. The difficulties end with traditional leaders in bitter dispute among themselves as to who are the “genuine” traditional leaders about to be given decidedly untraditional power with untraditional, highly lucrative access to what is now traditionally called “white monopoly capital”.
Let the Deputy Minister of Co-operative Governance & Traditional Affairs, Obed Bapela, have the last words on these thorny issues. His comments on who were South Africa’s “first people” apply with equal force to the hotly contested issue of which traditional leader is more authentic than the next, given the contaminations of both colonialism and apartheid in selecting chiefs:
We do not know who arrived at which point, when and where, and that history is not easy to trace.
Certainty, on the other hand, does not in itself mean contemporary acceptance. Take the practice of Ukuthwala, for instance. No one disputes the reality of this customary form of abduction that involves kidnapping a girl or a young woman with a view to enforced marriage. The government is now introducing legislation to outlaw the practice. This is being strongly resisted by traditional leaders, with white colonialism being blamed for opposition to the custom. According to the Chief of Mvezo Traditional Council and ANC MP, Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson:
When a man sees that this one is ripe for marriage, then she is taken and she is put through a ceremony and then she’s ready. Don’t bring in white people’s things such as her age.
Even this gallop of a critique of decolonisation should suffice to explain why everyone can talk about decolonisation without anyone seemingly knowing what it is, with any meaningful level of precision.
To stop now, to jeer or to dismiss the whole thing as nothing more than nonsense, would be a serious mistake. An idea whose only merit is popular support still begs further investigation into the nature of its widespread appeal. In one sense, the crazier the idea – like a prophet using a powerful insecticide to cure sick followers – the more important it is to ask further questions. Empathy with the followers alone merits this.
Decolonisation has an appeal like few others in recent times. Deconstructing decolonisation requires asking what this appeal could be?
In an attempt to make sense of what is happening, I offer the follow tentative answers.
The Appeal of Decolonisation
My answer begins with a paradox: Having accepted that race is a social construct and, given the long and cruel – when not actually murderous – history of racism, the expected next step should be a prompt prioritisation of the dismantling of this socially created contagion.
But rather than this anticipated de-racialisation, a re-racialisation has occurred.
The paradox is heightened by two further considerations.
First, being devoid of any reality other than a social one means that race can be undone, no matter how deeply ingrained it has become. This ought to be good news.
Second, having fought against the racial ravages of apartheid, the expectation of the political will to demolish the social construct of race was just assumed; all the more so because of a post-apartheid government committed to upholding, defending and respecting a Constitution whose core objective is the creation of a non-racial South Africa. However, the government, the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), along with other anti-racists of the struggle against apartheid, have all either promoted or unquestioningly allowed the social construct to grow wings.
Race has been valorised, turned into an ideal worthy of veneration; race has become something its former victims now choose as their self-identity and do so with pride; race has been metamorphosed into an idea to be championed, an idea for which people are prepared to die.
And all this by those who categorically affirm the social construction of race. Indeed, much of this is done in the name of anti-racism.
Before suggesting what lies behind this unexpected development of race, it is essential to draw out the full meaning of race being no more than a social construct. The logic of race being a biological nonsense needs constant repetition. This must be done if for no other reason than that a core of decolonisation seems to be the internalisation of the prejudices against black people by the most jaundiced of racists.
What seems to have been forgotten is that, other than at an individual level and with decreasing importance the more individuals there are, biology plays no part in any significant differences between groups. Biology has no known influence when it comes to very large population groups. The very real differences that do distinguish one group from another in terms of the broadest possible meaning of social, intellectual, criminal, sexual, moral, traditions and cultures have nothing to do with a hierarchically determined biology. This is to say: there is no need for any group to prove anything. All (large) groups are genetically equal in terms of all the variables given social value.
Having said this, the need is then to find the real factors that do create the inequalities we know so well. But this must wait.
We must first attempt to explain why – and when – the anti-racist ANC-led government chose the perpetuation of race as its priority, rather than its burial.
In 1994 the ANC was a broad political front uniting a wide range of political forces in a struggle against apartheid. The struggle brought together principled and dedicated people, who, at one end, complained that apartheid prevented them from enjoying the fruits of a capitalist South Africa to, at the other end, people committed to the overthrow of capitalism. (A similar description could be made of Cosatu.)
We know the non-socialist group best, thanks to Smuts Ngonyama, the government’s then leading spokesperson. Defending himself, in 2004, during a dodgy BEE deal that brought him R160-million, he affirmed:
I didn’t join the struggle to be poor.
Ngonyama, who is now the South African Ambassador to Spain, has been vilified for his honesty.
However, the formal endorsement of the new struggle being the struggle to be rich had been given 10 years earlier. This was when the then brand new Mandela-led, ANC-dominated Parliament voted a salary increase for themselves, on the basis that apartheid MPs had not been paid sufficiently well.
Surprised by this immediate prioritising of wealth and concerned about this contempt for the poor, some (white) communists, who were MPs on the ANC ticket, questioned this decision. They, who had devoted their lives to a non-racial South Africa, allowed themselves to be silenced when angrily accused of being racist; the accusation was that, by questioning the salary increase, they were saying that being rich was not for black people.
This set the scene for everything that has happened since then. By both design and accident, the ANC developed a strategy which draws on its new political power to use apartheid-created colour to manufacture the hitherto excluded class of black beneficiaries of the already existing capitalist mode of production. This has become the government’s architecture of change and continuity for the new South Africa. Capitalism itself would not be touched. Above all, this has meant no nationalisation, along with an unchanged working class.
The primary features of the working class remain its apartheid-bequeathed cheapness, with mass unemployment guaranteeing the permanence of its cheapness. Reflecting its colonial and apartheid histories along with the demographic fact of Africans being by far the dominant group has meant that the colour of this class has been a probably unexpected boom.
Capitalism guarantees the permanence of poverty. In South Africa this means mass black poverty, which enables the black bourgeoisie, both actual and aspirant, to cry about the failure of “transformation”. Black poverty alongside white wealth (which has remained intact at the top) legitimises even further increases in state support for BEE and affirmative action.
Black poverty has yet another virtue; it provides a most convenient cover for hiding how well the new South Africa has been in meeting the exclusive class interests of the black middle and upper classes. (Should this claimed success come as a surprise – in the context of an economy in serious, prolonged and ongoing crisis – it merely attests to how successful the cover-up has been.)
It is because of these class interests that, rather than the expected burial of race, we live with its resurrection.
In summary: Reified colour is essential to the creation of “black” wealth, in an already well-established capitalist economy, which, thanks to apartheid’s extensions of the colonial class structure, has left capital largely in “white” hands.
The fear that white racists might be right!
Going back to 1994, it soon became apparent that race had been turned into something much more than just the social construct it was said to be. Notwithstanding the rejection of a biologically determined racial hierarchy, there was, indeed, a fear – with various degrees of consciousness – that the truth might lie with the white racists. As we will see with President Thabo Mbeki, the more extreme the racism the greater the fear that it might be correct.
Rejecting biological essentialism as being without any scientific basis means there is nothing for the supposedly inferior “races” to prove. Other, that is, than an ability to act on this liberatory fact by feeling no need to disprove the racist dogmas. Yet, it is precisely this need that is daily on display. In Mamphela Ramphele’s words:
We have largely bought into the lie that black people do not have the capacity to excel.
Examples of having to disprove the lie abound and take many forms: Consider the following:
- Beethoven was black;
- The Pyramids and the Sphinx were built by black Africans, not Egyptian Arabs, with the Sphinx having been deliberately bombed in order to remove a characteristically African nose;
- The need for street names to show that black people are capable of having their own heroes;
- The rejection of the Homo Naledi fossils because black people have not evolved from baboons;
- The national celebration following the first black South African to have climbed Mount Everest, a feat, according to then President Thabo Mbeki, that made all South Africans “stick out our chests in justifiable pride and wonder”;
- The ANC Women’s League’s celebration (without any irony) that President Zuma had used a “wholly black-owned” bank to pay his Public Prosecutor-ordered Nkandla bill. The League’s Secretary-General noted that the President’s “confidence in supporting black-owned businesses is humbling”;
- The celebration of “Ubuntu” as a uniquely black South African contribution to world philosophy and ethics;
- The then Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs, Thoko Didiza, who, in 2000, announced the government wanted to build “a core of successful black farmers in this country. We want to move away from a perception that only white farmers can make it commercially, and that subsistence farming is only for Africans”. (This decision to promote black capitalist farmers tellingly condemned the black, poor rural majority to a life of poverty, as it confirmed the rejection of radical land reform.);
- The “African Way” and the “African Renaissance” with the the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) all intended to show that Africa had its own self-sufficient abilities and expertise. In President Zuma’s more recent words: “Let us solve African problems the African way, not the white man’s way. Let us not be influenced by other cultures…”
- The need for black people to be rich to prove black ability and the consequent – often unconscionable – conspicuous consumption to display black achievement;
- Thabo Mbeki, the urbane, cosmopolitan, British university-educated intellectual, surprised many by his evident internalisation of the most extreme views of supposedly biologically determined black behaviour. His denial of AIDS, with some 300,000 entirely avoidable deaths, stands testimony to his fear that the worst of white racism is accurate. Consider the following, for instance:
- “The white politician [a reference to Tony Leon who had attacked his AIDS denialism] makes bold to speak openly of his disdain and contempt for African solutions to the challenges that face the peoples of our continent. According to him… these solutions, because they are African, could not but consist of pagan, savage, superstitious and unscientific responses typical of the African people, described by the white politician as resort “to snake-oil cures and quackery”…. This racism has defined us who are African and black as primitive, pagan, slaves to the most irrational superstitions and inherently prone to brute violence.”
- After referring to medical schools where black people were “reminded of their role as germ carriers”, Mbeki says: “Thus does it happen that others who consider themselves to be our leaders take to the streets carrying their placards [evidently referring to trade union leaders and AIDS activists] to demand that because we are germ carriers, and human beings of a lower order that cannot subject its [sic] passions to reason, we must perforce adopt strange opinions, to save a depraved and diseased people from perishing from self-inflicted disease. … Convinced that we are but natural-born, promiscuous carriers of germs, unique in the world, they proclaim that our continent is doomed to an inevitable mortal end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust.”
It can confidently be asserted that most, if not all, of the above quotes and sentiments come from people who are not only well versed in Fanon’s analysis of the racist “scarring of the black psyche” and of Biko’s writings but quote them, and, more especially Biko’s warning that,
the most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.
Decolonisation as an Expression of Racial Assertiveness
And, yet, it is precisely because of Fanon and Biko that the above expressions of the internalisation of racial inferiority is likely to co-exist with the racial assertiveness that has announced itself with such unexpectedness and vigour since the eruptions of #RhodesMustFall.
This assertiveness has two other defining characteristics: that of being both defiant and aggressive. What needs emphasising is that feelings of racial inferiority and defiantly aggressive racial assertiveness are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they co-exist along a single, highly complex psychological continuum in which recognition of the former becomes the dynamic for the latter; with the assertiveness, in turn, giving rise to uncertainties that propel the aggressiveness in a ceaseless chain reaction. These processes have been long established in the psychological literature.
Going beyond just identifying this dynamic process is the need to embed the interactions in the concrete specificities of today’s South Africa. What was happening below the surface before the seemingly sudden eruptions of early 2015?
Again, space allows for only the briefest of answers. When, by early 2000s, the confident predictions of GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), the government’s macro-economic policy of 1996, catastrophically blew up in the government’s face, it came to symbolise the general failure of government policies to create a genuinely different “new” South Africa. This roughly coincided with Mbeki’s racialisation of the AIDS debacle; of his – and his government’s – concurrent appeal to black consciousness and his dismissal of his AIDS critics as white racists. This laid the seeds for scapegoating the “white settler minority” for having set the norms and standards imposed on the indigenous African majority, most of whom, moreover, remained mired in poverty amid white wealth.
It was the ANC Youth League of Julius Malema who cultivated and cropped these seeds. Already by 2007, an exclusivist African identity had emerged with the confidence to assert itself as “nativism”, the description given by Xolela Mangcu, a leading academic promoting black assertiveness. By 2010, Julius Malema had already made his name as a “firebrand” ready to take on the whites responsible for African oppression and to remind them of the need to “accept that African leadership was ruling the country”.
By the beginning of 2015, these rumblings had become sufficiently robust to remove Rhodes, the statue. Rhodes, the racist, not only remained but became the symbol for something much larger, something the rise of rampart blackness needed as an essential foil: Whiteness and the return of White Supremacy. The crudeness of the blatantly racist stereotype allows for no exceptions: if you look white, you are White, a beneficiary and defender of Whiteness. In this bizarre world, the extent to which Whiteness is the measure of all things negative is directly proportional to how extreme Blackness is pushed. White guilt for apartheid and the inequalities of post-apartheid South Africa, which are seen as a function of Whiteness, rather than the global characteristics of capitalism, especially in its modern neoliberal form, leaves white South Africans helpless; a condition that merely invites more, if not worse, of the same. Almost imperceptibly, the most blatant of anti-white racism has become respectable.
Moeletsi Mbeki is unique as a public black figure ready to point out some of the more immediate absurdities of White Supremacy. With a universal franchise and 79% of the population identified as black African, political power in post-1994 South Africa is overwhelmingly black. Whatever White Supremacy might be in 2017, it therefore exists and functions courtesy of the overwhelmingly black electorate. Mbeki’s perfect logic, however, has no place in a South Africa that needs an all-powerful and malevolent Whiteness to give sustenance to the appeals of Blackness.
There is no need to invent Cultural Histories or National Achievements
‘Unhappy is the country without heroes
No, pity the country that needs heroes’
– Berthold Brecht
The tragedy is that all the pain and turmoil – for everyone – is eminently avoidable. Decolonisation need not be Verwoerd’s and apartheid’s last laugh for being right about the overriding importance of race. A different understanding of the world and our place in it allows for inclusive identities right up to the point where the very need for separate identities is transcended. An elaboration of this is not for now – except for two considerations.
First, pristine cultures free from any external contamination existed only long ago, along with the simplest of lifestyle to be expected from the isolation that made and kept the culture pure. Today’s world, however, is an amalgam of cultures, each of which is in turn made up of the interactions between multiple cultures.
English, the language that offends for being colonial, is itself the product of a jumble of languages that mirror the history of England, of it having been invaded, of its subsequent conquests and inter-actions with other peoples over the centuries. English owes its very richness to its bastardised origins.
It is now far too late to unscramble the egg. The quest for cultural purity is not only futile but would be a return to multiple forms of poverty, even if it could be achieved.
Second, returning now to the liberatory implication of there being no biological basis for the inequalities among large groups, the liberation begins with there being no need for any group to prove anything. This is very different from attempting to understand what might actually –scientifically – lie behind the very real differences that race theory seeks to explain.
Assisting a non-racial exploration, rooted in science, is the aphorism that begins this article.
“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”
People and society are an essential unity, such that the one presupposes the other. People are people as a result of people. This makes us all social individuals. It is people’s social existence that, in the first instance, determines their consciousness, their thoughts, feelings and behaviours, their religions and laws, and, ultimately, how they organise themselves politically. Being mutually interacting, the process is circular even though social existence is (usually) primary. No one chooses their social conditions; it is given as an accident of birth, together with their consequential socialisation. In this sense, there is no hierarchy of cleverness or ability or any of the other virtues that might be offered as an explanation for the big differences that do exist between groups.
For each particular country, or region or group, this means, more specifically, looking at the totality of all possible objective factors such as:
- The size and topology of the land, the different types of soils, weather patterns, the amount, type and availability of water, vegetation, wildlife and minerals below the soil;
- All trade interactions with others, including the type and frequency of what was being bought and sold and the new ideas, discoveries and practices that came with those interactions;
- In some cases, the reasons for the long-time absence of those inter-actions are required. In the case of Southern Africa, for instance, it was an isolation due, in the main, to its accidental location – with an impenetrable desert, tropical jungle and associated diseases to its North – that made it so far away from the centres of trade and development: the Middle East, Europe and Asia;
- A class analysis of the power relations within and between groups and the factors shaping the domination/submission with each group as well as between increasingly larger constellations of groups.
Such a materialist (non metaphysical) approach to history allows an understanding that, without being relativist, explicitly eschews all notions of group superiority/inferiorly.
The equality within humankind, which is another way of affirming humanity’s essential oneness, provides a scientifically secure premise from which to confront the opposite reality: our proclivity to fragment into antagonistic groups based on – almost anything. Culture, colour, ethnic origin, gender, religion, language, nation, national origin, geographical space, sexual orientation and even football teams are part of a near endless list.
Virtually all these competing identities have one thing in common: There are a small number of people within each group who turn the identity of their group to their own, usually economic, advantage. This gives them a vested interest in sustaining – when not actually inflaming – the perceived conflict. Decolonisation has its fair share of demagogues.
Why this destructive fragmentation takes place and why the vast majority of people allow themselves to feel threatened by people who, like them, have little if anything to gain from the conflict, are questions we all need to ask.
The answers are a matter for individual determination.