Does race matter?: Musings by a layman

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / ‘Why race continues to matter in South Africa when it shouldn’t,’ reads the headline of an opinion piece by Sandile Vabaza on the Daily Friend, the online publication of the Institute for Race Relations (IRR). The fact that he puts forth a sensible argument has not spared the author from a barrage of crude comments – many bordering on racist — from the keyboards of some of the Daily Friend’s supposedly liberal readers, and I’d wager that he didn’t even come up with the headline — especially the suspect ‘when it shouldn’t’.

On the contrary, it has the IRR’s signature scribbled all over it. Why, you may ask. For one thing, South African liberals (the IRR being no exception) tend to reach a conveniently straightforward verdict on this matter: ‘Well,’ they tend to say, ‘apartheid is over, blacks are in power, so let’s forget the past and move on’ (note that, in this frame, they don’t distinguish between political and economic power).

Indulge this premise long enough, and a familiar train of argument soon emerges: ever since the ANC assumed power, the country has been on an inexorable slide to becoming yet another dysfunctional post-colonial state. Given poor and worsening governance, accompanied by corruption, service delivery is tanking, and so is the economy, plunging millions of people into ever deepening poverty. Given the energy crisis, they are unable to even put some pap on the boil.

Rather than the promised redress, the liberal argument goes, cadre deployment and B-BBEE – those great enablers of incompetence and corruption – have wrought more damage than colonialism and apartheid ever did. At least under the Nationalists, levels of unemployment were lower, the rand was stronger, there were fewer criminals and drugs out on the streets, and there was no ‘black foreigner’ issue.

In hushed tones (at least among those with an honest bone in their bodies), they say: ‘Okay — maybe the police killings and torturings, the sjambokking of little kids, the slipping on bars of soap and falling out of tenth floor windows were evil … But we were living behind tall hedges (and boy, did we amass ridiculous wealth on the back of this barbarism), so how could we have known?’

An illegal settlement — a common sight on the ‘black’ side of Colesberg. Image: eParkeni.

‘Due to the Group Areas Act, no one can reject our excuse that we did not see. Yes, the papers gave us an inkling of what was going on, but news of the carnage was mostly censored, and so we remained blissful ignorant, allowed us peaceful sleep. And, in our defence, we slipped wads of cash into the hands of black activists to advance the liberation cause, and even voted ‘yes’ in the referendum. Surely that should tell you something about our moral compass.’

This is how the liberal attitude can be summed up — that they were mostly good-doers who did not take account of colour, who were on the right side of history, and who therefore cannot understand why we (blacks? Black commentators?) still harp on about race.

Were this not so naively shallow, we could call it fair comment. But consider the gridlock of laws that were expressly intended to restrict black people to the role of ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’. The 1913 Native Land Act, Group Areas Act, Industrial Conciliation Act, Bantu Education … all meticulously crafted to ensure that whites were the apex race; the CEOs, the professors, the larneys with an endless stream of cheap, unionised black labour at their beck and call.

The traditionally ‘white town’. Image: eParkeni.

One Afrikaner scribe has written that, if you were white and didn’t benefit from this windfall, you must have been utterly stupid. Yet, for some reason, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single white person nowadays who ‘fesses up to the privilege that their skin colour afforded. Today, virtually every successful white person one comes across will have you believe that he’s a self-made man who earned his fortune from the ground up through nothing but sheer determination and hard work.

Boy, they must’ve worked extremely hard. To date, according to Statistics SA, ‘black African unemployment rates are between four and five times as high as they are amongst whites’.

By 2016, writes Wits University’s Thanti Mthanti, ‘whites still constituted 68.9% of top management in all sectors. Yet they are only 9.9% of the economically active population. In contrast, black Africans, who constitute 78% of the economically active population, hold only 14.3% of top management positions.’

And, in 2017, the State Land Audit found that 72% of the land was white-owned, while only a hopeless 4% was in African hands.

One could get bogged down in all the stats, but they are all too familiar to everyone. Unless your head has been in the sand for a long, long time, you’d know that whiteness – a term liberals aren’t entirely comfortable with – enjoys a premium. Anecdotally, even rich black people are nowadays referred to as umlungu (white people), for no reason other that they are as wealthy than their white counterparts. Therefore, success is widely considered less of a by-product of hard work than the legacy of racial priviledge.

But the IRR, as though speaking through the same megaphone as the Democratic Alliance, would have us believe that ‘racialism’ perished with apartheid, and that the only thing that stands in the way of the country’s progress are the race-based laws that enrich the new ‘Afristocracy’. Vociferously, they thump on the message of private property rights, ostensibly to challenge left-wing calls for expropriation of land without compensation.

Of course, what people in both camps don’t acknowledge is that, without similar laws during the years of white domination, whites would probably not have ascended the rungs of the socio-economic ladder so spectacularly. They certainly wouldn’t have gained ownership of the vast tracts of land – both urban and rural — they still own today. It has to be said that although the ANC has demonstrated an insatiable appetite for the ‘green ready’, white liberals have benefited handsomely from both the previous regime’s cruelty as well as the current incumbent’s greed.

What appears to irk liberals most (a rather common liberal kink), being the enlightened sorts they fancy themselves to be, is that the current dispensation pays little or no attention to their prescriptive, paternalistic narratives. Why would they when at base the ANC’s main goal, particularly over the past decade, has been to stay in power ‘until Jesus comes back’. They are probably more shaken by Julius Malema than some think-tank.

Ultimately, what all of this means is that race does matter. Not necessarily in the grotesque form of a Penny Sparrow, or white farmers forcing a black man into a coffin, but in the sense that prosperity remains hugely skewed along racial lines. Inevitably, this provides political movements seeking popular / mass support with powerful electoral ammunition. It’s not by accident that Malema barely says anything without mentioning white people, the mines or the land.

This seems to imply that, for Malema, race is a central issue. Actually, it’s something significantly different, namely a (shrewd) understanding that poor people in urban slums or squatter camps yearn to live ‘like white people’ some day. They wish they were the ones doing the pointing and the ordering, rather than the digging or the shovelling, and subserviently taking instructions. Vabaza has this spot on. The IRR, whose days as an independent think-tank seem to have receded into the distance, has seemingly found a bedfellow in the DA that could disseminate its views — which would otherwise hardly ever make it outside the purview of the white middle classes — to a wider audience.

However, while these two organisations continue to denounce Critical Race Theory. and poke holes in wokeness, real wars are being waged on the ground — life-threatening wars of survival, of bread and butter, of access to electricity, of people recycling bottles and scrap for peanuts that go a long way in places where there is usually nothing to begin with.

In and of themselves, these debates amount to little but trendy intellectual pursuits. Materially, they offer little or nothing to the subjects they are dealing with. Nobody from these spaces will know that the IRR once released a report that stopped short of determining that South African spaza shop owners were lazy, drunken thieves. They won’t know, because most of them can’t afford to download PDFs from the internet, and because that sort of material is far beyond their level of education in any case. Perhaps liberals will realise how privileged they are, and be grateful that their lives are (still) far easier than those of the millions of people on whose behalf they draw such easy conclusions.

Note: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Phakamisa’s website, eParkeni. Used with permission.

FEATURED IMAGE: Plakkerskamp, next to the N1 just outside Colesberg. During the the days of the Group Areas Act, places like the would not exist. Image: Janco Piek, eParkeni.


‘Why race continues to matter in South Africa when it shouldn’t’

So what did Vabaza write? A summary of his article follows. To access the full-length article, click here.

The Wits academic Roger Southall, Vabaza notes, has argued that the reason why South Africa’s stated commitment to non-racialism has not taken hold and politicians are still able to use ‘race’ to drum up electoral support is that the negotiated settlement of 1994 has failed to improve the material conditions of the majority of South Africans.

This theme underpins ‘everything from inflammatory pronouncements by self-styled revolutionaries to memes on Twitter about getting back the land’. This is accompanied by a widespread perception of continued white economic domination. Among other things, affluent black people identify with a psychoh-social sense of black experience as one of continued economic subjugation despite this being far removed from their material reality.

As a result, Vabaza argues, any talk of non-racialism that is not underpinned by sound economic policy that leads to rising prosperity for the black masses will continue to fall flat. ‘Put another way, rising economic prosperity is the horse, and non-racialism is the cart.’

The parties involved in the Multi-Party Charter must come to grips with this experience when crafting their messaging for the upcoming national elections. ‘They must not abandon an insistence on non-racialism, but must understand it is the cart and rising economic prosperity for the black masses is the horse that will drive non-racialism and entrench it in the DNA of the country.’ They should also keep this well in view should they win a majority in Parliament.

‘In other words, the Multi-Party Charter must deliver on what IRR surveys have long attested to; that (black) South Africans care about jobs, about safety, about their kids having better lives than they have, and not fundamentally about race.’ Where race does come into play is via a sense of continued white economic domination: ‘White people and their kids continue to have plenty. while we continue to have nothing and suffer’. …

Despite all the negative press, Vabaza concludes, the dream of a rainbow nation is ‘neither foolish nor dead, it just hasn’t been truly tried’. It hasn’t been fleshed out economically and psycho-socially. This is the task that awaits the opposition coalition if the Multi-Party Charter prevails in the forthcoming elections.


Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap