It’s easy for the ANC to use race as a campaign issue but it’s a very bad idea

On Friday, the ANC in an act of absurdity, marched against itself. The ANC (movement) will have an anti-racism march to deliver a memorandum to the ANC (government). Yes – you can laugh out loud now. They are demanding “unity, non-racialism and democracy”. These are not things a government can decree. They have to be worked at. By EBRAHIM FAKIR 

Make no mistake. Racism and its close cousin companions – bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, paternalism – these are all characteristics deeply embedded on all sides of the South African racial divide and are important issues for public discussion, consideration and yes, even combatting.

South Africa, we know, is frequently witness to acts of overt racism, including hate speech. Penny Sparrow was just one among many who saw it fit to call blacks on beaches monkeys. Justin Van Vuuren was another. He decided blacks were animals. Nicole de Klerk saw it fit to call an African man “kaffir” in public. Her namesake and last president of apartheid South Africa, FW, consistently engages in denialism about the pernicious nature of apartheid and its consequences. He inhabits and encourages an ethical no man’s land with respect to the past.

Just this week, a white Afrikaans journalist, Dan Retief celebrated South Africa’s spectacular one day international cricket series win over England by proffering that they were aided to victory by two white Afrikaans boys.

This is contrary to the actual facts. Of course Dan Retief is entitled to take justifiable pride in the efforts of the Afrikaans boys’ performance, but I wonder why he could not see the sterling performances of Rabada, Amla and the rest of the team too? Do they simply not exist? Do they vanish into thin air?

When roundly condemned by CSA and team captain AB de Villiers for this attempt at “community pride” (in the SA context, read racial superiority complex), which in free society ought not to be an issue, it becomes one when one so flagrantly displays a disregard for the very existence of other people (read other races). This condemnation sparked an apology from Retief.

“Hi All, I unreservedly apologize if i have upset you. It was a ham-handed way to enter the SA dissertation. We are all one people. Sorry,”

Well, fuck Retief and fuck his apology. His act of racial hubris doesn’t not even recognise that others exist. It is only condemnation, it appears, that renders the invisible visible to him.

Later in the week Sharon Fleischmann posted a link to an article appearing in Haaretz pointing to clearly worrying anti-semitism.

In an act of injudicious irony, she bemoans one type of racism and bigotry with racism and bigotry of her own. Referring to the suburb in which she lives, she says: “I live near there. My area is Worse. Full of Muslims and Prostitutes and Drug Dealers! Strip clubs, Taverns, Taxis blocking the road! A nightmare. I bought my home, 35 years ago , it was Heaven. This is the New World Order! I am leaving South Africa, and making Aliyah.”

Well, fuck Sharon too. And fuck her desire to migrate and export her racist attitude to the last bastion of institutionalised racism and apartheid in Israel.

Offensive as all these acts are, they are a minor blip on the larger firmament of relations of white domination and black subordination in our society. The elephant in the room is the systematic socio-economic underdevelopment of black South Africa that is the inheritance of our colonial and apartheid past. This continues in our present prejudices. Including the patronising paternalism so rife in the private sector, academia and the NGO sector in which well-qualified and skilled blacks are still actively discriminated against, and if not openly prejudiced against, then at least subtly patronised by the soft bigotry of the attitude of superiority of some of their white colleagues. Add to this the lacklustre performance of a South African economy presided over by an increasingly myopic ANC for the past 21 years, and we have a toxic mix for socio-economic combustion.

While government performance on the economy is justifiably criticised, equally culpable and complicit in perpetuating bigotry and retarding black advancement are BEE capitalists who imbibe the same logic as white capitalists by not investing in job creation, black promotions and recruitment of blacks at management and senior executive and board levels.

Let us dispense with the easier, more overt acts of discrimination. After every holiday season we are confronted with stories of some holiday resort or other, either refusing a reservation from a black family on the pretext of being fully booked, only to grant a room to a white family or group of friends later. Occasionally, neutral or “model-C” accented blacks manage to secure a reservation, but on arrival are turned away, like barbarians at the gate. Most recently a black kid adopted by a white family was turfed out of a holiday resort swimming pool, because a white family felt discomforted by the presence of this black child in the pool. These acts are commonplace in South Africa.

Make no mistake. People are entitled, more importantly, they are free to choose who to work, play, love and be friends with. They are not free to impose their choices on others. In other words, the kid or his parents who don’t want his sharing the swimming pool with a black child are free to “vat hul goed en trek” (take their things and leave) as it were. They are not free to ask, or insist that the black kid leaves the pool.

A non-racial public sphere does not mean nor imply that there must be forced socialisation or mixing. Racial exclusivists, whilst entitled to their freedoms of choice and association, are simultaneously not immune from the moral criticism that follows, even if they are not compelled to mix or associate in any way.

This mode of behaviour has consequences – not only for social relations, but for the political public sphere – especially in a society shaped by three hundred years of colonial, apartheid racist relations of domination and subordination. Post-1994 South Africa attempts to reverse this. It constructs a constitutional social and political order that is an accommodative cosmopolitan vision that balances rights, freedoms and the protection of “dignity”. Individual behaviour has sought however both, to test the limits of these delicate balances but in instances such as those of Penny Sparrow and Van Vuuren, they completely fray the edges. Let us be clear. Sparrow, De Klerk and Van Vuuren’s speech were criminally unacceptable. They are potentially acts of hate speech impugning the dignity of black South Africans.

Given SA’s history of antagonism, these issues give rise to sensitivities which justifiably take umbrage at this sort of hate speech and impugning of the dignity of blacks. But they have a more egregious consequence – one which lumps all speech and acts – that are considered by some to be politically critical, unfavourable and inconvenient, as “racism”.

Take for example DA MP Aanchen Dreyer’s attendance at the commemoration of Paul Kruger’s birth. The ANC labelled this racist. Worse still, a DA billboard saying “SA lost jobs under Zuma, was “racist”. But neither Dreyer, nor the DA’s billboard on jobs were either subtly or overtly racist. “Racist” has become a convenient shorthand to dampen political speech acts that the ANC simply doesn’t like. In a political environment, particularly one going into an election campaign, this has a significant bearing on the speech, freedoms and choices one might wish to exercise.

The ANC’s latching on to an important and fundamental cleavage shaping South African society, however, is misleading. It is quite transparently doing so, not because it is leading an important debate on the contours and limits of the freedoms of association in relation to the offence that certain types of acts and speech may cause. After all, in a democracy, no one has a right not to be offended by the acts of others. That some black South Africans find a commemoration of Paul Kruger’s birthday odious, should not be the problem of those who wish to celebrate it.

What the ANC is in fact doing – rational for a political party engaged in a competition from the back foot given its governance track record – is using race and racism as a convenient, emotive and easy campaign issue. A leader of society would think better of using such a potentially polarising and divisive issue as a significant campaign tool, not least because it serves to undermine the real and substantive racism, bigotry and prejudice black South Africans face in public and private life, daily.

In social relations, this gives rise to antagonisms across different identity cleavages. It creates the impression that a sparrow is in fact a hawk and that a mere fire is an inferno. But its most egregious consequence is in the political and governance public sphere, where it dampens political free speech and inhibits free political acts.

We have come to this crucible because of our history. We have had an empty process of reconciliation and forgiveness which appears to have enabled white impunity where whites feel emboldened to treat blacks with contempt and disdain. The absence of any extractive restorative justice from whites appears to have abstracted forgiveness from justice, and inverted the relationship between justice and forgiveness. In South Africa, forgiveness has been privileged over justice. But there is a more basic problem – the failure amongst whites to recognise South Africa’s horrendous past and its role in shaping current white privileges. Acknowledgement and recognition are fundamental pre-requisites for authentic forgiveness. Especially a forgiveness that facilitates justice. Apology and forgiveness require the willingness of the guilty to accept responsibility, show remorse, repent, and apologise. It is only then, that offenders rehabilitate themselves as moral subjects.

It is the failure of this acknowledgement and recognition that helps to facilitate the ANC’s easy and emotive appeal to racism as a campaign tool and allows it to tarnish any speech or act that it finds inconvenient, as “racist”. The negative consequences are ones we will all, black and white alike, have to live with in our political community. And they will not be race-based. They will be an assault on our key values and virtues – that of freedom and choice in expression, association and of conscience.

As ever, racist white South Africa, thanks for nothing. Isn’t it time you “hou jou in” for a bit? Maybe then the ANC won’t have easy and convenient recourses to “racism” as a campaign tool.

Featured image Gulshan Khan