Prof. Achille Mbembe on racism in South Africa in 2016 is ?

Speaking on Tuesday at a seminar hosted by the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, and supported by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and the Canadian High Commission, Professor Achille Mbembe spoke about the conditions supporting racism in South Africa along five broad points. Below is a transcript of his presentation

There has been a global revival of racism, chauvinism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia.

People seem to be afraid and crippled by the fear of those who do not look like them almost everywhere. This is not at all a specifically South African epidemic. I mention this as a way of suggesting that the struggle against racism, of course, has to be local and national but if we really want to address racism today we have to do with an eye on what is going on globally as well. Racism will not be defeated nationally – It will be defeated globally or it will not be defeated.

Racism keeps mutating.

One of the powers of racism is to constantly change to be on the move almost all the time. To make it difficult for us to understand what it is exactly, what form is it that it is taking, and such is the case especially today because of, I would say, two reasons.

Racism has become very difficult to pin down.

First of all, because of the current economic system we live in – let’s just give it a name – neoliberalism is a system in which we are told that we are our own entrepreneurs. If we cannot make it, it is our fault, it’s because we have made wrong choices. It’s because we haven’t been smart enough, so it is our fault. The state or the rest of the society doesn’t owe us anything at all. We owe to ourselves whatever we want to be. That is the dominant ideology today and then we see it at work here in South Africa as well. So, in that context, it becomes really difficult to stand up and say, “I am in this situation because of racism”. People will tell you, you are in that situation because you made the wrong choices and it’s your fault, it’s not the fault of the society or of anybody else. So this market ideology is making it very complicated to adjudicate between what belongs to the individual responsibility of us and what it is it that is structural.

This market ideology also has led to a privatisation of racism in the sense that you know that racism becomes like a matter of preference, of taste. “I don’t like pepper, I don’t like blacks”… I don’t like pepper for instance so there is nothing wrong with me not liking pepper, it’s a matter of taste. We see this ideology shared and disseminated largely not only here but of course abroad. So it makes it very difficult to pinpoint racism and to combat it.

And then of course there is the acceleration of technological innovations. New technologies make it really difficult to deal with these issues.

It seems to me that racism in South Africa in particular has undergone a set of transformations.

First of all, the deep structures of racism or racial hierarchy in South Africa are still in place. We cannot fool ourselves into believing that have been properly dealt with of course in terms of the legislation. Segregation is no longer legislated but I am not even sure that all the laws of segregation we inherited from apartheid, that they have all been eradicated. I am not sure, somebody should do research in to what are those laws of segregation that existed prior to 1994 that are still in the book of laws in South Africa. Why are they still there and how do we get rid of them? So broadly we live under a constitution that does not recognise, does not legalise segregation.

But this having been said the deep structures, the cumulative structures that have produced what some people call white privilege, they are still in place. So the question is how is it we deal with them they are still in place and there are forms of the socialisation that made it possible for apartheid to operate. The forms of socialisation that produced the kind of separated spaces we live in, those forms of socialisation I still see now.

Those of us, for instance, who have children going to private schools. Private schools are a breeding ground for the maintenance of the unequal, racialised structures inherited from the past. You go to any major private school here in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, you will see it, the way that they operate. We need some deep, serious studies on private schools.

Those deep structures are still there. The shared environments that allowed, made it possible for us to inherit the kind of society we have today; they are still there. The networks are still there and they are still segregated to a large extent. Here and there, there is a little bit of grey, a little bit of brown, a little bit of black, but the deep thing is still there.

Racism is still active behind the logic of privatisation. Now, the erosion of the public space, the erosion of public accountability, the erosion of all those values that allow for legitimate government, have created the conditions for an expansion of racism. When people, when those in power, misuse public funds, for instance, it doesn’t help in terms of the struggle against racism. Of course, it doesn’t mean black people don’t know how to manage public purse but the perception that is created does not help at all in that matter.

White privilege is being fenced off.

This logic of fencing off, enclaving, we see it in terms of urban policy. We have witnessed since the 90s, a proliferation of private enclaves. A city like Johannesburg today is a city of enclaves. Enclaves meaning, you know what, we don’t really trust the government to provide for the basic services. So we will get capital and produce it ourselves, build our own streets, provide our own security. You come here but you have to have the right to access, if you don’t we privately legally in a position to say you don’t get it.

So the privatisation of space – public space, urban space is entrenching the heritage of segregation that has come with us.

Another logic of racism today is “offshoring”. So you have one foot here and one foot over there. Study the economy of a place like Stellenbosch, and there are many such economies, is one such example. The economy of a place like Stellenbosch has changed over the last 20 years. A lot of it is offshore. So the logics of offshoring is a major device in making sure that the structures of racism are in place and all that is coming from electronic devices which make racism absolutely viral.

The kind of racist eruptions that we seem to undergo once in awhile.

We saw Penny Sparrow, then two weeks later is somebody else and then the country goes into a turbulence. The person apologises and then we move on until we hit the next rock. So these kinds of surface eruptions which have ended up producing two kinds of things.

One is a tradition of apology, but a very ambiguous form of apology. People apologise not really but they think they have done anything wrong. Usually they say “I am really sorry if you felt offended”, not even if you were offended, if you had the feeling of being offended. So you say something, which one is offended, so it’s not really an apology. An apology is recognition that “I have done something that has hurt or injured a fellow human being, something I wouldn’t done to myself and for which I take responsibility”. But here they tell you, “you take responsibility if you feel offended. I am sorry but take responsibility”. So we are in that cycle of false apologies, and with it public shaming and exposure trying to put a heavy symbolic price on the racists.

If we really want to fight against racism I think we should all join be joining the anti-racism network and all those have been trying to put together.

It means the coming together of civil society organisations, individuals, committed still to the project of non-racialism which itself has to be reinvented in the conditions of today both philosophically and practically.

What does it mean in this 21st century to talk about non racialism? Is something we really want to let go of or is there anything to be salvaged from that ideal that carried the bulk of our history over the last century?

For an anti-racism network to be powerful and intervene decisively into the present, it has to attend to a few things, first of all, research. We need to know what’s going on. If indeed racism is mutating constantly, if the kind of economic system we live in makes it difficult to identify it, what is it? We need serious research on that issue. We need to put in place mechanisms of litigation which allow us to resort to courts and make sure that racist practices are dealt with according to the laws of the country. Where the laws are insufficient, we have to create them or strengthen them to combat racism.

So an anti-racism network would need litigation department with researchers and lawyers and money to take to court companies, individuals who are recognised to have committed racist offences and who have to pay heavy price for being racist in South Africa. Third, education department, especially in direction of young people, there are many different experiments of that kind of informal educational activities, where they would be involved in national campaigns which are already going on, one is being planned for this year and serious connection with the world of arts and culture and fashion because this struggle is also a cultural struggle. Culture is about, especially among young people, it’s about what is cool and we create a value system in which racism is not cool at all. It’s just very crass, it’s not fashionable. And in order to achieve that you need to work with artists, you need to work with musicians, writers all those people who create symbolic surplus value for society.

Featured image by Nathi Ngubane