The Colour of Our Future: Does Race Matter in Post-Apartheid South Africa?
Edited by Xolela Mangcu
Wits University Press
The historian Phil Bonner has described the alternation between nonracial modernity of the African National Congress and the race consciousness of Black Consciousness and Pan-Africanism as a “recurrent trope in South African resistance history”.
He writes that “this tension will probably always be with us: even when the one political tradition gains the ascendancy, the other lurks with less public profile below”.
However, a sense of this historical tension has been lost in the pretence that nonracialism was always the normative consensus in black politics. This apparent consensus is of course belied by the tortuous journey of the term.
The ANC opened its membership to non-Africans only in 1985, a mere five years before it was unbanned. Throughout its life it was a multiracial organisation. I prefer this multiracialism of its early years to the nonracialism of its later years, with some caveats. The multiracialism I prefer is, however, not based on race but on historical experiences.
The great African-American leader and scholar WEB Du Bois rejected biological definitions of race: “It is easy to see that a scientific definition of race is impossible; it is easy to prove that physical characteristics are not so inherited as to make it possible to divide the world into races.”
And yet Du Bois was faced with the question of what identity to give to those who were oppressed on account of their physical appearance: “But what is this group; and how do you differentiate it; and how can you call it Black when it is not black?”
His answer was that “the black man is a person who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia”.
Steve Biko also rejected a biological definition of blackness. He provided a political definition by going a step further than Du Bois by describing black people as not only those who risked arrest for being in the cities without a “pass” but also those who had the consciousness to do something about those experiences. Political identification – not mere skin pigmentation – is key to Biko’s description of blackness as a political identity. In this respect Biko is not far from Albert Luthuli, who advocated a “multiracial society in a nonracial democracy”.
Biko would of course have rejected any biological definition of race and would have thought about multiracialism as an acknowledgement of our racialised identities as South Africa. He might also replace nonracial democracy with antiracist democracy.
I am, therefore, advocating reformulating Luthuli’s vision to that of “a multiracial society in an antiracist democracy”.
Too often the opposition of racist racialism (apartheid) to nonracial individuality results in a denial of group identities and experiences. To the extent that it explicitly acknowledges racial group experience and identity, a political multiracialism could be much more useful than nonracialism’s antithetical stance to racial group identity.
Raymond Suttner still holds on to the concept of nonracialism but provides the kind of thinking about racism that I propose.
Suttner argues that “the denial of ‘race’ is ‘an abstract argument that does not engage with the distinct experiences of the various sections of the population’.”
He also notes that “many are impatient for racial categories to disappear. It is often asked when the transition from apartheid and the need to redress will be over. These are not radical or emancipatory questions. They do not address the experiences of those who have been oppressed and who, as a result of apartheid legacies, continue to encounter obstacles in the way of self-realisation.
Suttner argues that this is an avoidance strategy on the part of many white South Africans, who find it difficult to confront “the costs of their privilege, which are borne by the majority of people in this country”.
But this stands in the way of developing “qualitatively new relationships between blacks and whites” and thereby embarking on “a meaningful road to an emancipatory future”.
Biko’s use of the term culture has unjustifiably been described as a form of racial essentialism or inherentism by liberal and left-liberal and Marxist critics of Black Consciousness.
I am not convinced by these critiques because they are simply not true.
Even though he was not an academic, Biko wrote as if he was anticipating the charge of essentialism: “I am not here making a case for separation on the basis of cultural differences. I am sufficiently proud to believe that in a normal situation Africans can comfortably stay with people of other cultures and be able to contribute to the joint cultures of the communities they have joined.”
He argued that “cultures affect each other, like fashions, and you cannot escape rubbing against somebody else’s culture”.
He was also explicitly political in his definition of culture: “This is a culture that emanates from a situation of common experience of oppression.”
Now this is no different from, say, Cornel West’s description of culture as “the structures of meaning and feeling that created and sustained communities; this armour constituted ways of life and struggle that embodies values of service and sacrifice, love and care, discipline and excellence”.
I am suggesting that there is much that these secular values of blackness can contribute to getting us to move “beyond” race as a biology to a consciousness of the historical experiences of black people as the basis for building what Biko called a joint culture. Biko’s critique of nonracialism was that it prevented the development of just such a culture. He rejected the superficial notion that “because it is difficult to bring people from different races together in this country, therefore achievement of this is in itself a step forwards towards the total liberation of the blacks”.
In any event, he argued, “the people forming the integrated complex have been extracted from various segregated societies with their inbuilt complexes of superiority and inferiority and these continue to manifest themselves even in the nonracial setup of the integrated complex”.
“As a result, the integration so achieved is a one-way course, with the whites doing all the talking and the blacks the listening.”
Nonracialism has become an obstacle to authentic dialogue among blacks and whites. In fact, it has become an ideology of denial and continued inequality.
What we need is a framework that acknowledges our racialised identities as historical experiences while also reaching for new understandings of what it means to be human beyond those identities – “a multiracial society in an antiracist democracy”.