Racism Without Race, Racists Without Racism: Challenge Of South African Racism – OpEd


By Hashi Kenneth Tafira*

South African colonial modernity fabulously benefited those who prosecuted cruel adventuring; their descendants still enjoy the ill-gotten social wages. 1994 didn’t usher a new society, so decolonisation remains an unfinished undertaking. A national project that rehabilitates and restores the full humanity of the victims of racism is an urgent necessity now.

The end of juridical apartheid in 1994 brought hope to many, especially those who had suffered centuries of racial subjugation and exploitation. The much vaunted rainbow nation and the narrative of a non-racial society spelled a new beginning. With this mantle came the rather premature optimistic expectation of improved race relations and, of course, ethnic tolerance given apartheid’s cultural relativism and ethnos; an official policy that masked its insidious virulent racial social engineering project.

In 1994 attempts were made to transcend the past and craft the future, a future where all races and all ethnicities would live in harmonious, tolerant environs characterised by lofty ideals of reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) headed by cleric Desmond Tutu epitomised this principle. Of course the commission has been subjected to critique and battery from different angles. Recent incidents of white anti-black racism (which are not new in post-1994 anyway) demand renewed appraisal of the postapartheid reconciliation and rainbowism agenda.

The career of post-1994 white supremacist racism shows that attempts at improving race relations and efforts to transcend the concept of race remain a pipedream. There are mainly three reasons my presentation makes to show that South Africa’s racial problem cannot easily be solved without asking fundamental historical questions while at the same time critically examining the country’s social structure, its historical social formation and the historical demands of masses of the black populace.

Firstly, I would begin by declaring that South Africa’s race and racial problem is a colonial problem which cannot be peremptorily overcome without rethinking and reconsidering decolonisation. South Africa’s colonial modernity was founded on genocidal impulses, epistemological erasures, rape, murder, chivalrous plunder, confiscation of indigenous land and livestock. South African colonial modernity which spans five hundred years has been a long gory story that is etched in blood, sweat, tears and suffering for those who have been subjected to its vicious machinations. South African colonial modernity has immensely and fabulously benefitted those who prosecuted cruel adventuring; their descendants still enjoy these ill-gotten social wages. 1994 didn’t usher a new society congruent with the principles of the liberation struggle, implying that decolonisation remains an unfinished undertaking. I argue, in finality, that a new humanity, that not only rehabilitates but restores the ontological personality and the humanity of victims of South African modernity, is an urgent necessity today.

The first step is restoration of land to its rightful owners which helps in recreating a new personhood. Secondly decolonial ethics must be part of the official agenda whereby it’s not enough to deracialise society but decolonise it including its institutions, its framework of value systems and importantly the psyche and minds of both black and white South Africans.

My second observation is that race/racism denialism and colour-blindness has been a bane to efforts towards harmonious racial relations. Race denialism which runs deep in the country’s historiography, from apartheid ethnos to the dominant liberation movement, has had a far-reaching impact. Worse still South African social formation has been analysed in rather dishonest academic and defective analytical tools. Class rather than the race question has been privileged in this schema. The result is that we live in a society where there is racism without race, racists without racism. An abhorrent narrative that has emerged from all this has been white racists and the general white population accusing those blacks (who historically are victims of racism) speaking out on the racial issue and calling for racial justice, black racists. Whites have suddenly become victims of reverse racism. The tag “racist” apportioned to blacks shows the extent of the dishonesty of South African white racists. With regards to the American experience, Hoyt .W. Fuller observes:

“Consider: America is a racist society. That is, opportunity and rewards are apportioned, for the most part, according to race and colour. The preferred and the privileged are white; the rejected and the degraded are non-white…The non-whites understand that much of the “the good life” for white Americans is bought at the price of their continued subjugation.” [1]

Similarly, the age-old biological racism is still apparent. Referring to black people as primates is inherent in any racist project. It is part of the image making, a binary representation of black as evil and ugly; white pure and clean. Carolyn .F. Gerald captures this essence perfectly well:

“If it is someone else’s reshaping of reality which we perceive, then we are within that other person’s sphere of influence and can be led to believe whatever he wishes us to believe; that a rosebush is pleasant because it has a fragrant smell, or that it is unpleasant because it has thorns.” [2]

Gerald continues:

“We are black people living in a white world. When we consider that the black man sees white cultural and racial images projected upon the whole extent of his universe, we cannot help but realize that a very great deal of the time the black man sees a zero image of himself.” [3]

In post-1994 it has become taboo and criminal to insist that racism is alive. Recently there has been rather encouraging efforts to acknowledge that white anti-black racism in South Africa is healthy, hearty and hale. Opening up a robust conversation on this topic shows that society is coming to terms with this rather reprehensible problem. After years of denial the bubble is now bursting. White culpability and responsibility for the current Black Condition is huge. White South Africans have to sign an admission of guilty and accept that they are continued beneficiaries of an unjust system. In the same vein it doesn’t help matters for anybody, black or white, to insinuate that the apartheid/colonial discomfiture is a thing of the past; that we should forgive and forget and move on, that those who hanker on the past are inimical to progress. This has been the fate of reconciliation efforts – plastering over cracks. Acknowledging and recognising a problem is a step towards crafting solutions.

Thirdly, I advocate for pluri-culturalism, in other words a pluri-cultural society. Here are the reasons why. Pluri-culturalism is an anti-dote to rainbowism/non-racialism. The latter two, as we have witnessed have been proven failures, have neither succeeded to improve South African racial tensions nor ease ethnic differences. They are founded on a false premise; on rather awe-inspiring jeremiads about reconciliation; on an untenable hope that beneficiaries of South African racism would be ready to live with other people in peace and harmony; on victims forgiving perpetrators who are not prepared to ask for atonement of their sins nor acknowledge the humanity of blacks. Rainbowism/non-racialism is silent on the historical facts which point out how South African social formation came to be. It neither suggests reparations for the victims of South African colonial modernity nor call for social justice. Rainbowism/non-racialism is premised on liberal, rather than liberation, notions of democratic citizenship.

Many black South Africans are still proscribed outside the nation and its fruits. Black African migrants are victims of black-on-black-anti-black-racism, itself a historical accrual and a historical white anti-black-racist depository. On the other hand pluri-culturalism is antithetical to rainbowism/non-racialism. It calls not for a non-racial society but an anti-racist society where the citizenry is made conscious of the evils of racism, that erstwhile racists and imperialists have no place in our midst; is equipped with a moral responsibility that calls for an equal society where equal rights and justice are ideals that are upheld with conviction.

Pluri-culturalism is insistent in an uncompromising manner on social justice. It is a commitment to the idea of the human, whereby in society a human being and his/her needs take precedence. It calls for an analysis of the objective and material conditions of a people. It critically reviews the “death-zones”, the spaces engineered and spatially formulated for those proscribed outside the human. It calls for their dismantlement and unapologetically says the people must get food, shelter and enjoy the gift of life.

Pluri-culturalism is driven by truth and relentlessly pursues it to its core and to its logics. It is driven by African humanist ethos that sees the human in the other human. It is inspired by African ancient values of sharing. It doesn’t see a stranger as alien but one of the cosmopolites and planetary universes. It recognises the cosmological and the spiritual disposition of African people. It is from these considerations that a pluri-cultural society impinges on.

Finally pluri-culturalism is founded on Pan-African ethos that reneges on artificially imposed colonial borders and refuses to acquiesce to colonial crafted differences.

It would be important that the conversation on race relations in South Africa be continued and insisted upon without fear of consequence. Of course the racial issue is world-wide, white supremacy is global, and the assault on the black body is global. This is an opportune moment for all committed to the idea of the human to begin to take a responsibility and say the decolonisation project is an unfinished business of the liberation struggle.

* Dr Hashi Kenneth Tafira is the author of Black Nationalist Thought in South Africa: The Persistence of an Idea of Liberation, 2016, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] Hoyt. W.Fuller.1972. The New Black Literature: Protest or Affirmation.in Addison Gayle.Jr.,ed.The Black

[2] Carolyn .F. Gerald. 1972. The Black Writer and his Role. In Addison Gayle .Jr., ed. The Black Aesthetic. New York: Anchor Books, p350.

[3] Ibid: 352.

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One thought on “Racism Without Race, Racists Without Racism: Challenge Of South African Racism – OpEd

  • July 9, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Returning the land to its rightful owners will not happen if the author regards the black tribes currently living within the boundries of what is now known as South Africa, as the rightful owners. His argument is flawed from the onset, and is just a perpetuation of the common misinformation agenda which wishes to have the world believe that the land belongs to the Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, etc. tribes, and must be returned to them.There is enough evidence to support that these tribes are, in fact, settlers themselves.


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