‘Race’ and racism in post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa: unmaking the past, making the future
Race, racism and the 2019 Elections
DATE: Wednesday, 30 January 2019
TIME: 14.30pm for 15.00pm
VENUE: MPW Auditorium, Market Square
Market Theatre Foundation
138 Lillian Ngoyi Street
SEMINAR CONCEPT NOTE
‘Race’ and racism in post-millenial post-apartheid South Africa: unmaking the past, making the future
The persistence of racism more than two decades after the official abolition of apartheid ought not to surprise us. Racism remains one of the many tasks that make up that ‘unfinished business’ (Bell & Ntsebeza) we have inherited from the past, and have failed to adequately address. Public and spectacular incidents of racism have drawn public outcries, and one such incident saw a landmark court judgment imprisoning the offender, Vicky Momberg. There are calls for the criminalisation of racism, and objections to such from across the political spectrum. But will criminalisation assist anti-racist work in post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa? Critical race theory from the last two generations hold many important insights, but are there other arenas of knowledge production which could benefit South Africa’s current engagement with ‘race’, and its attempt to eradicate racism?
At the heart of the question of racism, of course, lies the persistence of the currency of ‘race’ in everyday life in South Africa. We may well have come a long way from the definitions of the Population Registration Act of 1950, but those terms and the categories they constructed continue to haunt the South African public sphere. The raciological categories of the past have continued to be used, both by way of ascription and self-identification, for many South Africans. But those processes were often deeply gendered in the past, and some of those old constructions of femininity and masculinity in raced terms have consequences in the current political economy – both material and symbolic. How important to an anti-racist struggle would it be to understand the contemporary iterations of ‘race’/gender in the historical context, as Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, among others, have argued elsewhere, and as Desiree Lewis and Pumla Gqola, among others, have posited for South Africa?
Attempts from the early post-apartheid period to overcome the consequences of racism in South Africa have mostly been unsuccessful. The concept of South Africa as a ‘rainbow nation’ was simply one of such failed interventions, simply reiterating in new guise the apartheid notion of the country as being ‘veelvolkig’ (made up of many nations), as J.M. Coetzee pointed out in his
commentary on the figuration of identity in spectacle during the 1995 Rugby World Cup opening and closing ceremonies. Many of these interventions articulated a vision of ‘non-racialism’ engendered in the Freedom Charter in the 1950s, not taking into account the very different political economy, locally and globally, of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, or the philosophical and political shifts engendered by research since apartheid was considered, pace Jacques Derrida, ‘le dernier mot du racisme’ (the last word in racism).
Well-intentioned as they are, many interventions against racism still tend to reify ‘race’ and racialised difference, and do not conceive of these as interlocked with constructions of gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, and nationhood. That ‘race’ is a social construction has become widely accepted, but that it holds no biological veridical status has yet to be fully accepted, even across several disciplines in the academy. The old terms have persisted, along with the old ideas, and these became dominant in public discourse, both political and interpersonal, partly because of the specific generation of men and women who emerged from decades of imprisonment, exile and isolation, and tended to remain caught in older terms and conceptions of ‘race’ in South Africa that were not necessarily steeped in the shifts that ‘race’ had undergone both here, because of the Black Consciousness Movement and the Mass Democratic Movement, but also globally, as a consequence of philosophical and scholarly paradigm shifts.
The persistence of the biologistic and cultural conceptions of ‘race’ in South Africa continue to have significant consequences for citizens, but is it not time for all of us to ‘catch up’ and re-think our invested racial knowledge, as David Theo Goldberg has it? Ought we to move beyond what Ruth Frankenberg in her feminist work on racism and gender called ‘colour evasion’ and ‘power evasion’, towards ‘race cognisance’, in order to begin to work towards a truly anti-racist politics which will strive to engender a post-‘race’ polity, one in which the history of ‘race’ is not erased from significance, but in which the very real material and symbolic consequences of this phantasmatic fiction can be dealt with, and the twin ghosts of ‘race’ and racism can be exorcised from post-millennial, post-apartheid South Africa? What have South Africans and our politicians to learn from the past in order not to repeat its mistakes?
With Elections scheduled for May 2019, “race” and racism is likely to be an easy & handy “campaign issue” as it was shortly before the 2014 South African national elections and the 2016 south African local elections, when the African National Congress (ANC), the national governing party, as a “movement”/ political party, in an attempt to deflect from its weaknesses in the ANC in Government, led a protest demanding “unity, non-racialism and democracy”. Recently, the main national opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA), and governing party in the Western Cape Province and 2 Metro Councils has been campaigning to rid South African
cities of what it terms “illegal foreign nationals”. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), regularly premise its political slogans and indeed its political campaigns in racialogical terms in extracting what the EFF terms “racial justice”.
Recent events at Cape Town’s Clifton Fourth Beach, have reintensified the race debate in governance terms. A private security company, creating the impression that it was acting under the auspices of local public authority, asked people to vacate a public beach. This infringement on rights to access and association elicited several protests, culminating in a ‘ritual cleansing ceremony’. The subsequent debate and analysis has reified ‘race’ as a salient category of social and political behaviour.
Racism and its close cousin companions – xenophobia, bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, paternalism – are characteristics deeply embedded on all sides of the South African political divide, and are important issues for public discussion, consideration and combatting. But we ought to be prudent and cautious in how an issue that requires popular resolution, is not used and abused in pursuit of populist politics.
It would thus be opportune to deliberate on:
How ‘race’ is being used in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, by both political parties and by ordinary citizens and their organisations?
How communities are using ‘race’ in their interaction with politicians?
How old tropes and old categories are being revived in electioneering, for both those seeking voter support and amongst voters themselves?
Why is this ‘ghostly presence’ so persistent in post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa?
In Johannesburg several communities protesting service delivery failures have articulated their concerns in these Population Registration Act 1950, racial terms – are these moments of strategic essentialism, or just recidivism into old ways of thinking?
How do constructions of ‘Africanity’ and identity, as well as the (ab)use and experience of xenophobia articulate with ‘race’ and its configuration in the lead up to the 2019 elections?
Is ‘race’ (sometimes in combination with its excrescent twin, ethnicity, and sometimes with its not-so-distant cousin, nationality) being deployed opportunistically in electioneering, and with what consequences in this politically fraught period?