Racist, Racist South Africa

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In the wake of the Marikana massacre, information is trickling into the public domain, which suggests that the police killing of workers was more premeditated than initially thought. Workers who were released from police custody have confirmed accounts of unjustified police violence against protestors, and these accounts have challenged the dominant narrative of the police having acted purely in self-defence. 

Public opinion remains sharply divided about whether the police were justified in shooting the miners, and much opinion has divided along racial lines, which is hardly surprising given the experiential and perception gaps between so many black and white people. More disturbingly, though, many responses have taken a decidedly racist turn.

Media reports of miners having engaged in rituals, ostensibly to protect themselves against police bullets, have unleashed a torrent of racist remarks on online news sites and social networks. Commentators have referred to black people as primitive, superstitious, retarded, chimpanzees, lazy unproductive parasites, “…moronic Neanderthals that would rape a baby to cure themselves of HIV,” (in the words of one commentator) undeserving of the vote and incapable of running a country.

In the wake of Marikana, social networks are seething with racial hatred. Delighted by the fact that the black government was doing something right for a change, racists rushed to the defence of the police and ignored or rubbished evidence suggesting that the police acted inappropriately.

In gloating over the miners’ deaths and what they consider to be black stupidity generally, racists seem blithely unconcerned about possibility that they may be straining black patience to the limit.

Racist utterances have become much more visible in the past few years, suggesting a fracturing of the country’s social fabric. Institutions that track social cohesion in South Africa have sounded alarm bells too. The government’s National Planning Commission (NPC) and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) have both warned that the South African nation is not cohering as it should.

According to the IJR, South Africans are experiencing a low sense of national belonging and continue to associate strongly with identity groups based on language, ethnicity and race. While day-to-day interactions across racial lines are gradually becoming more frequent - although mainly in the middle class - a staggeringly high 42 per cent of the people surveyed said they still never socialised across racial lines.

The South African nation is clearly very, very ill. Why are more South Africans retreating into racial laagers, quicker to recognise their apparent differences than their commonalities, and why do public displays of racism seem to be on the rise?

Racism is not just as a set of attitudes, but a systemic phenomenon. Racism serves a particular ideological function in capitalist societies - including South Africa’s - namely to justify the subjugation of blacks to extract surplus value out of them more easily. Under apartheid, the South African state used racism to portray inequality as an inevitable outcome of the inherent superiority of whites and inferiority of blacks.

What needs to be more fully understood is why racism did not simply wither away after apartheid. Appropriate anti-racist strategies cannot be developed without a correct diagnosis of the problem.

It could be argued that racism continues to exist because of the residual racist consciousness left over from the apartheid era, and that racists merely need to be educated out of their attitudes. This approach ignores the social function of racism in post-apartheid South Africa.

Racism allows whites to portray the country’s continuing inequality as natural and inevitable, that exists because of the inherent weaknesses of black people (and therefore which cannot be changed), rather than as a result of how society is organised (and which therefore can be changed).  It allows them to argue that black people remain at the bottom of society - with substandard housing, crumbling education and chronic unemployment - because they are naturally inclined towards this social status.

In the case of Marikana, racism played a particular ideological role, namely to justify violent repression of workers’ wage demands. It is in the interest of whites - who still largely remain at the apex of the economic power structure - to keep race thinking alive as a mainstay for black exploitation, and to demonise resistance to that exploitation.

Many white people simply do not appreciate that the transition to democracy did not have to unfold in the way that it did. The transition created a democracy while leaving the commanding heights of the economy still in white hands, and the government’s Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment strategy has largely failed to change this racialised economic structure.

The ANC could have insisted on widespread expropriation of property without compensation: an entirely justifiable position given the historic dispossession of black people. Instead of recognising and appreciating black magnanimity, racists are rebuffing the hand of reconciliation that has been extended to them.

The rise of racism is not driven by local factors only. Globally, racism becomes more pronounced during recessionary periods, as competition for jobs amongst workers increases, which may quickly become racialised. This is why the 2008 global recession saw a sharp rise in racist and xenophobic sentiments globally, especially against migrant workers.

How can South Africa develop a community of shared values? According to the recently deceased activist and scholar, Neville Alexander, the nation must be built on all levels of the social formation, including the cultural, the social and the economic.

The ANC’s cardinal error – informed by errors in its theory of national unity - was to assume that they could legislate the nation into being, without creating the material conditions for South Africans to experience a common identity. Deepening inequality has made national unity even more elusive, and created fertile ground for racists. The ANC’s top down, idealist approach to nation building was naïve, dangerously misguided and ultimately unsustainable.

The danger is that, in this recessionary period, organised responses to intensifying racism may not be guided by anti-racist principles: that is, principles that seek to make race thinking disappear entirely by creating the basis for a truly non-racial society, rather than the cosmetic one South Africa has now. 

The rise of Julius Malema has shown that South Africa is still capable of a rightward shift towards re-racialised, even proto-fascist politics, and a racial backlash along these lines is entirely possible. If this shift happens then South Africa’s dream of a non-racial society will be shattered, and the country could descend into a spiral of strife that it may not be able to emerge from very easily.

This is why racists need to think very, very deeply before speaking; blog by blog, tweet by tweet, they are courting disaster for themselves, and for the country as a whole.

It is important to note, though, that white people are not the only racists in South Africa, and many whites are decidedly anti-racist. But whites remain the most vocal culprits because they command inordinate amounts of social, cultural and economic capital.

Racism must be fought at every turn, and racists must be named and shamed. It is tempting simply to ban public displays of racism, but this will not make racist attitudes go away. It is better for South Africa to realise just how sick it is.

Whites need to start accepting some harsh realities. Most importantly, whites need to realise that the country’s social inequalities – expressed most starkly in the massive wage gap between the Lonmin managers and workers – are unsustainable. Whites will need to start sharing their wealth, if they are to continue to have a future in this country. Admittedly, they are unlikely to do so without a fight, but as the unfolding events at Lonmin and other mines suggest, that fight has already begun.

Picture credit: Machine Made/Flickr

This article was published on the South African Civil Society Information Services.