Conversations: Jane Duncan on race, identity and racism

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Eighteen years after the end of white rule, South Africa is more polarised than ever before. Emboldened in the aftermath of Mangaung, the ANC’s new theme is unity, but this isn’t about addressing social cohesion - it is all about healing schisms that would undermine the ruling party’s power base. In the first of a series of dialogues on racism, diversity, identity and reconciliation, MANDY DE WAAL speaks to Rhodes University’s Jane Duncan about the economic structures that divide our society and give rise to the spectre of hate-based ideologies that still haunt us.

As President Jacob Zuma and his new deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, continued on their road show to sell South Africa a new, unified ANC, the ruling party heralded in ‘the second phase of transition’ and gave people a common enemy to focus on – that of the “racist legacy of Apartheid”.

It was a Zuma resurrected and who "oozed confidence" as he stepped into Kings Park Stadium in Durban to speak to thousands of cheering acolytes. His enemies vanquished, and with the strong majority of the ANC behind him, this was a man leading a political party ostensibly reborn.

“The 53rd national congress [in Mangaung] deliberated around the impact of the racist legacy that persisted with poverty, unemployment and inequality," the emboldened leader told a sea of supporters washed in ANC yellow, black and green. "As we enter the second phase of the transition… we commit ourselves to a programme of action to speed up the elimination of these legacies and bring about socio-economic freedom."

From the outside looking in, this speech signals that the ANC has set its sights on destroying the very constructs that fragment our society on racial lines – that of white, capitalist privilege. But between the lines of “Unity in action through socio-economic freedom”,  ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe’s post-Mangaung report, it appears that it is pretty much business as usual for the ruling party.

The “unity” theme is all about pulling the ANC towards itself and eliminating scurrilous, alien tendencies that would threaten to tear the ruling party asunder. Social cohesion for the rest of the nation is glaringly absent in this document, which does pay quick ‘lip service’ to a broader nirvana for the rest of the country. “The matters considered by all the disciplinary bodies at all levels underline that consistent political and organisational work at all levels of the organisation [are] imperative to ensure that all members uphold the fundamental goal of the ANC to construct a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa,” Mantashe’s document reads.

For a country harmed by the leadership battles that led to Mangaung, there’s this concession: “The role of sport in building social cohesion and as an economic activity deserves more attention from the ANC.” When it comes to sewing our national fabric or creating a national identity that locals can throw their weight behind, that’s pretty much it, folks. 

After a long conversation with Jane Duncan of Rhodes University on racism and the economics that underpin racial division in South Africa, what’s apparent is that she doesn't believe a non-racial society probable or possible under ANC rule. More so, a racially united nation isn’t likely to be in the ANC’s best interests.

Duncan, the Highway Africa Chair of Media and the Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes, tells Daily Maverick that when South Africa had its miraculous, peaceful changeover (much lauded internationally as a model for political transition), the assumption was that the state would work towards achieving a society where people’s national identity would supersede racial identity, and that this would see racial identity receding into the background. 

The realisation of the ANC ultimate goal of a “united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa” is impossible, says Duncan, because race was always a narrative in the liberation movement, and this had been its Achilles’ heel. “The liberation movement relied on what was nominally a non-racial position, but in de facto recognised the reality of the existence of race. Even the Black Consciousness movement has understood South Africa as a society consisting of two nations - two racial groups, blacks and whites. All the major tendencies of the liberation movement recognised the reality of race, and as a result of that we have had a form of transition that has led to a state that isn’t particularly serious about de-racialising our society,” Duncan explains, offering up BEE as an example of this.

“The state has no problem in invoking racial categories in organising society. My issue with BEE is that it makes race the basis of redress rather than disadvantage. The intersection of race, class and gender in oppression is highly complex and I don’t think it should be reduced to a ‘one-fits-all’ measurement tool. When it comes to disadvantage, why should this be measured by race? Why shouldn’t it be measured by income?” Duncan asks. “I think there are many other indicators that can be developed that more accurately get to the nature of disadvantage in post-Apartheid South Africa, and which don’t continue and intensify race thinking in this society.”

Duncan says that the government’s use of race further polarises society, but without advantaging the poor or working class. “It keeps people where they are in society. It discourages people from thinking about a form of society where all can be equal, irrespective of race. Given the difficult social conditions at the base of society that are affecting both white people and black people alike - but certainly disproportionately black people - imagine the power of an organisation that organises across racial lines and that would take up the issue of class inequalities. This would be a massively powerful instrument to bring about proper transformation, and I think that the government and the ANC fear this.”

The insistence of race by the state is to obfuscate elite benefit, Duncan argues. “There are large sections of the ANC’s leadership that are benefiting tremendously from BEE, and they don’t want the race thinking that underpins BEE to be unsettled. They don’t want a discourse in society that thinks differently about how to define transformation and how to go about achieving it. That’s the part of the work race thinking does for the ruling party,” she says.

“I think many South Africans assumed that when South Africa was unified at the very top of our social structures (by becoming a democracy and through the legal abolition of Apartheid) the unity of the base of society would automatically flow from there, but this is absolutely not the case.”

Duncan believes that the cyclical race debates in this country had forced to the surface a strong body of opinion, particularly in the white community, that is deeply racist. “What astounds one is the arrogance in a lot of the responses that have been made in the debate,” she says. “This is an important wake-up call in that it shows South Africa is a much more divided society than portrayed to the outside world, and it problematises the notion of the SA transition having been a successful transition.”

The big question is: why is there such an upsurge in racism and hate speech right now? Duncan says there are two dimensions to this. The first is global and has everything to do with the recession that’s beset the world since 2008. “Recessionary periods are notorious for leading to the rise of extreme speech, including racist speech on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.”

In recessionary periods, people become unsettled. There is greater competition for resources because there are fewer resources - cash, jobs and income - to go around. “People start looking for solutions to this problem and start looking for scapegoats.” It is all too easy for the competition for jobs and scapegoating to take on a racial, or xenophobic, nature. (The upsurge in racism, hate speech and the polarisation of ideologies isn’t unique to South Africa, and is present in the US and European countries as well.)

“Recessions and the subsequent rise in extreme speech, together with the polarising of politics, is what make countries so vulnerable to fascism. In terms of our local context, there are particular dynamics playing themselves out in addition to those global trends. 

“What’s important to recognise about racism is that it is not just simply a set of ideas that come out of nowhere. I don’t think it is a set of attitudes that is simply cooked up by individuals in their minds - it is effectively an ideology and one of domination which is used to justify a particular set of social practices. It is unlikely to go away until we deal [with] and change the social practices that it justifies,” says Duncan.

But what is the social work of racism today? Under Apartheid, racism was used to justify the need for formal segregation and the legislation of oppression. In a post-Apartheid era, the work of racism is much more opaque. To unpack the role that racist ideologies play, Duncan uses the analogy of a house where the scaffolding is Apartheid and the house is capitalism. “When you build a house, you put up scaffolding in order to support it, and once the house is built you no longer need it. That is analogous to the relationship between the development of Apartheid and capitalism in South Africa. Apartheid and racism formed the scaffolding that was used to build the house of capitalism, which effectively became white-dominated,” Duncan explains. Once the house was built, the scaffolding was no longer needed, particularly in view of the fact that the scaffolding had become increasingly unacceptable internationally. The formal repeal of Apartheid made sense but, according to Duncan, the house of white economic privilege remained.

“At the moment, the social function of racism is to justify how society is currently organised in post-Apartheid society. It is used to justify the continued extraction of wealth from the largely black workforce,” she says. The reality is that 18 years after the end of Apartheid, “umlungus” dominate the ownership of capital, while the black masses are the miners, the farm workers, and other members of the working class.

“Many white people use racism to justify mass unemployment. With the advent of democracy, unemployment is deemed to be as a result of the inherent characteristics of black people that are inferior to white people. Another part of the work that racism does is that it is used to justify why black people can remain at the bottom of society with an inferior education system, inferior housing, inferior living conditions, and to accept that black people still live in township ghettoes. It allows many white people to portray this as being part of the inevitable lot of black people. It allows white people to evade taking responsibility for the highly unequal social relations that we have at the moment.” 

There’s also a certain defensiveness amongst white people, Duncan adds. “White people can say: ‘We went through a negotiated settlement, we went through a negotiated peaceful settlement, and the fundamental architecture of South African society was debated and resolved there. Now that we have these failings of SA, and failings that are largely being experienced by black people; well, then, it must be black people’s fault.’ 

“It is not a fault of the way in which the transition happened, and the negotiations were settled. That is an important part of the work of racism in the post-Apartheid period.”

Racism justifies the prevalence of white domination that persists in society and business, she believes – and the structures are in place to enable this to become more and more entrenched. “It enables white people to point to the government, which is overwhelmingly black, and say that we have a mounting social crisis in this country – not because of any Apartheid legacy or inherent difficulties of the transition that we underwent, but because the black government is incompetent. That is the kind of ideological role that racism plays in this particular moment in time.” 

As the recession deepens, the social crisis deepens, so racism and political polarisation also deepens. As South Africans, we live in a country that is both unstable and unsustainable. The flames in De Doorns and the deaths in Marikana are evidence that the exploitation of the working classes is no longer viable.

“The reason why racism is so alive and resurgent is that it justifies South Africa remaining in many ways a white country, in spite of the fact that it has a black majority, and that at this stage in its position it should be very much a black country. However, the reality is that in many fundamental ways it is still a white country,” Duncan argues.

Although the ANC document “Unity in action through socio-economic freedom” deals with economic transformation, it does so in a way that doesn’t deal with the thorny issues of white ownership of capital and what Duncan would call the exploitation of the working classes, the vast majority of whom are black.

The stage where this plays out most visibly is in the mining sector, where a few well-connected black elite have won inordinate riches. This is a world where BEE deals have made the few rich, but where the working class toils in appalling living conditions. 

Eighteen years after democracy, the sector still utilises Apartheid-styled migrant labour practices, and there is still massive income disparity with mine owners/management and those who do the dangerous labour of wealth extraction. The ANC talks the talk, mouthing off about “transforming the racial character of South African capital” but the only reality of its rule has been the creation of billionaire mine owners like Patrice Motsepe, or connected opportunists like Khulubuse Zuma.

Meanwhile the divide between rich and poor grows as politics polarises, and the hateful claws of racism dig deeper. South Africa is likely to become ever more divided until it elects leaders with the courage to do something about the very foundations that support our nation’s disconnect.

Written by: Mandy de Waal

Picture credit:

  • This is part of an ongoing series of conversations with thought leaders that will explore the issues of identity, racism, diversity and transition in South Africa. This article was published on