DAVID MAIMELA: Racism is alive and well in SA - a response to Frans Conje

OPINION

As a rule, I often do not find time to respond to racist discourses because I believe Toni Morrison was right when she said: "The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being." In this instance, I have decided to violate my own rule.

The recent racist discourse by Frans Cronje, the CEO of the Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), an activist and think-tank organisation representing "liberal democracy", requires a small rebuke in passing.

In his racist thesis disguised as a defense of "liberal democracy" and "individualism", Cronje says among other things that "SA is a racist country in only three respects: its history of institutionalised discrimination; the racial policies of its current government; and it's often not-very-brave elites, who replicate that discrimination in the institutions they control. But in a fourth respect — its people, and therefore the most important — SA is not a racist society at all."

He then concludes on the back of an IRR survey and says: "The latter observation has been the central finding of opinion polling the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has done on SA, going back a very long time. The most recent data, released to the media last week to coincide with the launch of our #RacimsIsNotTheProblem initiative, — I will say more about that at the end — finds that only a tiny proportion of South Africans see racism as a particularly serious policy priority, and only a small proportion experience discrimination by their fellow citizens."

Essentially, this is the central thesis of Cronje's, the rest can be regarded as substantially padded arguments to support the thesis. And later, of course, he publicly confirms that the SAIRR has launched a campaign to teach South Africans that racism is not the problem.

The shortcomings of the thesis advanced by Cronje is louder and clearer with the things he does not say. Firstly, he does not explain as to what the survey methodology and sampling look like. This is an important loud omission because it would let us know as to how many "representative" South Africans were surveyed in a population 58 million people, majority of whom are defined as black or as Cronje would have it – "people of colour".

Secondly, his thesis does not explain the social station and orientation of the surveyed population. Once more, this loud omission would otherwise enlighten us on the real lived experiences of the people surveyed. In the research world, such insights often come from ethnographic studies which are in-depth, qualitative, and conducted over long periods.

I wish to offer an ethnographic account from my lived experience as a so-called black South African; with the hope that I may enrich the SAIRR study.

I grew up in a black township, went to a black school, and whenever I could afford it, used black modes of transport, played amateur football in black "areas" and later went to an historically white university where I experienced some of the most devastating forms of racism. I have since moved into suburbia where my daily protest against racism is often dismissed with statements like: "we need to move on" or plainly; "you are emotional".

Essentially, the IRR survey, the article by Cronje and the new "racism is not the problem" campaign are saying in summary: forget racism and slavery but, remember Nazism. There is no other way of understanding the message.

Back in 2013, Horace Campbell wrote that, according to Prof Hilary Beckles, "the African-descended population in the Caribbean today has the highest incidence in the world of chronic diseases such as hypertension and type-two diabetes. He said this was the direct result of their nutritional exposure, endemic inhumane physical and emotional brutalisation and other aspects of the stress experience of slavery and post-slavery apartheid." Even with this in mind, Cronje sees a Chinese Wall between Apartheid and democratic South Africa.

Cronje, who quotes only white people to substantiate his thesis, argues that racism as a reality is kept alive by "politicians and elites" whom I suppose can be considered as racism entrepreneurs. The latter is a concept adapted from the destructive practice of "political entrepreneurship" in Nigeria.

Contrary to Cronje’s racism denialism, racism is alive and well in South Africa.

Racism denialism is of course informed by a larger philosophical outlook: racial liberalism. As Charles W. Mills suggests, "liberalism has historically been predominantly a racial liberalism, in which conceptions of personhood and resulting schedules of rights, duties, and government responsibilities have all been racialised. And the contract, correspondingly, has really been a racial one, an agreement among white contractors to subordinate and exploit non-white non-contractors for white benefit." In the context of South Africa, colonialism and racial oppression were designed to produce such outcomes. Today, proponents and beneficiaries of racial liberalism are confident to say that racism is not the problem!

South Africa’s national mood against racism is best illustrated by the facts and figures in each general election. Even though some voters may withhold their support for national liberation movements, they overwhelmingly reject "white" parties, and that is why the Democratic Alliance (DA) for instance, has reached a ceiling in terms of electoral support in the black community. The reason is simple: white parties represent racial exclusion, which the majority of South Africans still experience and loathe. Those parties have no legitimacy in the eyes of the majority, not even when they recruit black faces!

Instead of wishing racism away through unscientific studies, a highly resourceful Cronje should be encouraged to invest resources into how we can transform the reality of "two nations" as defined by President Thabo Mbeki in 1998. It is not helpful to ridicule "people of colour" by painting them as "emotional" or people who must just "move on".

The white community in South Africa still has to face the question: what must white compatriots do to bring about genuine reparations and reconciliation with the so-called black people in South Africa? Can the white population in South Africa do what the Germans did for the unification of Germany in the early 90s? The right responses to these questions can bring about genuine and lasting peace, coexistence, and reconciliation in our country. Without addressing the material base of racism, genuine reconciliation or justice will remain elusive and serve as a source of tension in society.

Of course, Cronje and his colleagues will not be bothered by such questions or tasks. Instead, the resurgent racist discourse is meant to convey the unscientific and untruthful message that says; history is dead and buried in the past, that the present does not bear the birthmarks of the past and the future is not born of the present. In other words, we must miseducate our youth – both black and white – to think and see the world in ahistorical terms.

White racists and racist discourse are emboldened in South Africa today. In addition to bigotry, the other motivation for racist discourses to occupy a prominent place in the public domain, is because of the waning legitimacy of the state, and perhaps the liberation project. So, even the most racist of narratives can use "failures" in democratic South Africa to gain a feeble status of legitimacy.

So much is the bravery of this resurgent racist discourse that it viciously attacks the foremost legitimate and high performing government agency, the Competition Commission. For the record, the Competition Commission regulates for an inclusive economy wherein racial exclusion must be a thing of the past. Anyone who wants to do business in South Africa, must observe the laws of the land. Burger King is no exception.

Such racist discourses promote the warped idea that racism is only limited to personal prejudices; that racism is not a power structure. On the contrary, racism in South Africa like elsewhere in the world is multifaceted. We have structural, institutional, physical, psychological, naked, and subliminal racism(s). On a daily basis in South Africa, racism can be visibly seen through patterns of land and property relations, spatial segregation, transportation, social capital and social infrastructure, including through dominant mainstream media institutions and practices.
In a society where black labour is the cheapest and the economy is largely in the hands of a few white males, I would not be surprised if all institutions of domination, including cultural ones, are marshalled to reinforce the idea that racism does not exist, does not matter, and therefore is not the problem. That is what the reputable SAIRR is trying hard to do. After all, the colonial and racist project would not be complete without cultural domination and manipulation.

Cronje conveniently forgets that the emergence of the global Black Lives Matter movement sought to communicate the message once more that racism is very much alive. This has apparently happened in a 200-year-old democracy called the United States of America. In our case, we are yet to reach 30 years with a legacy of colonialism and racism that spans more than 350 years. In part, this Black Lives Matter movement was awakened by the racist bigotry of Trumpism which I suspect Cronje may be flirting with unpretentiously. It is clear that we must extend WEB du Bois' observation and admit that the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the colour line.

Lately, some political parties in the right, have sought to pledge their loyalty to colonialism whose "legacy was not only negative", and for a moment, such sentiments also found residency in the SAIRR. It is therefore not surprising that the SAIRR finds it acceptable to promote the idea that racism is not the problem. Remember, it is one thing to say "racism is not the problem" and another to say "racism is not the only problem".

South Africans must see this survey by the SAIRR and the movement it has created for what it is and reject it. I have no doubt South Africans will reject racist discourses. What is more concerning is that intellectual dishonesty – a treasonous crime in the realm of ideas – is brazenly paraded by a cultural institution and nobody sees such behaviour as wrong. This survey is nothing but part of the larger project of racial liberalism and resurgent racist discourses whose aim is to project black people as unthinking fools!

That sort of thing must fall!

David Maimela is executive director of The Polisee Space, a progressive pan-African think-tank.

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