In current public discourse ‘race’, ‘playing the race card’, ‘re-racialisation’, elections as a ‘racial census’ are often heard. Many commentators object to the continued reference to black or white. Mention of race is claimed to be antagonistic to the principle of non-racialism which is constitutionally entrenched.
Many suggest that the sooner we move away from ‘racial thinking’ the better and the swifter will we implement the principle of non-racialism. The spirit of the World Cup where amity between the peoples of South Africa supposedly reigned is invoked against ‘race fixation’.
According to this understanding, reference to race destroys unity and non-racialism. The meaning of non-racialism is taken to signify disappearance of race as an important feature of South African social realities.
But does advancing the principle of non-racialism mean erasure of differentiated racial experiences and realities of the past, which persist in the present?
The denial of ‘race’ has been propounded for some time, tending to focus on whether or not race is a scientific category. This discourse tends to be blind to race as the basis on which social realities were constituted under apartheid and its continued salience.
If one experienced oppression under apartheid or is being given a ‘klap’ today because one is black the status of race as an analytical category does not have much bearing on the experience. It is an abstract argument that does not engage with distinct experiences of various sections of the South African population.
Non-racialism derives from the existence of racism/racialism as a practice that finds psychological or inter-personal expression as racial prejudice, insults and other injurious conduct. It also had and continues in various ways to have an institutional and broader structural base. This was legislated and constitutionalised under apartheid and continues to survive in a range of power relationships. The social base of inequality needs to be removed in order to make equality meaningful.
‘Race’ continues to be relevant in measuring the extent of redress and creation of qualitatively new frameworks for interaction between black and white. It may be that specific methods of redress are abused, but that is a separate question from the need for measures to ensure substantive equality between the peoples of South Africa.
Many are impatient for these racial categories to disappear. It is asked when the transition and the need for redress will be over. These are not radical or emancipatory questions. They do not address the experiences of those who have been oppressed and who through apartheid legacies continue to encounter obstacles in the way of self-realisation.
One of the factors prompting the sense of urgency to erase ‘racial’ discourse on the part of many people may be the often careless and self-interested reference to ‘race.’
There is no doubt that there are multiple examples of abuse of ‘race ‘and charging others with ’racism’ from all sides of South African society. Those who sacrificed their lives for freedom, black and white, walked ‘side by side.’ They struggled for conditions which ensured ‘peace and friendship’, in the words of the Freedom Charter. They sought a society where violence and killing (of black people, ‘boers’ and others) would be seen as a temporary vicissitude that would pass.
In going beyond such demagoguery, some create fresh problems. Many who address the question of understanding what non-racialism means pose it as opposed to any nationalism, Afrikaner or African. They imply that any nationalism or other form of community self-assertion undermines the goal of a unified people. But a unified people should not obliterate distinct identities or forms of self-realisation. There is nothing inevitable about nationalism being divisive. In the case of any nationalism where it is treated in an essentialist manner, divisiveness and chauvinism have sometimes been manifested.
But that is not the African nationalism of Chief Albert Luthuli, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. The PAC’s Africanism ultimately included non-Africans and Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement were not anti-white.
It is important to engage with Africanism and other modes of self-assertion, without being defensive or labelling those who continue to self- identify in these ways. A simple writing off of Africanism is one route that is certain to make the notion of non-racialism itself problematic.
Embracing different racial realities is to acknowledge and integrate different South African experiences. It is to be conscious of and also question the multiple ways in which our society continues to be marked by racism and these differentiated experiences. Self-conscious analysis and understanding will take us closer to a society where all human beings are valued and their dignity protected. We need to engage notions of race, non-racialism and Africanism so that we encourage an interrelationship that contributes towards liberation from the apartheid past and a meaningful road towards an emancipatory future.
Raymond Suttner has written on the Freedom Charter and various other questions relating to democracy, gender and history. He is currently a part-time professor at Rhodes University and emeritus professor at UNISA, based in Johannesburg.