South Africa needs non-racialism, not Zionism

There is a welcome conversation beginning to emerge about race and racism in South Africa. It comes, in part, after several undeniable events of white racism in the public domain which have revealed the shaky legs of South Africa's political settlement. It concerns the status of white racism in South African society.  

 Dr Ivor Chipkin
The first was the humiliation of black staff by young white racists at the University of the Free State. The second was the publication of David Bullard's last column in the Sunday Times.

It is not uncommon today to hear the following argument: even if we accept the fact of white racism, even if we accept the fact that white racism is increasing, it remains, for all that, a distraction. The real issue in South Africa is the performance of the government and the behaviour of the political elite. In this domain, the appalling record of state failure is hardly a consequence of white racism. Yet, this position is untenable.

Preoccupation with race and white racism

It would not be an exaggeration to say that since 1994, government responses to a diverse range of challenges from macro-economic policy to HIV/AIDS have been informed by a preoccupation with race and white racism, in particular. This was as true for the Mandela administration as it is for the Mbeki one. Both recognised that the major obstacle to national unity came from white racism.

Post-apartheid governments were faced with an awful dilemma. In the first place, apartheid was a phenomenon of mass, institutionalised white racism sustained over many decades. With human and financial capital overwhelmingly in white hands, economic development and racial redress were contingent on managing white racism.

It is tempting, if not self-serving, to see in the Mandela epoch a preparedness to let bygones be bygones and in the Mbeki one a more vengeful attitude. Both Mandela and Mbeki correctly placed the question of white racism at the centre of their politics. What distinguished their presidencies was how they set about tackling it.

Mandela sought to help whites overcome themselves as whites

Interventions like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were opportunities for black South Africans to have their stories heard and acknowledged in the public domain. Facing up to the truth of apartheid - that it was a system of violent domination and not a well-intentioned policy of accommodating diversity - would  be a baptism of fire for whites. By recognising their personal and collective complicity in this violence, whites could resurrect their humanity and enter the new South Africa. In this way the TRC offered whites a route of salvation through truth - Mandela called the process an RDP of the soul. There were practical consequences too.

Mandela's administration offered whites an implicit deal: turn your backs on racism, embrace the values of the democratic constitution and be accepted as full members of society. This was the hope of non-racialism: that all South Africans, especially whites, could come together on the basis of egalitarian and other democratic values. Was this conception naïve?

Was it ridiculous to appeal to the humanity of whites? It certainly seemed so when PW Botha contemptuously refused to appear before the TRC. Ultimately Desmond Tutu was driven to lament the failure of white South Africans to respond to the gesture of reconciliation. Yet if whites could not escape their racism then they could not be trusted in public life.

This, I believe, is one of the key instincts of the Mbeki administration. Transformation is certainly about achieving demographic representation in the public and private sectors. Beyond that, and more importantly, it is about ending white majorities in organisational life in South Africa.

Vigorous African nationalism and Zionism

Disillusion with the prospects of non-racialism has gone together with the assertion of another kind of politics. It is important that we identify it correctly. The time of Mbeki has been associated with a vigorous African Nationalism. It is distinguished from the politics of non-racialism by its insistence that the post-apartheid government is a black government, where this term increasingly refers to the number of black people in government.

This has muddied the waters of what constitutes racism.

Here the analogy with Zionism is informative. Zionism positions the state of Israel as a Jewish state and rebukes criticism of it as the work of anti-Semites. What complicates matters is that anti- Semitism is a real force in the world. Yet, when Zionists reduce all criticism of the State of Israel to anti-Semitism, they blunt the struggle against it. Such a manoeuvre also serves to immunise Zionists from legitimate critique. The fi gure of the Self-Hating Jew is exemplary in this regard. One does not have to take seriously the Jew that criticises the State of Israel precisely because his or her motives are suspect.

There are disturbing parallels between the scenario above and the way race has come to be used during the time of Mbeki. Criticism of the government is frequently equated with criticism of black people in general and Africans in particular - even when it comes from the Congress of South African Trade Unions or the South African Communist Party. Black people that question, or criticise the government, are frequently denounced as Coconuts - black on the outside, white on the inside.

Blackness equals loyalty to the government

 What Mbeki and his supporters have introduced is a hierarchy of blackness where the measure of authenticity is, to paraphrase Christine Qunta and others, the degree to which one acts out love for and loyalty to the government. Anything else smacks of having an ulterior motive.

We can restate this argument like this:

  1. The government is a black government
  2. Criticism of the government is, therefore, criticism of blacks
  3. Criticism is racist.

By blurring racism and critique the South African government has refused to hear legitimate criticism. Indeed, the current government has been responsible for weakening the accountability of public authorities. The results have been devastating: the hollowing-out of South Africa's democracy and an inability to come to terms with chronic state failure, whether in the areas of health or crime or electricity generation or service delivery or HIV/AIDS treatment.

Simply removing Thabo Mbeki from government will not resolve these dilemmas.

As long as skills and resources remain in white hands and as long as whites cannot be trusted not to behave as racists, then the consequences of racism in social and economic life will be real.

Reducing white dominance a developmental necessity

It is necessary to follow Mbeki's lead and pursue policies to reduce or eliminate white dominance in South African institutional life. As David Storey puts it, whites need to get used to being a minority group in South Africa. Affi rmative action is not simply a matter of historical justice, therefore. It is a developmental necessity. Can this be done, however, without compromising South Africa's democracy and without further enfeebling state agencies?

Yes, but it does not simply require technical or managerial interventions. It requires a critique of African Nationalism and, in particular, the idea that a progressive government is necessarily a black government. It requires a revival of South Africa's non-racial spirit; one that measures the government not against its blackness, but against the degree to which it pursues social justice: services, jobs and safety for all.

From such a perspective whites are not simply something to overcome or tolerate. When they behave as professionals and as citizens they too contribute to the postapartheid project. More importantly, such a perspective declassifi es certain thoughts and statements as racist (if they are not based on stereotypes and if they appeal to evidence) and opens up a space for legitimate critique and discussion. In this way non-racialism creates the conditions of accountability and democracy in public life.

Professor Ivor Chipkin is a chief research specialist in the Democracy and Governance research programme.