Monday, July 7, 2008

The pleasures of victimhood

How do you create non-racialism through thinking and policies that consider race? This is the dilemma of any affirmative action policy. In South Africa, we have the additional problem that poisenous race thinking was firmly entrenched in government policy and everyday life. For this reason, some criticized the salvaging of the four racial categories (African, Coloured, Indian and White) of the apartheid era into the democratic order.

A recent court ruling ordered that Chinese South Africans qualified for Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), that is, preferred treatment when it comes to business deals and not just the usual designated groups (black African, Coloured, Indian). The criticism from some black business organisations was that this was unfair since black people suffered the most from apartheid. Some reported historical events that showed how Chinese South Africans had it not so bad. Others said that this devalued the plight of black people. After all, black people suffered under apartheid which was like the holocaust. Some made ironic comments that Jewish people also suffered under apartheid and that they should now also benefit from BEE.

Clearly, to have suffered in the past is a sign of distinction for some. It is, however, not to designate moral superiority but serves as an additional arrow in the armoury of capitalist competition. In a seminal article, Ian Buruma wrote in the New York Review of Books about the joys and perils of victimhood. In South Africa, people should reread his article. While there are people who still suffer from the consequences of apartheid, they are hardly those who seem to embrace being a victim so much.

As long as race plays such an instrumental part in making material gains for a selected few, only little progress can be made towards non-racialism. Or, the question remains how to achieve redress based on racial categories and to move away from race-thinking? The case of the Chinese South Africans shows well that we still struggle to come up with genuine policies that overcome this conundrum.


Kevin Murray said...

I wonder if part of the problem might be there is no established identity for Chinese within the new South Africa. From the outside, it seems that they don't have the same part in the national story as other Asian like Indians or Malays. Maybe if there were some official recognition for Chinese who had played a significant role in South African history, they would not need to take the path of victimhood to be recognised.

Thomas Blaser said...

Thanks Kevin, this is a very good point. On the public radar screen, the Chinese hardly feature as minority, as a socio-cultural group that should get some kind of recognition by the state. As Daryl Accone and others point out, that some Chinese were active in the struggle for democracy is by and large neglected.