Friday, April 30, 2010

Running a marathon: experiencing race

This past weekend, I was running a marathon in the south of Johannesburg, in the Klipriver area, a suburb wedged between Soweto and Kathlegong. It was my first ever and it was my last chance to qualify for the coming Comrades Ultramarathon, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

The race went well and I qualified by running the intermediate to difficult parcours in 4 hours and 53 minutes.

One reason for my success was that from mid-way on, I joined the 'bus' led by Tebogo from Kathlegong whose flag that he carried on his back read he would drive his bus over the finishing line in under 5 hours.

The running bus was a piece of black culture in motion. There was about a core group of 10 runners who appeared to know each other well for they run in harmony, even synchronized, in breathing, gesture and rhythm. From time to time, a member of the group would start a chant into which the entire bus joined. "E-zy", "e-zy", one would go. Another went "hayi-bo", 'hayi-bo". There was also "So-ber", "so-ber" and a few others. Members would hurry in front from the back and fire the group on through exhortations. Given the last chant, I could picture the entire group during a church service. Indeed, it felt a bit like being in a black church. But foremost through the running in rhythm, I was taken back 18 years, when I was dancing to the rhythm of the congas at the Othella Dallas Dance School in Basel, Switzerland. It was the same feeling of unity, of captivating rhythm in phyisical exertion that made me feel good and in unity with humanity and the universe.

What struck me also was that this bus was running in formation and with much unity. For those who were a bit tired and struggled, including me, the group carried us forward and over the finishing line in time with ease. Perhaps not with ease, but rather so that the pain no longer mattered.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The race war that wasn't

Judging from some international media reports, one could have thought that a race war had finally arrived in South Africa. Some local analysts found that racial tension had heigthened. In contrast, a recent survey found that overall race relations were improving (, despite the murder of neo-nazi leader Eugene Terreblanche and the diatribes of Julius Malema, the leader of the African Congress Youth League.

How should we interprete what is currently happening? I think that all of that has only apparently so much to do with race, but South Africa is foremost dealing with political problems that manifest themselves in leaps and bounds.

In my Phd submitted in 2007, I talked to young Afrikaners in order to get their sense of how they feel about the country, politics, black people, the legacy of apartheid, and so on. There was very little sense of taking up arms in order to defend an Afrikaner nation or ward off a black assault.

All manifested displeasure at affirmative action and almost all denied any responsibility for the apartheid past. In fact, there was not even a sense of belonging to a persecuted white group that required minority status protection.

Some scholars claimed that the minorities in South Africa, read, the white minority (for the other minorities, usually referred to as the Indians and Coloureds, are seen to carry much less weight in terms of numerical clout and organisational power), would more and more organise in order to resist the encroachment on their privileges. Yet I fail to see the evidence that this is happening.

The followers of Terreblanche who received so much media attention are hardly representing Afrikaners. Indeed, Afrikaner nationalism is dead and neither the ghost of Terreblanch nor the success of the song 'De la Rey' will galvanize a people into action to take up arms or to mobilize ethnicity.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The intellectual emptiness of the post-colony

William Gumede and Leslie Dikeni call it 'the poverty of ideas' in the title of their recently published collection of essays. For Peter Vale, it is the think-tanks that should launch new ideas and provoke through launching challenging debates. Yet all they do is rehash old and tired, ideological standpoints.

Professor Achille Mbembe, in his opening two part lecture of the Sawyer Seminar series at Wits University, reviews Frantz Fanon and his relevance for South Africa, and Africa, today. In Fanon's analysis of the newly liberated countries, ruled by the nationalist parties of the liberation movements, a profound lack of intellectual engagement dulls the spirit of the post-colony. Lazyness, especially of the intellectual type, marks the landscape.

Parallels with our present of this observation are all too close. On the left, we have the resurrection of a revolutionary discourse that adds however little insight. It is a mere regurgitation of apparently anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-imperial agit-prop as it has been the staple of left-wing, Marxist inspired discourse since the 1960s. Or how does the equalisation of the white liberal with the racist, criminal murderer a la 'prime evil' Eugene de Kock add any new insights to our contemporary society and politics ?

From the right, we read that affirmative action, as it is practiced today, is the precursor of genocide. Current BEE policies are the same as the policies implemented by the Nazis in the 1930s in Germany against Jewish Germans. This is a variant of a theme that compared apartheid oppression to fascism, an existing strand in standard academic discourse on apartheid. Again, little insight about current predicaments is gained from such arguments.

Unfortunately, I could continue with this list.

So where to can we turn for the emergence of an intellectual discoursre that deserves its name and will provide us with new insights on our current politics and society? We may be quite far away from such a new impetus, and perhaps a long spell of a sobering draught is upon us, but I think it will emerge from a push for a renewed affirmation of non-racialism and in defence of the values enshrined in our constitution.