Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The end of non-racialism?

At the ANC’s General National Council in Durban, Secretary General Gwede Mantashe called for a renewed effort to gain the support of minorities for the ruling party. He said that support for the ANC among white communities had been on the increase since 2004, and that an outreach programme “was used to engage communities that have worked against or were not close to the ANC historically.” He particularly mentioned Indian and Coloured communities that required a differentiated approach. Mantashe had made this call for inclusiveness several times over the past year. However, the more he does so, the less credible his claim that the party is still the political home for all South Africans. Listening to older generation anti-apartheid activists talking about non-racialism, one is struck by the sense of nostalgia that it evokes – the once celebrated ideal that aspired to overcome race and that heldped garnering support around the world for the struggle against apartheid seems to have fallen by the wayside.

The dominant tendency within the governing party is away from non-racialism - free reign is given to African nationalism, celebrating and extolling the triumph of the advancement of the black African. The ANC youth, with plenty of nationalist fervour, is leading the way. For the young and dynamic, black, well educated or well connected, the future is promising. Without any direct experience of the perniciousness and divisiveness of racial and ethnic mobilisation, the African nationalist youth seizes the opportunities for personal advancement. In their thirst for power and enrichment, they have no qualms about playing the race or ethnic card. Theirs is a congregation of the ambitious, with little insight in, and even less desire to examine, the promises of a non-racial society. With their political experience confined to post-apartheid student politics, leaders such as Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu see non-racialism as a mere slogan, perhaps as a tactical tool that uses minorities to gain power.

The ANC is turning into an ordinary political party, devoid of the moral imperative of a liberation movement that wanted to create a better and more just society. As a nationalist party, the ANC is now the party that serves the enrichment of a self-styled patriotic bourgeoisie. Looking northwards, across our borders and back in time, it is déjà-vu all over again. After the wave of anti-colonial liberation that had swept across Africa in the 1960s, kleptocratic elites, under the guise of national mobilisation, ruined their societies. Nationalist rhetoric celebrated the suffering, struggle and triumph of the oppressed, while state and society were being looted for personal enrichment. Then and now, race and ethnicity is mobilized to divide and rule.

The current practices of Black Economic Empowerment and Employment Equity maintain race awareness without contributing enough to empower black people. For instances, to overcome the mental and material legacy that apartheid’s white supremacists had left behind, non-racial employment equity policies, based on class, would have suited South Africa well. It would have allowed for black empowerment without praising the virtues of race, as race and class did, and to a large extent still do, overlap so dramatically. Employment equity policies that support the poor would uplift primarily black people without excluding poor white people, an important symbolic act in a non-racial and caring society that aims to comfort all those left behind. However, employment equity as we encounter it today is arbitrary, legitimizes race thinking and serves as a rallying cry for black nationalists. It is surprising how quickly non-racialism turned into an empty promise. In a diverse and divided society as South Africa is, non-racialism is a symbol for a civic nationalism which establishes the South African nation as a home for all, no matter their race or ethnicity. In contrast, ethnic nationalism privileges one race or ethnicity over others. Last year’s outcry by black nationalists at the appointment of Gill Marcus, a white woman and stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle, as Governor of the Reserve Bank, is just another indicator how ordinary the bankrupt rhetoric of nationalist mobilisation and race talk has become.
A few years ago, one could remain optimistic that the ruling party was finding a compromise between African nationalism and liberal constitutionalism. After all, such was required if the majority of South Africans was to have a better life. This is no longer the case. Self-enrichment is what defines the ANC today. Just look at the party’s youth, the future of the country?

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