Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
14 September 2011

About the “Boksburg Bomber” and the “entanglement of colours”

This is a (slightly edited) extract from the second part of the inaugural lecture delivered by me tonight at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty. The lecture relies on many themes first developed on this Blog and also incorporates some of the words first published here. The lecture is entitled: “The past is unpredictable: race, redress and remembrance in the South African Constitution” (playing with a statement made by Evita Bezuidenhout that: “The future is certain – it’s the past that is unpredictable”) and engages with the question of how we can deal with necessary race-based corrective measures without perpetuating racialised thinking.

It proposes that we engage more seriously and in a nuanced manner with our apartheid past and suggests that this might assist us to deal with the effects of past and ongoing racism and racial discrimination (through the use of race-based redress measures) without getting transfixed by the racial catgories we have to rely on.

Herewith the extract:

In Jacob Dlamini’s book Native Nostalgia he tells many stories about growing up during the apartheid years in Katlehong, a township located 35 km east of Johannesburg and south of Germiston (not far from Alberton where I had the dubious honour of completing my primary school education).

Of course, when I was a primary school child during the height of apartheid, it would have been unthinkable for me to spend time in Katlehong and to get to know Dlamini, his mother or his friends. It would also have been legally impossible for Dlamini to attend the same relatively good school as I did and unthinkable that he would spend time with me in my family home in Alberton as a friend to get to know me, my mother or my friends.

One of the stories Dlamini tells of his childhood in Katlehong is about how the people living in his street listened to the radio broadcast of the world heavyweight boxing title fight in which Gerrie Coetzee (who hailed from nearby Boksburg and was hence known as the Boksburg Bomber) took on a black American, and how they all cheered on homeboy Gerrie, who, after all, grew up not too far from Katlehong.

I too listened to that fight broadcast over the radio, albeit to the Afrikaans and ridiculously biased commentary of Gerhard Viviers – all from the relative privilege of our whites only suburb of Brackenhurst in Alberton. And I too cheered on the Boksburg Bomber, albeit with my shouting father who was already slurring his words after one brandy too many.

We were worlds apart: one slightly bewildered white boy, living in the privileged comfort afforded to white middle class South Africans by the system of apartheid, one black boy subjected to the humiliation wrought by the system from which I was to benefit so handsomely. Yet to tell the full and nuanced story of our respective childhoods, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge this shared experience, because it reminds us that – apart from belonging to the apartheid era race categories imposed on us – our life experiences intersected and overlapped in sometimes surprising and other times shocking ways and that our lives (and who we became) were influenced by many factors apart from our respective races.

As Achille Mbembe has stated: “There is an ‘entanglement’ of colours in South Africa… There is no black history in South Africa that doesn’t involve whiteness. The history is an entanglement of colour lines.” Recognizing this entanglement and recognizing, further, that this entanglement occurred and continues to occur against the backdrop of white economic and social dominance, might assist us to take race (and the devastating effects of past and ongoing racism) seriously while safeguarding against the perpetuation of a society in which race is seen as the only relevant factor in determining who one is and where one fits in, a society in which race is essentialised.

This engagement with our history would be incomplete if it did not note that in terms of the Population Registration Act the state ensured that we had very different life experiences, that we were deemed to be different in every way. As a middle class white boy I was accorded a certain status which allowed me (unthinkingly, I must add) to enjoy the privileges that were associated with being a member of the economic, social and political dominant racial minority.

Later, of course, I discovered that one might also belong to other identity categories; that my sexual orientation and my HIV status could change my standing in society somewhat – from being an absolute insider to a person faced with the challenges associated with these other aspects of my identity, aspects which many in our society still insist belongs on the margins. I also discovered that other aspects of my identity – my whiteness, my economic and social privilege, my academic status – could mitigate against the deeply dehumanizing effects of the prejudices associated with those aspects of my identity (sexual orientation/HIV status) that would invite marginalisation or even rejection.

The point I wish to make is that when we reflect on race-based redress measures at institutions like UCT (an institution created by whites for whites all those years ago) and when the Constitutional Court engages with the question of whether a specific race-based redress measure is constitutionally compliant, the full complexity of our past and the history of each individual who still carries this past with them – no matter how some of us might protest that the past is behind us and that we have suddenly become race-blind and stripped of the social and economic privileges our white skins might still be affording us – must not be lost sight of.

I propose that the starting point for such a nuanced approach should be to recognise that the various identity categories – including race, including sexual orientation, including gender, including HIV status – are the product of a specific history and that they cannot be used to predict how individuals who are said to slot into these categories will behave, what their attitudes will be, and who they are as individuals. When we use these categories for purposes of redress we should do so ironically and in a contingent manner.

In other words, we should never use such categories as if they are “real”, in the sense of really saying something profound or true about any human being, all while acknowledging that the categories feel real to most people and that being assumed to be a member of one of the race categories will often have very real consequences – as  was so brutally illustrated by the fact that Eudy Simelane, a member of South Africa women’s national football team and an LGBT-rights activist, was raped and murdered in her hometown of KwaThema, Springs, Gauteng in 1998 because she was a women and she was a lesbian.

Second, a more nuanced deployment of such categories in legislation, policies and regulations is required. Apart from the category of race (which for the moment we have no choice but to rely on to help address the effects of past and ongoing racism and discrimination) we may want to add other considerations – along with the race of an individual – when we decide whether an individual should be the beneficiary of a specific programme of corrective measures.

The social and economic status of the individual and his or her parents; whether an individual is part of a first, second or third generation who has obtained secondary or tertiary education and the nature of that tertiary education (if any) received by his or her parents or grandparents; whether an individual grew up in a rural area or in the city; whether the individual is monolingual or speaks several South African languages; whether an individual attended a mud school in the Eastern Cape or a posh private school in Rondebosch; whether the individual is required to study in his or her home language or in a second or third language – these factors, along with many others, could all be considered as relevant (along with the race of an individual) when decisions about redress measures are made.

There must also other ways to deal with issues of redress. Who knows? What I do know is that we need to continue having a conversation about what will work best and that when we do so we ignore a critical but serious engagement with the past at our peril. When I talk about a conversation I do not mean a shouting match in which individuals retreat into the laager of their own apartheid era racial identities and shout abuse at others who they perceive to belong to a different apartheid race category, clinging to rigid and simplistic master narratives which the ghost of our apartheid past have fixed so firmly in many of our imaginations (even if many deny this).

In having this conversation it would be helpful if we could agree that it is important to take race and the need for racially-based redress seriously while also acknowledging that in doing so there is a danger that the use of apartheid era race categories will imprison us all in an apartheid of the mind.

This we can only do if we have a real and open discussion about what race did to all of us in the past (and continues to do to us today) and engage with the issue of how we can address the effects of race in the future; if we do not take part in the discussion as perpetual victims (of racism or of so called reverse-racism), but as equal, respectful human beings with agency and a unique take on life who believe and act like people who have the pride in themselves and the power to chart a new destiny that is fair and just for all — not just for those who belong to the same racial group we happen to believe that we belong to.

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