by Raymond Suttner, The Daily Dispatch
IN CURRENT public discourse "race", "playing the
race card", "re-racialisation", "elections as a ‘racial census’" are
often heard. Many commentators object to the continued reference to
black or white. Mention of race is claimed to be antagonistic to the
principle of non-racialism which is constitutionally entrenched.
Many suggest that the sooner we move away from "racial thinking" the
better and the swifter will we implement the principle of non-racialism.
The spirit of the World Cup where amity between the people of South
Africa supposedly reigned is invoked against "race fixation".
According to this understanding, reference to race destroys unity and
non- racialism. The meaning of non-racialism is taken to signify
disappearance of race as an important feature of South African social
But does advancing the principle of non- racialism mean erasure of
differentiated racial experiences and realities of the past, which
persist in the present?
The denial of "race" has been propounded for some time, tending to
focus on whether or not race is a scientific category. This discourse
tends to be blind to race as the basis on which social realities were
constituted under apartheid and its continued salience.
If one experienced oppression under apartheid or is being given a
klap today because one is black, the status of race as an analytical
category does not have much bearing on the experience. It is an abstract
argument that does not engage with distinct experiences of various
sections of the South African population.
Non-racialism derives from the existence of racism/racialism as a
practice that finds psychological or inter-personal expression as racial
prejudice, insults and other injurious conduct. It also had and
continues in various ways to have an institutional and broader
structural base. This was legislated and constitutionalised under
apartheid and continues to survive in a range of power relationships.
The social base of inequality needs to be removed in order to make
"Race" continues to be relevant in measuring the extent of redress
and creation of qualitatively new frameworks for interaction between
black and white. It may be that specific methods of redress are abused,
but that is a separate question from the need for measures to ensure
substantive equality between the peoples of South Africa.
Many are impatient for these racial categories to disappear. It is
asked when the transition and the need for redress will be over. These
are not radical or emancipatory questions. They do not address the
experiences of those who have been oppressed and who through apartheid
legacies continue to encounter obstacles in the way of self-realisation.
One of the factors prompting the sense of urgency to erase "racial"
discourse on the part of many people may be the often careless and
self-interested reference to "race".
There is no doubt that there are multiple examples of abuse of "race"
and charging others with "racism" from all sides of South African
society. Those who sacrificed their lives for freedom, black and white,
walked "side by side". They struggled for conditions which ensured
"peace and friendship", in the words of the Freedom Charter. They sought
a society where violence and killing (of black people, "boers" and
others) would be seen as a temporary vicissitude that would pass.
In going beyond such demagoguery, some create fresh problems. Many
who address the question of understanding what non-racialism means pose
it as opposed to any nationalism, Afrikaner or African.
They imply that any nationalism or other form of community
self-assertion undermines the goal of a unified people. But a unified
people should not obliterate distinct identities or forms of
self-realisation. There is nothing inevitable about nationalism being
divisive. In the case of any nationalism where it is treated in an
essentialist manner, divisiveness and chauvinism have sometimes been
But that is not the African nationalism of Chief Albert Luthuli,
Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. The PAC’s
Africanism ultimately included non-Africans and Steve Biko and the Black
Consciousness Movement were not anti-white.
It is important to engage with Africanism and other modes of
self-assertion, without being defensive or labelling those who continue
to self-identify in these ways. A simple writing off of Africanism is
one route that is certain to make the notion of non-racialism itself
Embracing different racial realities is to acknowledge and integrate
different South African experiences. It is to be conscious of and also
question the multiple ways in which our society continues to be marked
by racism and these differentiated experiences.
Self-conscious analysis and understanding will take us closer to a
society where all human beings are valued and their dignity protected.
We need to engage notions of race, non- racialism and Africanism so
that we encourage an inter-relationship that contributes towards
liberation from the apartheid past and a meaningful road towards an