Against “Non-Racialism”

“While Mandela, like the others, is clearly not racist, he also must be counted as racialist, because his struggle against apartheid was predicated on the race-based solidarity of those who were enslaved, based on race, under the system of apartheid: you cannot fight racism without introducing race as a predicate of your action. So Malcolm X and Mandela, both, have to be counted racialist. I say that knowing as I do so that Mandela has called for a “non-racial” South Africa. But the sense in which he means that, I believe, is the same sense in which Malcolm would call for an end to racism: the call is for an end to race-based oppression, rather than for an end “race first” solidarity”

— Grisso

Over the past weekend the 2nd biggest party in the country by votes, the Democratic Alliance, officially launched its campaign for the Local Government Elections in Johannesburg, the biggest metro in the country. The biggest draw to this launch was the announcement of its mayoral candidate and as widely expected the name that came out of the hat, as it were, was of one Herman Mashaba. Mashaba is well-known as an accomplished businessman who made his fortune selling hair products, among those of us who grew up in the 90s and 80s you’ll be hard pressed to find one who hasn’t at some point in their life used at least one in Mashaba’s line of Black Like Me products.

That was then, Mashaba has since made his way into politics and thrown his lot with the Democratic Alliance, the party of equal opportunity, they like to say. Accepting the candidacy Mashaba dropped a bombshell on us, he doesn’t want to be regarded as a black person!(insert a Black Like Me joke here). According to Mashaba he would rather be just a South African, colourless or race-less as it were. He then proceeded to blame the section on all official forms that asks of what race you are for the proliferation of Penny Sparrows of this world. Some would label Mashaba a self-loathing non-white, I’m more of an optimist as far as people are concerned so I’d like to think he’s a proponent of what I view as a very problematic system of non-racialism.

Now some might ask, what is wrong with non-racialism? From the start we must make a distinction between non-racist and non-racial societies. A non-racist society is one in which no individual or group gets subjugated due to their race, a non-racial one is one in which race does not exist or is not acknowledged. The problem with the latter should be apparent, the Mashabas of this world don’t want us to acknowledge race, the very thing that has sharply divided South Africa for centuries. The wealth and power white people in this country enjoy and poverty majority of blacks swim in are directly related to their race. The equal opportunity Mashaba touts is nothing but continuation of the same old power and wealth patterns as white South Africans have already been given a head start by centuries of subjugating black people to their advantage. It would be like sounding the pistol at the start of a race whereby one racer is already halfway to the finish line. The economic argument against the scrapping of race based laws is really that simple, whites are not being discriminated against but blacks are simply being given a leg up in order to catch up simply because they were systematically, and intentionally so, held back.

The misguided notion by Mashaba that we must be a non-racial society today or we must aim for it at a later stage when Africans are economically free as espoused by the likes of the ANC also ignores something very fundamental. Race is not just the colour of your skin, scientists have argued that race has no scientific basis and is a social construct. That might well be the case but that doesn’t make it any less real, the social construct has been made to include real tangible things, culture, traditions, religion. The subjugation of the black race did not just stop on the economy, it encompassed all of the above. As it has been deliberately designed, white people as much as they are a numerical minority in the country are the cultural majority as their values have been made to dominate all else. Non-racialism then in the sphere of culture and values cannot happen as no society can exist without them, what non-racialism means then for black value-systems is integration into and continued subjugation by the dominant white ones. Non-racialism then will have us turn into white men in black skins. That then is the optimistic view of Mr Mashaba, he might see himself as a non-racial being but in actual fact he has been so integrated into majority culture he is of it and is none the wiser. That or we must accept with sadness that he is indeed a victim of self hate. Either way the first and only thing petty racists will see is his skin colour, no matter how assimilated he has become, unfortunately for him.

The question then must be posed: if non-racialism is not the answer what is? I believe the answer can be found from the writings of Biko. Biko tells us “The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself, to pump back life into his empty shell, to infuse him with pride and dignity…”, once we do that the black man, his culture, values, religion will no longer be his shame but his pride and will not in anyway fuel a sense of inferiority in him. No longer will he view another’s culture as superior to his. Similarly Biko said “…whites must be made to realize that they are…not superior” in all senses including in values and culture. Upon achievement of this we can build a society which I believe even Mashaba would enjoy being a part of, a society we will not define in negative terms but in terms of its abundance, a society which equally embraces and celebrates our diversity: a multi-racial society.

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