In August 2012 I was invited to make a presentation at a conference at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, Australia. The title of the conference was OWNING RACISM: CAN WE TALK?
I entitled my presentation ‘Unity does not grow wild’, and this is a summarised version.
I have chosen ‘unity does not grow wild’ as a title- for reasons which I hope will become clearer as my talk progresses.
In fact, I would like to add a by-line to this compelling title of the symposium: ‘Owning racism: can we talk’…and can we also listen?
I trust that the introductory presentation provided you with a contextual backdrop against which much of my own engagement around inclusivity takes place, as part of a collective citizenry trying to re-imagine, renew and re-build a new Cape Town and South Africa which invites diversity and embraces it; that goes far beyond what is possible through the discourse of tolerance.
The Nationalist Party which came into power in 1948 did not introduce racial prejudice in South Africa when they ‘marketed’ and legalised segregation calling it Apartheid. But, they systematically and efficiently codified it through a series of laws, underpinned by all the organs of state. It permeated all aspects of life: education, religion, leisure, places of residence, the work-place, healthcare. It was based on a very clear belief in the existence of race, in a hierarchy of races, in the right of one superior race to dominate over others and the belief that each of the racial groups had distinct identities. In fact, a 1947 Commission Report – the Sauer Report – produced to create the logic and justification for organising society along racial lines ahead of the 1948 elections, reported that racial integration would result in ‘a loss of personality of all racial groups’.
There are a number of projects currently underway in South Africa which focuses on tracking how far we have come in terms of de-racialisation and active addressing of our racial legacy issues. Unfortunately, some of the ways of tracking the progress of the breakdown of racial division actually involves using the language of racial classification and in some ways reinforce the belief in the existence of race.
Similar contradictions emerge in the process of tracking changes in the racial demographic at schools, for example. Children, although born in the period we describe as the ‘born-free’ period, have been required to identify themselves racially in order to enable statistical tracking of improved access to education and a changed demographic in schools. For some children this was the first time that they had to identify themselves by race, and in some, consternation was caused. In situations where this has not been well mediated and contextualised, I wonder how much of a contributing factor it has been in the return to racialised identities that we are witnessing at present.
For a long time South Africa was defined by its institutional racism, embodied in the political and economic system of Apartheid. In this current period which I will loosely describe as being post-Apartheid, racism is still rife. No longer are racially-determined privileges and oppression upheld by law, but it would appear that the insidious, sometimes silent and invisible racism is even more difficult to eradicate. The acceptance of the interconnectedness of our differences cannot be enforced by decree alone, but needs continuous lobbying and ongoing vigilance. We need a coming together of the protection by law and the owning by all of us, of the entrenched legacies of legally enforced racism. If not deliberately challenged in an actively anti-racist framework, it can make people believe that they were born with a racial identity, not into one which has been assigned to them.
Quoting from the National Planning Commission’s Diagnostic overview, I share the following extract:
‘Despite (our) successes, our conclusion is that on a business-as-usual basis we are likely to fall short in meeting our objectives of a prosperous, united, non-racial and democratic South Africa with opportunities for all irrespective of race or gender’ – reinforcing my
point that it cannot be ‘business as usual’ – neither for government nor its citizens.
I do not mean to diminish the impact of law. The protection afforded to all citizens by our Constitution and Bill of Rights is wonderful and forms the basis of our commitment to our growing if troubled democracy. The preamble of the Constitution reads:
We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to:
• Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
• Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
• Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
• Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.
This preamble forms a wonderfully inclusive framework for the rest of the Constitution and sets the tone for it.
On a somewhat simplistic level, I do not believe in the existence of race, and definitely not in the way that formed the basis of the Nationalist government’s policies. I believe in the existence of differences: genetic, linguistic and geographic amongst others – but do not believe that this can be the basis for any judgement about ability or behaviour. My own orientation tends to lean more towards anti-racism and non-racism than towards thinking about the inclusion of all races. I am sure that there are many here that would share my view. Not believing in the basis upon which race is premised, it is very hard to engage in conversations about the inclusion of all races. Which is why it has always been a source of pride to me, that the above preamble speaks to being inclusive and actively anti-racist without giving authority to the existence of race. It forces us to think beyond the boundaries of our limitations.
My answer to the question about ‘can we talk?’ is ‘yes, we should, we have no choice’ if we are committed to building a truly inclusive and humane future, believing in the indivisibility of human rights across the globe. Talk, yes, but who talks to who and to what end? And who listens? Dialogue is essential, but we must not be blind to its limitations. Literal talk and dialogue should form part of an arsenal of activities relating to the protection of human rights: community campaigns, good governance, legislation. Despite the limitations of talk, it cannot be avoided.
In South Africa the legacy of racism runs deep. This legacy is still reflected in the reality of poverty and access to wealth. It is reflected in the racialised geography of our city (and country) which has changed minimally, so it should not be surprising that the ‘who talks to who’ question, in terms of public dialogue, could be curtailed by the bounded nature of these communities and the fact that, in the South African context at least, the boundaries of geography coincide with the boundaries of racial identities in the Apartheid sense of the word. There are many organisations – like the District Six Museum – which actively work against the ghetto-isation of knowledge and conversations, and create enabling platforms outside of these boundaries for people of all ages to engage in conversations. These form part of what we broadly call ‘dialogue’ but often they are obvious or literal conversations in the sense of being talk sessions. It might be an invitation to engage in a project – the making of an exhibition, the planning and execution of a commemorative event, for example – which becomes a way of entering into conversations through a joint activity or project. A conscious attempt to move people between and beyond their racialised bounded communitiies. I think talk about race sometimes needs to be direct and sometimes it needs to be neither talk nor about race. People should experience each other in equalising contexts.
The National Planning Commission (established in 2010) has just handed over its Vision 2030 document to parliament during last week Preceding that, it completed a Diagnostic Overview at the end of 2011 (referred to above) in which it identified the main challenges in South Africa together with their underlying causes . It named nine main challenges of which I will refer to two as they are relevant to this talk:
• ‘ Spatial challenges continue to marginalise the poor’ is one of them. It reports: ‘The spatial legacy of apartheid continues to weigh on the entire country. … Reversing the challenges of spatial apartheid will be an ongoing challenge in the decades ahead.’
• South Africa remains a divided society’ is another significant point. ‘We have made significant progress in uniting our country since 1994. Racism and prejudice has declined and we have infinitely more interaction, as equals, between black and white South Africans. Despite this progress, we remain a divided society and the major dividing line in society is still race. … Crime finds fertile ground in countries with huge inequality and where citizens feel they need not practise good citizenship. Crime encourages the growth of gated communities. The separate living spaces generate a high degree of relational distance, so people do not see themselves as part of a common citizenry. This, compounded with the legacy of the Group Areas Act and the effects of poor public transport, means the sharing of geographical space across class and race still remain difficult.’
I return now to the title of my talk: unity does not grow wild spoken by one of our great leaders, the late Oliver Tambo who became secretary general of the African National Congress in 1955. This phrase caught my eye as I was reading though the text of a speech that he made at a Pan African youth congress in Dar Es Salaam in 1961. It spoke to my own need to think about a way to describe the importance of constantly protecting the gains which we had won; to remind ourselves that yes, 1994 was a wonderful milestone year in South Africa, but, in the words of a South African writer and political commentator William Gumede- ‘it was not Year Zero’. We did not enter 1995 with a metaphoric clean slate. What we are experiencing in part, is a situation where many South Africans handed over agency to government – particularly during the Mandela era – to solve the problems entwined in this moment of celebratory arrival and to maintain our democracy. Comrade Tambo reminds us of the fragile nature of victorious gains. He says: Unity does not grow wild. It has to be nurtured, built up, it wears away. It must be doctored, treated. It also has many enemies… and you have to keep vigilant against those.
The unity that he refers to and which we continue to strive for, is not premised on the notion of a ‘melting pot where individual , religious, cultural and other differences disappear, but rather a society with a shared South African identity, without detracting from our diverse multiple identities.’
This is one of the reasons that I am excited by symposia and other platforms such as this one. It is an expression on an awareness that the need to talk is ongoing and global. That there exists a condition which can best be expressed as the indivisibility of our human rights from each other. In the words of another great man, Martin Luther King: ‘no one is free until everyone is free’ And the injunction to ‘own racism’ put to all of us – is essential. And we need to listen. Listen with sensitivity, humility and with understanding that our ways of listening and sense-making are also culturally nuanced and influenced. We are all part of each other’s stories, each other’s conversations.
In conclusion, Arundhati Royi:
The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive and die only when you are dead. To love, to be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of the life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all to watch. To try to understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.