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South Africa

OPINIONISTA: The coloured community and the great delusion of non-racialism

The deeper we enter our young democracy, the more people classified coloured by the ANC government are becoming marginalised, and whatever cultural leanings or language preferences they may have, are being erased.

One of the ruling alliance’s greatest successes has been to get people to (actually) believe that non-racialism, equality before the law and justice for everyone who lives in South Africa can and should be achieved.

Unfortunately, it works only as a public relations move and, for the most part, alliance members would agree with Andile Mngxitama and Julius Malema on the question of “non-Africans” – especially those of Indian heritage and those whom the democratic state reclassified as “coloured” or “white”.

Sure, when written on the inside of one of those terribly sentimental greeting cards, “non-racialism” sounds nice. But we should make no bones about the fact that everyone who is considered to be “African” by the ANC, EFF, BLF, the dregs of Azapo and whatever or whomever one can pin down of the Pan Africanist Congress, would prefer all “non-Africans” (with Africans sometimes referred to as “black Africans) to simply disappear.

The EFF, it seems, would like “non-Africans” to stay so that they may be punished for the sins of their forebears. All of this chauvinism is neatly concealed by the rhetoric of non-racialism. It also does not help that “reconciliation” means that black people (everyone who is not white) have to shut up and be nice to whites.

There was a time, however, when the United Democratic Front and the Mass Democratic Movement were at their height in the 1980s, when very many people enjoyed romantic reveries of non-racialism. I sipped on that elixir for a long time… We might just have to pen this down as the great delusion. It was, always, a combination of idealism, naivete and public relations. It worked for the ANC in exile, and lasted until shortly after Thabo Mbeki’s awe-inspiring “I am an African” speech. While that speech could have been epoch-defining, it remained a political oratory masterpiece, quite out of touch with reality.

As much as we hate using the racial classifications of the apartheid state and the ANC-Alliance state (yes, the democratic state retained apartheid’s most racist legislation, but only to give the state the power to give some people more justice and greater access to wealth than others), during those heady days of the 1980s everyone thought that once democracy arrived, whites, coloureds, Indians and blacks would hold hands and dance in circles singing songs about butterflies, birds and bees.

Today, it’s not hard to imagine that at least 70% of the population actually hold the same basic beliefs as Malema, Mngxitama, Panyaza Lesufi, Ace Magashule, Jacob Zuma and what remains of the PAC and Azapo. One of the stand-out threats has been (by accident or design) the increased marginalisation of the coloured community. I will drop all quotation marks to reduce clutter in the text.

Coloured politics and the politics of coloureds

A few years ago I was asked – by well-meaning people – to speak at a seminar or a round-table or a conference on coloured politics. I declined. I had no interest in coloured politics, nor did I have any interest in the politics of coloureds. But, but… they disgorged something about “non-racialism”. I honestly don’t remember what they said, but I knew that I had no interest in coloured politics, and that non-racialism was a theory that was, well, proven wrong. Channelling Richard Feynman, at least in my own mind, I muttered to myself that as beautiful a theory as non-racialism may be, the evidence does not support it, and because of that, it is simply wrong.

One basic thing we can agree on is that there is little evidence of actual coloured politics. There is one noisy faction on the Cape Flats who are up in arms about what they believe to be a mass influx, over the past two decades, of indigenous Africans from the Eastern Cape. This faction is not driven by identitarianism, but by perceptions of being overwhelmed by overcrowding, informal settlements, unemployment, crime and misery – pathologies for which people always find scapegoats.

What we can agree on is that there are coloured people in politics. What is coming into view, the deeper we enter our young democracy, is that (as a general proposition) people classified coloured by the ANC government are becoming increasingly marginalised, and whatever cultural leanings or language preferences they may have are being erased. Malema provides the blunt force and Lesufi presents it in the mysticism of non-racialism. But then the penny drops, and Jessie Duarte (for once) goes off script and suggests to the country that the ANC were tribalist, and cared naught for the comfort of coloured people.

Duarte’s statement is nothing unusual. It has powerful homologies with Jimmy Manyi’s reference (when he was still in the ruling party) a few years ago that there was an “over-supply” of coloured people in the Western Cape. This reference to “over-supply” reduces coloured people to objects that can and should be moved around, or pushed aside when whoever in government deems it necessary. Manyi simply verbalised what all ANC members, apart from maybe two or three, believe in with their life. Those in power have always seen the coloured community as easy to manipulate or reduced, as is the case, today, to a new type of subaltern.

This shoving of coloured people deeper into subaltern status has deep antecedents. Sometime during the time of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman of the African People’s Organisation – not a radical organisation – which was initially established in the coloured community to resist white oppression in the early 1900s, the last prime minister of the Cape Colony, before the four provinces became the Union of South Africa in 1910, John X Merriman, played very callously with the political rights of coloured people. In a letter to Jan Smuts, Merriman wrote:

May I without offence advise you to be cautious with Dr Abdurahman. He is himself a pathetic figure with European culture [Abdurahman received part of his education in the UK] and a fatal bar of colour but the men whom he represents [coloureds] never appeal to me much… If I was to choose I would rather disenfranchise the coloured man than the k****r, but of course there are good Coloured men [sic] that are perfectly fitted to enjoy political rights.”

There is a continuance, then, over more than a century of political leaders, from the European settler colonialists, to the African nationalists, to play with the coloured community as if they were props in an epic drama of power between colonialists and indigenous people – both of which have given themselves the rights to determine the status of coloured people, the new subaltern class in South Africa.

Let me state, again, for the record: I have no personal interest in coloured politics, less still in identity politics. The latter has been the basis of some of the worst atrocities in history. Having said that, the evidence for non-racialism is slowly evaporating. People who are considered to be “non-African” (especially the coloured people) are redefined over and again by those in power, stripping them of the ability to change and being unaware of themselves, so to speak. This may force the coloured community to contest this reification (I hope that word works), and become more aware of their own place and time in South Africa.

Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech may have been inclusive, and spoke of all the influences that shaped South African society, but the evidence of the past 10-15 years suggests that the country, at least the forces referred to above, would insist that we replicate the erasure, the pogroms, the deportation and marginalisation of minorities and subaltern classes, from Algeria to Zimbabwe since the late 1950s. It is not a pleasant prospect. DM

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