Ah, the natives are misbehaving

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We did not approach reconciliation in a transactional or utilitarian manner. It was done because it was the right thing to do. We decided that the evils of the past system belonged in the past, but white people are now saying, ‘now behave yourself properly’ – and don’t touch us on our gains from centuries of exploitation, abuse and privilege.

Sometimes, actually, almost always, when I write about race relations in South Africa, I have to remind myself to insert the qualifier, “not all white people”. Besides the obvious fact that it is really bad to generalise, it is also true that not all white people are bad, racist, nasty, self-righteous, eternally innocent, don’t deny that they benefited from apartheid – even as its generational legatees – and some, actually, sacrificed their lives and livelihood to remain firm in their beliefs in justice and equality. 

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As it goes, one very senior journalist I have known for the better part of 40 years has refused to get sucked into money machines like The New Age, and the SABC of Christopher Mpofu and of Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Others became wealthy and…. What the hell am I wanging on about? Apologies for that. The mind goes where it wants to, from time to time, and anyway, very little of what I write is scripted or even drafted in outline on a piece of paper.

Let me start, then, with what I really wanted to start with. We, black people, did not enter into the bargain or reconciliation with white people on the back of a promise that we would behave like good natives. We did not approach reconciliation in a transactional or utilitarian manner. It was done because it was the right thing to do. In other words, we decided that the evils of the past system belonged in the past, we have to roll back its worst and most enduring effects, but white people are saying, “Now behave yourself properly” – and don’t touch us on our gains from centuries of exploitation, abuse and privilege. Let me explain how I got to that. 

I recently caught up with the ritual, among white rugby supporters, who shredded their Springbok jerseys because the team’s first black captain, Siya Kolisi, supported the Black Lives Matter movement. Then, in a separate incident, a white member of Parliament of the Democratic Alliance (DA), Natasha Mazzone, was pissed off at Pravin Gordhan for some reason, and reminded him (Gordhan), that when the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) approached him threateningly at the podium in Parliament, she stood up for him. You would imagine that Mazzone did it because it was a good thing and the right thing to do, and not in a utilitarian manner in the sense that Gordhan was now eternally indebted to her.

It’s almost as if we have to thank whites for not being racist, or if they act like normal citizens in a democratic polity, we have to humble ourselves, and worst, still, we owe them a great debt because, you know, we sold our souls to them, when they wore the Springbok jersey, or when they came to the assistance or stood up for someone’s rights. And so, they infantilise us – “here, boys and girls, behave like good natives, and we will like you, because, you know, we showed the grace to let you wear the Springbok jersey, and even tried to defend you from those nasty EFF types, now here’s a cookie” – to the point where “reconciliation” once again, rears its ugly snout, as a beast that lacks compunction, humility, and looks more like it was a simple utilitarian or strict transactional agreement. You forgive us for centuries of abuse, and now you have to do as we tell you to….

For the most part, this transactional agreement runs one way. While some of us are trying to improve everyone’s living conditions against great odds – and making many great mistakes along the way – it is almost as if they will take back their reconciliation (cutting up their Springbok jersey), or they’re surprised that we have lives, beliefs and values that do not include them (Mazzone). Now, these are clearly two different cases, with some overlaps. 

In the first instance, Kolisi was not behaving according to the dictates of the people who decided to shred their jersey (as if Kolisi promised: support me and I will abandon all my values). To the shredders, race apparently matters, because Kolisi supported the Black Lives Matter movement. To Mazzone of the DA, race “does not matter” – or so it seems, from the party’s latest policy positions. We can dismiss the shredders as crude reconciliation transactionalists. Mazzone, but more her party, deserve closer scrutiny. 

In fact, with respect to the DA, we have to expose the immanent contradictions in its most recent policy statements. A lot has been said and written about the DA’s recently concluded policy conference and its ditching of race-based policies. There’s little more that can be added, at this point. What I want to focus on is, precisely, those immanent contradictions. 

Let me start with an analogy. To be anti-god – an atheist or in opposition to belief in god – is probably the cynosure of a bewildering antinomy. For instance, to say you are anti-god means you have to accept the existence of a god, to which you are opposed. 

Here we are, then, with white people (not all white people) finding reason to complain (often justifiably) about the failures of the black government, because that’s not what they signed up for. It’s like that guy who bought the Springbok jersey. He did not buy it so Siya Kolisi can behave the way he (the buyer) demands. Mazzone stood by Gordhan not because it was the right thing to do, but because she expected him to be a good native. 

So, to say you don’t consider race as a factor, is an admission, of sorts, that race actually exists. You can’t be opposed to something that does not exist. In Kantian terms (apologies for philosophising), these are two irreconcilable statements. It’s like saying, there is water in that pool, but if I jump into it, I will not get wet – or in my case, drown because I can’t swim. It is, also, a denial of at least a century of spatial segregation (starting with the Glen Grey Act of 1894, which culminated, in some ways, in the Land Act of 1913), upon which an iniquitous system (of wickedness, cruelty and immorality) was laid, brick by brick for the next 80 years. 

Unless you don’t understand contingency (the combination of processes and events that shape uneven development, and especially how racial inequality is linked to gender and reproduced by spatial inequality), intergenerational inequality (that range of material and immaterial privilege that is handed down), or the inheritance of inequality (brilliantly detailed by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron in The Inheritors) you can be forgiven for thinking that nothing happened in South Africa before 1994. In this scenario, poverty does not have a face, inequality does not adversely affect black people, the contingent outcome of decades of iniquity which is evident from access to opportunities, poor educational outcomes, and even the availability of language with which to express oneself. For an especially good example of how poor educational outcomes limit vocabulary, how it constricts the ability to express oneself, and to explain or understand the world around you, see the video clip below.

So, like the person who is opposed to god, you have to (first) accept that there is a god. For the DA to believe that race and especially racial inequality should not be the basis of policy, you have to accept racial inequality exists. 

The best way to understand the DA’s position is to lay it at the door of liberalism’s economism – a combination of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and David Hume’s libertarian separation of facts and values. In this somewhat perverse combination, to work purposefully and deliberatively to eliminate racial injustice is considered to be a “value” (and, therefore, not the domain of facts), and “correction” should be left to Smith’s invisible hand. 

Here we are, then, with white people (not all white people) finding reason to complain (often justifiably) about the failures of the black government, because that’s not what they signed up for. It’s like that guy who bought the Springbok jersey. He did not buy it so Siya Kolisi can behave the way he (the buyer) demands. Mazzone stood by Gordhan not because it was the right thing to do, but because she expected him to be a good native. 

As for the DA… Well, I really do wish we lived in a country where we were all the same colour, spoke the same language and were equally poor. It would be boring as fuck… Oh, and all that homogeneity did not help Somalia from collapsing. What am I wanging on about…. DM

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