24 June 2004

Zimbabwe: Racism: an Excuse for Africa's New Tyrants


Harare — Contemporary politico-economic discourse in Zimbabwe, Africa and elsewhere around the globe is characterised by the phenomena of racism, classism, tribal/ethnic and inter-group tensions and conflicts of all kinds.

These conflicts are epitomised by widespread xenophobia and the politics of difference.

It is thus important to conceptualise these phenomena, particularly the race and class questions, within the evolutionary and revolutionary democratic practice of the African people.

Cultural incompatibilities are often cited as the cause for the above phenomena. But one finds that the adaptation process presented as a solution to this problem is completely unidirectional.

Not only politicians participate in politico-economic debate. The media also cover race relations, class struggles and inter-ethnic conflicts.

A reserved attitude towards what is foreign is a constant element in human behaviour. In other words, everyone is xenophobic, including those against whom our xenophobia is directed.

More often than not, in times of crisis, shrewd schemers engage in political exploitation of racial and/or class prejudice and tensions. President Robert Mugabe, for example, exploited and manipulated racial prejudice for political expediency in his controversial agrarian revolution.

In economically difficult times especially, people from the lowest classes, themselves the first victims of poverty, unemployment, bureaucratic bungling and so on, have a tendency, when confronted with large groups of foreigners, to regard them as the cause of all evil.

Some self-serving African politicians and apologists go so far as to romanticise and create an idealised African past and to claim that, in the pre-colonial era, the continent's societies were bound by a uniquely African spirit of brotherhood.

They say that the values that went with this spirit were trampled upon by white colonialism which introduced economic forms and systems deliberately encouraging and facilitating social stratification.

This stratification, they claim, eventually led to the division of African societies into classes. A racial touch is usually added to this branch of reasoning.

True though this may be to some extent, the qualities which our petty-bourgeois intellectuals cast as essentially African are really human qualities which find expression when a community is at a certain level of productive capacity.

When a community does not have the capacity to produce social surplus, there is simply no means of becoming unequal.

The sense of brotherhood which is common under such conditions is crucial for the survival of a community which is perpetually under threat, either from natural forces which it cannot explain or of hostile invasion.

A similar feeling of brotherhood may be manifested in times of war or natural calamity even today.

The Zimbabwean government's ideological construction of an enemy image of Britain, together with the international community, and of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change as an extension or reproduction of that enemy, was arguably meant to evoke a misguided patriotic fervour within the people, now supposedly under siege from "hostile external forces bent on destabilising the country".

According to this reasoning, the people were thus supposed to rally behind the government in defending the "national interest" and our "sovereignty".

The development of towns and social classes is not an invention of the West imposed on Africa.

Historically, the development of agriculture and increased productivity allowed for the creation of social surplus. This surplus was everywhere the basis of the social division of labour, for the separation of crafts from agriculture, of towns from country, and of the division of society into classes.

As long as there was no permanent social surplus, the community remained basically rural, insecure and equal.

So when our petty-bourgeois intellectuals talk about equality in times gone past, they are merely describing the level of development of the particular community about which they are talking, and no more. There is nothing uniquely "African" about this.

If those early forms of social organisation also contained elements of democracy, it was the democracy of that particular time, totally unsuited to the democratic practice of man in the present epoch.

To say that an African can learn democracy simply by looking backward is not only nonsensical but downright reactionary. As an economy develops, new socio-economic and political institutions also develop and the people's outlook and aspirations also undergo changes, simultaneously evolving new social codes, political desires and moral ethics.

Attempts to recreate an idealised past culture or to "Third World" cultural uniqueness are misdirected in the face of globalisation, which is driven by international monopoly capital.

Moreover, they depend on a very limited, ultimately bourgeois definition of culture. Culture is not an abstract phenomenon independent of the people's revolutionary practice: you cannot create culture first and make people toe the line.

Culture is a reflection of the people's social activities in their struggle against natural and man-made fetters. The culture of the people, which reflects this struggle, historically opposes the culture of the oppressors, which is the culture of counter-revolution.

The people's culture has neither race nor continent; it is universal because it expresses the struggle of man in general.

The doctrine of the master race has a long history in Western bourgeois - mostly Anglo-Saxon - culture, and Adolf Hitler gave it the dignity of a state philosophy.

It helped him to mobilise natural prejudice against the Jews in Germany (as well as Slavs, Africans, Asians, and so on). And he made the question of race the scapegoat of all the ills of the bankrupt German economic and political systems. As a counter to white racism, many petty-bourgeois intellectuals tend to waste their time and ours trying to analyse social scenarios from a racial standpoint. This is dangerous in that it is the most certain way to arrive at mistaken conclusions.

Essentially, racism alone has never been and can never be a reliable key to understanding the roots of social contradictions and conflicts. Far less will its elimination automatically solve all socio-economic misunderstandings.

The more these intellectuals delve into false assumptions, the further away they get from reality.

The truth of the matter is that, in the African context, racism is nothing but an outward and unreasonable manifestation of deep-rooted class antagonism between the owners of the means of production, who have traditionally been white non-Africans, on the one hand, and the dispossessed workers and peasants, on the other. The emerging new owners of the means of production and holders of state power, however, are now African petty-bourgeois who adopt the demagogy of racism to cover up their exploitation, together with the metropolitan bourgeois, of the African masses.

The supervisors of global economic oppression and exploitation are now "our own kith and kin", who have betrayed the people's cause and now use the rhetorical propaganda of racism to cover up their own treachery.

Isaya Muriwo Sithole is a Harare-based legal practitioner.

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