15 May 2008

South Africa: Understanding Racism


Pretoria — The King is dead, long live the King! This is the untenable situation we find ourselves in with the legal dismantling of apartheid but with its all-pervasive tentacles strangling our society today. Essop Pahad, Minister in the Office of the Presidency, analyses in this, the first in a three-part series.

Elderly black workers forced by white students at a university to eat urine drenched food; a black man fed to lions; a white youth on trial for going on a shooting rampage at the black Skierlik informal settlement where four people including a three month baby were butchered; the stabbing of two white and the arrest of three so called coloured students in racial tension between groups of students at the Hoërskool Akasia; racial tensions between black and so called coloured students at Riverlea Secondary School in Johannesburg, and the degrading and dehumanising treatment of black farm workers.

These all point to a South Africa that can no longer be in denial about racism in our country and a South Africa that needs to engage in dialogue about racism and our past.

Certainly South Africa has travelled a great distance since 1994 but to assume that the legacy of centuries of oppression and discrimination can be wiped out in a decade-and-a-half is simply wishful thinking. We need to recognise that the ideals behind our call for the creation of non-racist non-sexist South Africa have still not been attained.

Apartheid as institutionalised, legalised racism, as a crime against humanity is dead but the legacy of apartheid still persists and as a society and a government we have a Constitutional/legal, moral and ethical responsibility to do all we can to eradicate racism, sexism, xenophobia and all forms of discrimination and intolerance in our country.

A democratic South Africa needs to deal with the legacy of apartheid - socio-economic inequality, radicalised poverty; forms of exclusion and marginalisation of the historically disadvantaged in the country. Despite our liberation from apartheid, existing realities show us that black people of our country continue to be victimised because of the colour of their skin. This is reflected in historically reproduced patterns of racialised inequality, in patterns of social exclusion, marginalisation, human degradation, violence, racism, xenophobia, and ethnocentrism. It is the pervasiveness of prejudice directed at historically disadvantaged groups of people and the continual reproduction of racial discrimination that have contributed to the challenges we continue to face in South Africa.

What is required is to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances head-on, while continuing to articulate a vision of a non racist non sexist South Africa in which everyone can contribute to their fullest and can develop their talents and capacities to the fullest free from fear and discrimination.

The Preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa speaks of recognising "the injustices of our past". The Constitution is the highest law of the land. This is fundamentally about the transformation of our country and dealing with the socio-economic, political and psychological legacy of apartheid. Our government is obligated to enact laws, policies and procedures that are in conformity with the Constitution. The state therefore cannot through its actions violate the Constitution. This recognition brings with it obligations for the state. In adopting the Constitution the state has to heal the wounds of the past, respect democracy; rule based on the will of the people; respect fundamental freedoms and human rights; and improve the quality of life of all the people of South Africa. And one of the defining values of a democratic South Africa is a commitment to non-racism and non-sexism.

In articulating this vision for our country, there must be a genuine dialogue about the multiple manifestations of racism and racial discrimination. There can be no real movement, no real embracing of the ideals of non-racism and non-sexism without first acknowledging the reality of racism and racial discrimination and engaging in this critical dialogue. It is essential to create and provide safe spaces for people in South Africa to share their experiences about racism in dialogue with one another. The debate about racism need not be as polarised as it currently is. A balanced dialogue is not about guilt or recrimination. It is purposeful - it is aimed at creating a better world for all who live in it. A balanced dialogue begins with recognition of the history and the reality of racism and racial discrimination, but it progresses to issues of social justice, equality, equality of opportunity, freedoms, rights and responsibilities and the creation of an inclusive society.

Racism, racial discrimination and exclusion have their roots in slavery, colonialism and settler colonialism. Eric Williams, in analysing the relationship between the African slave trade and the development of capitalism noted that: ...slavery was not borne of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery (Williams, 1960: 7). Racism can be defined as a phenomenon which refers to a complex set of beliefs, attitudes and behaviours predicated on pseudo-scientific and wholly erroneous assumptions about the "nature of human diversity". Racism is both an ideology and a set of practices. Scientific racism is an attempt to pervert the facts of science and nature in an effort to construct an ideology of racism. Ideologically, racism seeks to establish a hierarchy of races in which certain races are deemed superior and civilised while others are inferior and uncivilised (refer one Dave Bullard, sacked Sunday Times columnist). It asserts and justifies the "natural" superiority of one so called racial group over another. Racism also involves discriminatory policies and practices that protect and reproduce the power, privilege and domination of the super-ordinate group.

The United Nations defines racial discrimination as meaning "...any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life. (United Nations, International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1965, Article 1).

Racism must not be confused with enthocentrism. Ethnocentrism involves the tendency on the part of individuals and groups to judge and evaluate others from the vantage point of their own set of norms, values and cultural traditions. Ethnocentrism leads to a hierarchy in which people of different cultures are ranked according to how much or how little of the dominant norms, values and cultural traditions they possess.

Racism is also not the same as bias and prejudice. Bias refers to an opinion; a preference arrived at subjectively and without reasonable scientific proof. Biases can be explicit or implicit, intentional or unintentional. Racial prejudice involves "racialising" groups of people and prejudging them based on a set of biases and stereotypes that are inaccurate and unscientific. Prejudice is attitudinal, but when directed at individuals or groups on the basis of their assumed phonotypical, behavioural or even cultural characteristics it leads to racial discrimination. Racial discrimination and exclusion involve relations of power and subordination. Racial discrimination can result from ill will or evil motive. It can be blatant and result from deliberate differential treatment or denial of access. Racial discrimination can also be systemic, that is, it can result from apparently neutral policies and practices that, regardless of intent, have adverse impacts on racialised individuals and communities.

Racial discrimination is undoubtedly a form of social exclusion, albeit one that has race as a social construct, at the heart of exclusion. Its roots and manifestations however are different when compared to other forms of exclusion. Racism is unequal access to rights, it is unequal access to the valued goods and services in society, it is about unequal access to the labour market and it extends to all fields of public life. It is about incomplete citizenship, undervalued rights, undervalued recognition and undervalued participation. Racial inequality and discrimination are historically derived, have persisted over the centuries and have been constantly reproduced in old as well as new ways. The persistence of racial inequality and racial discrimination over the centuries points to the abject failure of public policy and state initiatives in these areas. Patterns of inequality and discrimination generally have proved to be highly resistant to change because of the powerful socio-economic, political and ideological forces which maintain and reproduce the patterns.

The study of structured racial inequality, discrimination, rights and privileges hinges on a recognition that racialised individuals and communities, who enter the labour market, enter the educational system, and seek goods and services (among other things), will face a structure of opportunities that are mediated by their race, gender, disability etc. Precisely because of the existence of discrimination and barriers all people in society do not start from the same spot, and do not compete on an equal footing with each other.

The study of racial inequality and racial discrimination in South Africa is a study of how phonotypic characteristics are structured, continually reproduced, and are used to deny people access to the valued goods and services in society.

Structured racial exclusion then is the process by which individuals and groups with certain socially valued attributes are better positioned than racialised individuals and groups who do not possess or are denied the attributes, to secure a greater share of society's valued goods, services, rewards and privileges; and to use these benefits to reinforce their control over rights opportunities and privileges in society. In so doing racial inequality and unequal access in society are structured and continually reproduced. Advantages and a disproportionate share of society's resources are conferred on those who possess the valued attributes.

The struggles against slavery and colonialism, the struggles for independence and for equality were simultaneously struggles against racism and racial discrimination. The anti-colonial struggles, the civil rights movement in the United States and - especially - our own anti-apartheid struggle, all provided continued impetus and momentum for the fight against racism. However the fight against racial discrimination is not over. In the present conjuncture it has taken on different forms. In many countries around the world, as a result of the post 1960s massive increase in the global migration of peoples there are issues of xenophobia and the socio-economic and political rights of immigrants and other legal migrants, as well as the rights of undocumented migrants and refugees. In many zones of conflict there are issues of religious and ethnic persecution and ethnic cleansing. The cases of Bosnia and Rwanda throw into sharp relief the tension between a commitment to human rights everywhere and national sovereignty.

Issues of racialised poverty, labour market integration, the existence of the dual "racialised" labour market, representation and the range of complex issues related to the socio-economic and political inclusion of historically disadvantaged groups all require sustained policy initiatives.

The critical challenges that we face in the contemporary era are therefore manifold and they include the following:

  •  Balancing rights and responsibilities within a constitutional framework that protects a wide range of rights and fundamental freedoms
  •  Forging unity out of diversity
  •  Promoting social cohesion, inclusion, non-racism and non-sexism
  •  Enforcing international conventions on the elimination of racial discrimination and on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Racism and racial discrimination constitute fundamental violations of human rights and the core issues that preoccupy historically disadvantaged communities now also include issues of power, access, equity, representation and participation, transformation and removal of discriminatory barriers, institutional accommodation and non-racism. Are international conventions and national constitutions proclaiming equality of all and freedom from discrimination on enumerated grounds including race sufficient to create inclusive societies?

In seeking to accommodate differences, promote unity in diversity and promote heterogeneous social cohesion in our country, there has to be space for the state to intervene to ensure equality of opportunity. Social inclusion and the creation of non-racist, non-sexist societies involves a sustained commitment to equality of opportunity which ensures that all members of society are provided with the opportunity to develop their talents and capacities and secure valued goods and services free from discrimination. South Africa will be infinitely enriched if we continue the dialogue about how to embrace the principles of non-racism, non-sexism and social inclusion as transformative tools and as normative ideals.

Part two of this dialogue on racism will explore the Constitutional imperative to engage in a wide ranging process of transformation. It will also identify initiatives that our government has undertaken to simultaneously deal with the legacy of apartheid and build a socially cohesive country united in its diversity.

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