Good ideas rot in the minds of bad people


Good ideas rot in the minds of bad people

The ANC and EFF coalesce around the belief that ‘Africa belongs to Africans’, and that they are the arbiters of who is an African. But we cannot use previous injustices to gloss over new ones, writes ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.


THE IDEA of non-racialism has been burnt to a crisp by the sun of African nationalism and a unique type of ethno-nationalism, scorching elements that are ruining lives in the coloured community.

Exhausted by their life world — the real world in which they live, not the world of performance revolutionaries or romantic liberal idealists — members of the coloured community who have been told over and again that they are “non-African” are stepping out of the fakery of post-apartheid democracy and are no longer satisfied with their lot.

This has caused political posturing by more reactionary groups, including racists, who promote “coloured politics”, and others who enjoy romantic reveries of colour-blindness. To be sure, non-racialism is the ideal state where racial differences are dissolved and everyone is the same. This ignores the fact that racial classification in South Africa has been legitimised (again), that the “worth” of each citizen, is “measured by the tape of another”, and that this measurement denies access, participation and voice to those on the outer edges of concentric circles of privilege. We also under-estimated the force of ethno-nationalism, a passion that drives the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Most recently members of the coloured community took to the streets, as they have sporadically over several years, to protest against laws that restrict access to jobs and to opportunities in general. Last Sunday, Mike Siluma, deputy editor of the Sunday Times, was forthright in his assessment that “recent protest in Johannesburg’s coloured areas is one of many signs that the nation-building project has stalled”, even though the protests have gone largely unnoticed. (See here, here, here and here)

There are several ways to explain the situation of the coloured community in the post-apartheid era and its righteous claims of  persecution. But coloured protests are often dismissed as “false consciousness” or the result of “alienation”. Another claim is “well, the coloured people benefited more than Africans during apartheid, and they (alongside white people and those of Indian heritage) should pay”. We do need that other rung below us on the ladder of upward mobility and progress, eh? Anyway, the latter point is paired with the statement: “The coloured people are racist." Now, any and all of this may be valid. Two things can be true at the same time.

The approach I find compelling is, as Siluma wrote last Sunday, that the idea of “nation-building” (I have serious misgivings about nations, and especially about national pride) has stalled. I would add to this the rider that any notion of a nation has been destroyed by African nationalism and ethno-centrism, where “ethno” denotes African. In these iterations there is no place for people who do not belong; for people who are told, at every turn, that they are not African.

We have become the monsters

Forty years ago, if you went to a public amenity and signs told you it “belonged” to whites, you would know, if you were not white, that you did not have access. By the same token, if Africa belongs to Africans and you’re told you’re not African, it is clear that you don’t have access. Your “worth”, as WEB Du Bois wrote more than a century ago, is measured by the tape of another.

The problem starts with the (good) idea that South African society had to be unshackled from apartheid. Somewhere on a sliding scale of acquisition and pecuniary gain, the old shackles were repurposed. Whereas they previously served Afrikaner nationalism, they now serve African nationalism — which makes them permissible, because there is a lot of past injustice that we can draw on for meting out selective justice. In other words, because we were oppressed, we have licence to oppress. We have become the monsters we fought against. It’s hard to say how long this reservoir of past injustice will last as a resource and as justification for selective injustice and oppression.

The position of the African nationalists, especially the ANC, and the unique ethno-nationalists (the EFF) coalesces around the belief that “Africa belongs to Africans”, and that they — the ANC as state and the EFF as revolutionary heroes in waiting — have the sole discretion to determine who is and is not an African. The ANC-in-power reproduced apartheid’s racial classification system, an abhorrence now sanctified, and the EFF insists on the primacy of “the African child”.

The ANC is beyond the pale. There is overwhelming evidence that its members, office-bearers and leaders have been rapacious in looting the state coffers while paying lip service to justice, fairness and openness. That the ANC now proposes legislation to restrict opportunities to people who are “not African” is to be expected. The only surprise is that it has taken it almost 30 years to say legislatively what it has been thinking for many years. The ANC has long whispered about its desire to turn every community, town and city into its idea of what it means to be African.

The ANC and the EFF have exploited existing divisions and have turned  Africans, whites, coloureds and Indians against each other. The objective is to manipulate indifference and to ensure that the titular majority has the loudest, most powerful and most influential voice, all while keeping up appearances of “non-racialism”.

Julius Malema is simply blunt. His search for African purity is poorly hidden. Malema has often made the claim that people of Indian heritage, whites or coloured people do not marry indigenous African people and that this is evidence that these “non-Africans” are anti-African or even racist. His statements distinctly echo Polish right-wingers before and during  World War 2. There was a belief that Jews in Poland were unwilling to integrate and assimilate and were therefore standing in the way of a homogeneous nation state. In Poland, the Jews were said to be stopping the majority imposing its culture (including language) on the country and all its people. This belief was wilfully spread, and it fuelled hatred of Jews and the pogroms that were part of the Holocaust.

With his unique form of nationalism, Malema is effectively whipping up mobilisation by using markers such as race and skin colour. Coloured people, in particular, are reminders to the ANC and EFF of Europeans having settled and colonised indigenous Africans. Coloured people are the wounds that won’t heal, and the only way to be rid of them is erasure.

We cannot gloss over new injustices, somehow justifying them because of previous injustice. We can also not be blind to persecution of people other than ourselves. Simon Wiesenthal, who survived the Holocaust, warned: “For your benefit, learn from our tragedy. It is not a written law that the next victims must be Jews. It can also be other people. We saw it begin in Germany with Jews, but people from more than 20 other nations were also murdered. When I started this work, I said to myself, ‘I will look for the murderers of all the victims, not only the Jewish victims. I will fight for justice.'”

My sense of foreboding is shaped by the horror of persecution and exclusion. If any of the “non-African” minorities want to continue living in South Africa, we will not be allowed to do so as “non-Africans”. How long before (we may ask, as did the late Raul Hilberg in The Destruction of the European Jews) the African nationalists and the ethno-nationalists move from, “you may not live among us as coloureds" to “you have no right to live”?

♦ VWB ♦

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