Thursday, March 24, 2016

Tackling South African racism via the social onion theory

Institutionalised racism, the first layer.
Photo Copyright Shafiq Morton
THE official launch of the Anti-Racism Network South Africa (ARNSA) is, without doubt, a welcome – if not belated – addition to our racially charged landscape. Aimed at the capacity building of civil society bodies to address race issues, it cites proactivity amongst its core principles.

Significantly, ARNSA has been established by the Ahmad Kathrada and Nelson Mandela Foundations, which are the institutional legacies of two giant stalwarts of the anti-apartheid struggle.

With ARNSA’s definition of racism informed by the World Conference against Racism and the Durban Declaration of 2001, the organisation intends to be a non-partisan player in the understanding, the alleviating and the redressing of the negative legacy of discrimination.

The CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Sello Hatang, is indeed correct when he says that a sense of “black inferiority” – due to a lack of in-depth empowerment, access to resources and entrenched racial attitudes – has enabled a notion of white supremacy to prosper in post-apartheid South Africa.

He noted that a willingness of established white economic interests in the early 1990s to engage on transformational issues had devolved into an apathetic complacency. According to Hatang, a “full frontal assault” had to be launched; an economic CODESA had to be called on the structural racism that still bedevils the country.  

However, for the idea of a racial CODESA to take place I believe that there has to be a clear definition of terms, and a strong understanding of the substructure that underpins the kind of racism that exists in South Africa.  

To do this I propose a conceptual model that I’ve called the “social onion theory”. To get at the heart of the matter, and to look at the dynamics structurally, we have to carefully unpeel the layers of a socio-psychological onion that symbolically represents us.

The first layer of this onion is institutionalised racism. Afrikanerdom was the first movement in modern history to convert racial discrimination into official state law. Post 1994, it was the Constitution that brought down the legal edifice of apartheid by guaranteeing social equality and human rights.

The second layer, attitudinal racism, is the toughest skin to penetrate. After 22 years, and in spite of some advances in social transformation, we have still not succeeded in getting past this point of racial conditioning in the South African DNA.

Attitudinal racism has many guises. The Puerto Rican ethnographer, Professor Nelson Torres, has coined the term “colonial-icity” where a society still carries with it the vestiges of its colonialism – even in the post-colonial period. Past attitudes become sub-consciously embedded in the current social psyche.

Colonial-icity (or “apartheid-icity”) manifests itself in almost every facet of our lives. It can be seen in the habituated notions of inferiority and superiority in the market place and in politics; it can be seen in the post-traumatic stress of displaced communities, in the violence of our crime and in the anger of the marginalised poor.

Attitudinal racism is inextricably linked to our next layer, geographic racism – still the harshest reminder of apartheid via the spatial segregation of outer-city ghettoes, or townships. Many of these communities, bursting with informal settlements at their edges, enjoy minimal social integration and limited access to basic services.

There, competition for scarce resources, chronic unemployment and enduring frustration often explode into service delivery protest, or even xenophobia against entrepreneurial foreigners perceived to be stealing jobs.

Geographic racism also encompasses land ownership – a leading element of social stability and one of the surviving pillars of apartheid. It’s a critical question on its own, too complex to discuss in detail here, but suffice it to say that restitution cannot exist in a vacuum without empowerment mechanisms.

Geographic racism is followed by historicity, which I define as “understanding ourselves in context”. Most of us, particularly the youth, have no idea of who we actually are, or where we come from. We are the progeny of apartheid and colonialism; we’ve had our culture, our past and our identity stolen from us, or reinvented in the arrogant language of an assumed racial dominance.

I would argue that our languages and cultural heritage contain massive, untapped reservoirs of knowledge that would help us to truly understand ourselves, and to overcome the disempowering aspects of Eurocentric learning. For example, it was not the Portuguese who were the first to sail around the Cape, but the Phoenicians.

The next part of the onion is financial. The question of normalising South Africa is primarily economic, as that is where apartheid’s differentials chiefly lay. This layer of the onion has to be linked to good governance by qualified people, and not an elite stealing from the fiscus in a scenario that conjures up George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

The economic question calls for intelligent public-private sector partnerships, an insulation against corruption and a focus on skills enhancement – all dynamics of the National Development Plan, our policy blueprint for the future.

In conclusion then, in the onion we have layers of institutional racism, attitudinal racism, geographic racism, historicity and economic racism – factors which determine the very nature of racism itself in South Africa. We have to bear in mind, I think, that any future discourse would have to acknowledge these structural factors as a basis of understanding exactly what we are dealing with.

These are the roots that the Dutch East India Company set down in 1652; and when the British arrived in the 1800s it was much the same. At the beginning of the 20th century, South Africa – with her gold and diamonds – became the get-rich playground of English moguls such as Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato.

And in the 60s, when African countries were gaining independence, South Africa was dealing with things such as the Rivonia Trial and the Sharpeville massacre. It has been a long journey of subjugation and suffering, and I believe it cannot be comprehended without first looking at the full panorama of the canvas. In 2016 I would say that the work, via ARNSA, has only just begun.