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.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

On being anti-racist...

Is Islam in the townships any less in value?
Photo Copyright Shafiq Morton.
RACISM, a discriminatory and distasteful fact of human life lingers unpleasantly in post-apartheid South Africa. Twenty-two years down the line the social cancer has not been completely excised. Whilst its symptoms can be traced back to an underlying pathology of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, racism is still utterly repugnant – despite its post trauma.

To regard oneself superior to another person on the basis of a particular identity, no matter when or due to what cause, is an arrogant failure of the human spirit. So to argue, as some boorish politicians currently do, that the historically disadvantaged cannot ever be racist against whites, is equally repugnant.

Whilst some people (such as Penny Sparrow) may not be conciliatory citizens in our social tree, their crass ungraciousness can’t ever be an excuse for a generalised prejudice that all whites must be racist.  This is “reverse” racism, a hate speech that has manifested itself in the worst forms of Zionism, where those who should be more mindful of the Holocaust and its suffocating horrors, have inflicted terrible atrocities against Palestinians in order to “not forget” these very horrors.

In our Muslim community, particularly the Western Cape, racism is a rattling skeleton. Even our politics represents this. The Democratic Alliance – despite its Mid-East policies being abhorrent to many Muslims – still gets the Muslim vote because the African National Congress under Zuma has come to represent in many minds black privilege and coloured disempowerment.

This sense of disempowerment – which results in what I call “status xenophobia” – originates from disgruntlement on affirmative action and perceived threats of losing privilege. It has to be crudely acknowledged that our forefathers, such as the Khoi-San, were the original inhabitants of the Western Cape, not the Nguni. Then there has been divide-and-rule, where during apartheid one clung desperately to one’s second-class citizenship and its paltry privileges over the third-class.

Again, all of the above – whilst still very much with us psychologically – should never be a vindication for the racially derogatory platitudes that pervade our suburbs and mosques. The point is:  how many black imams do we have? What about Muslims in the townships? Can one marry out of one’s village Mumbai side? How do we treat our black domestics? And, how do we regard Muslim refugees here, despite some of our slave roots being in East Africa from where they come?   

Space prevents further discussion of what we’ve discussed so far, but I’m sure the message is clear that our own backyard needs as much clearing as anyone else’s – which leads to the next point, the little understood Prophetic paradigm with regards to the burning question of racism.

Of course, many would agree with the metaphor of the Iblis, the Satan, being the first racist when he refused to prostrate to the figure of Adam (as), his body symbolically imbued with the variegated soils of the earth. The cursed jinn, made of smokeless fire, thought in his heart that his fiery nature was superior to the divine DNA.

However, most of us – when besieged by malicious argument and phobic invective on issues of race in Islam – would most likely resort to the Madinah socio-political model, the first Islamic society nurtured and educated by the Prophet (SAW) via Qur’an and Sunnah, his personal example.

Many like to regard Madinah as some kind of utopia, a perfect world. I don’t, because if one looks closely at the Madinah years, one soon realises that the perfection was in the Prophet, not in Madinah. Compared to us, yes, the people of the city were more elevated in character and they did develop towering personalities and reach stupendous heights of spirituality, but they were still human.

This is not said with any disrespect, but these noble and pious forbears still had to confront their inherent humanity, their demons, their own weaknesses; they had differences of opinion, they experienced marital discord and they suffered from poverty, bereavement, illness and hunger just like everybody else.  

The point is how they were taught to deal with these things by the Prophet (SAW). That is the big question – the “imperfections” of those in Madinah and how they dealt with them provide us with the lessons of today, first by the Righteous Caliphs, then Imam Malik and the other imams of knowledge.

One person, who admittedly had few faults, was Bilal – a former black Abyssinian slave freed by Sayyidina Abu Bakr. The master Bilal’s loud and melodious voice would call the Muslims to prayer. We all know the instance when Bilal, a thin man with bushy hair, was referred to as a “black crow” by three Quraish tribesmen who’d just entered Islam after the conquest of Makkah.

Through divine means, the Prophet (SAW) got to hear of this dialogue and the famous verses from Surat-ul Hujjarat, “We have created you into nations and tribes to know each other not to despise each other”, were revealed to him by Jibril, the Archangel.

Interestingly, the Prophetic model of anti-racism (we’ll define it later) was not the stereotypical black-white scenario of today. Whilst Bilal is a shining example of how a black person can achieve true human greatness, Madinah was also a multi-racial, multi-cultural locus of being. Suhaib ibn Sinan the Roman and Salman the Persian, who’d joined the community, were Companions too.

Not only did east meet west as prophesied at the noble Messenger’s birth, but in modern terms in the enlightened city of Madinah, Arabs, Africans, Europeans and Iranians met each other as well. The Prophet’s (SAW) last sermon on the final Hajj tied all of this together when he proclaimed on the Mount of Mercy that there was “no superiority of Arab over non-Arab, nor black over white”.

However, what we often forget is that the Prophet (SAW) was not preaching “non-racism” (where race is not officially acknowledged in the political and social sense). He was, in fact, being anti-racist (where race is officially acknowledged - but on firm and equal, non-discriminative ground). This, after all, is the profound subtlety of Surat ul-Hujjarat – by the grace of God we are who we are, and our challenge is to learn how to live together.