Racism is a surprisingly difficult topic to address in South Africa. This is because it is unconstitutional and frowned-upon by the hegemonic discourse. By “hegemonic discourse” is here meant the illusion of public opinion constructed by the corporate propaganda system, mainly the white-dominated media. The fundamental line is that racism is an embarrassment; therefore the argument runs that before 1994 (or perhaps before 1988, when F W De Klerk took over the apartheid state and everything became good) there was sanctioned racism, which was bad. But after 1994, definitely, racism ceased to be approved by the mass of the population. Instead, it became the characteristic of a tiny minority — a handful of Afrikaner farmers who ill-treat their workers is the standard trope.
It is worth mentioning here that racism, according to this same hegemonic discourse, is indeed sanctioned in South African society today. This is black racism against whites, which leads to oppressive and indeed viciously totalitarian systems such as affirmative action, the establishment of racial quota systems in management structures, black economic empowerment and similar things. Since white racism no longer exists, the hegemonic discourse says, all of these things are oppressive because they force white people to allow blacks into their white-dominated structures. Meanwhile, since racism does not exist, the white would naturally allow blacks in as a matter of course. In short, the hegemonic discourse says that there are no institutional structures today which are white-dominated.
Since virtually every institutional structure which has managed to evade affirmative action is white-dominated, and since whites control something like 90% of the country’s corporate wealth and something like two-thirds of the country’s media (having strong influence over the remaining tenth of the wealth and third of the media), this is an outright lie which serves the objective of legitimating white power — in fact, it is itself a strong indication of the persistence of racism. But you have to think about it a bit. It is subtler than before.
But not so subtle. A recent, very interesting weblog post by a conservative white person was particularly striking. This person had been whipped up into a frenzy by the existence of an organisation called the Forum of Black Journalists. The notion that black journalists might wish to get together to discuss matters of mutual interest was both terrifying and disgusting to this person, so he called them secretive and racist (although the Forum was in the newspapers and on the radio, and addresses to the forum were to be found on the web). What particularly disgusted him was that the President of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, had addressed the Forum. It appeared that he believed that this was some or other sinister conspiracy. Presumably he was afraid that Zuma was issuing dictats which the secret black moles in white newspapers would go forth and spread.
Now, this is a potentially rather racist structure of thought, but what was particularly concerning was way in which he expressed his hatred of Zuma. Zuma had recently been interviewed by the BBC journalist Fergal Keane, as part of the usual BBC documentary focusing on how South Africa is collapsing and the South African government is evil, reducing Pilger’s two-dimensional propaganda to a one-dimensional absurdity. Keane had, with the stupidity which is sadly characteristic of the post-Hutton BBC, asked Zuma if he was a crook. Zuma brushed him aside like a horsefly, saying that he didn’t even know what the term “crook” meant.
This conservative white commentator (middle-aged, it should be added, lest one think we are talking about someone too young to remember apartheid) seized on this comment and declared that it was equivalent to Jimmy Kruger’s “It leaves me cold” observation in response to the police’s murder of Bantu Steve Biko.
Now that is very interesting. That is much more interesting than the shallow racism of hating the Forum of Black Journalists, which was in itself just echoing what the white press was saying. What this man is saying is that, when a black leader of the ANC refuses to confess to fraud (of which he is probably guilty, but nothing has been proved), then that is as bad as a white leader of the National Party informally endorsing the murder of a political opponent by men under his command, a murder which he had ordered (although he was not admitting to this).
Perhaps the context should be highlit. Zuma, of course, has been repeatedly charged for his crimes by the police and judicial structures under the control of the ANC. He was dismissed by the then-leader of his party because of these crimes. While he may be covering them up, neither the party nor the state has done this. Kruger, on the other hand, had Biko murdered, publicly praised the fact that he was murdered, was cheered for this by his party and approved by the other leaders, eventually retired respectably and died loaded with honours by his party and community.
Since no sane judgement would consider the two cases equivalent, one must ask what is wrong with the person’s judgement. Given that the person is plainly racist, one possibility is that he genuinely feels that blacks should be treated more harshly than whites for their crimes; white murder thus should be treated as equivalent to black fraud, and presumably white fraud should be treated as equivalent to blacks taking the Lord’s name in vain. This is a not uncommon attitude amongst the creators of the hegemonic discourse. Blacks, after all, are viewed with deep suspicion, as liable to sudden and irrational outbursts (thus the Democratic Alliance’s Tony Leon explained his party’s persistent comparison of President Mbeki to President Mugabe as being because, after all, the two were black, and therefore felt solidarity with one another, and Mbeki was liable to suddenly become Mugabe; the notion that Mugabe might suddenly become Mbeki could not be countenanced, because according to the hegemonic discourse, blacks tend to degenerate rather than progress).
This is thus a credible possibility. It also shows that we are not talking about one single man and his absurd racist outbursts here, as with the racist Afrikaner farmer with his sjambok. This person is essentially channelling the hegemonic discourse, even if he is putting his own spin on it. (Nevertheless, this is not the first time that white right-wing media commentators have claimed that Kruger’s phrase and behaviour is comparable to something which an ANC person has said or done.)
This point suggests an alternative analysis — that the commentator doesn’t really believe what he is saying at all, but is rather using it to insert an argument by stealth. This argument is that the present post-apartheid regime is as bad as the apartheid regime. One way to do this is, of course, to identify areas in which the present regime is indeed so bad and make comparisons, but that is actually impossible; such comparisons would never stand up. Hence, a much better way is to exploit the general ignorance of the crimes of the apartheid state, by taking one of the few such crimes which are widely known in the white community and declaring it, by fiat, to be equivalent to something done by the present regime.
What one is actually doing here is not merely fraudulently denigrating the present regime (which is of course beneficial for those who support the white-run Democratic Alliance or the white-run but coloured-fronted Independent Democrats). What is also being done is to legitimate the apartheid state. Those nostalgic for apartheid, and violently opposed to black rule, are thus brought on board by the hegemonic discourse. Meanwhile, however, it is possible to pretend that you are not doing this — for you can say that your comparison is valid, and anyone who denies this is, surely, trying to minimise the crimes of Jacob Zuma. Who would want to do that, except someone who supports corruption?
Who indeed. This is rather worrying stuff. What white racists have done, has been to build a wall between themselves and the apartheid state, to protect themselves from being accused of supporting apartheid, which, of course, they did do. (Virtually all criticism of the present state made by whites is accompanied by tacit declarations that the past state was better.) However, this wall is permeable; it has in it a kind of pipeline for transmitting the notion of the splendour of white rule into the post-apartheid ideological landscape.
One sees this in the focus on crime (the apartheid state was not soft on crime!), in the focus on Zimbabwe (Smith was a much better and more caring ruler than Mugabe!), in affirmative action which is equated with apartheid racism (as if whites were compelled to live in homelands and carry passes when they visit black-zoned suburbs). It is even there in the focus on AIDS (the insistence that the apartheid state would never have allowed so many people to die — although they did — an insistence which necessitates ignoring everything that the post-apartheid state has done and tried to do around AIDS).
Now, all this is generated by racists and couched in racist terms. This is largely because the racism of white culture remains unexamined. We are happy that white youths sleep with black youths and we assume that this means that they are not racist, but this is obviously not proven. The only serious attempt to examine institutionalised racism in white culture — the Human Rights Commission’s attempt to investigate racism in the media — was blocked by the white authorities. Nobody pointed out that a powerful force’s refusal to allow outsiders to study it, and its violent smear campaign against the potential investigators, suggests that the powerful force is concealing a wealth of corruption.
But it is nevertheless important to remember that racism is not necessarily the origin of all this. Or, rather, that the racism is being consciously used by people who may or may not be racists themselves. Instead, perpetuating white racism is extremely convenient for the white capitalist power-structure.
For one obvious thing, so long as whites consider themselves oppressed by blacks, they will not look too closely at the oppression generated by capitalism. In Trevor Manuel’s recent budget corporate tax was cut yet again, even though it is universally agreed (including by Manuel, no doubt sincerely) that the country faces massive problems, including wealth redistribution problems, which require more spending. Almost certainly this was because big business demands favourable treatment, and the rest of us can go to hell. Yet we are told in the press that this is a pro-poor and a pro-black budget. The press would not be able to get away with this if South African analyses were not skewed towards racialised approaches.
Thus, for instance, many ANC intellectuals denounce the growing band of black pundits hired by the white media or the white power-structure to recite white talking-points, as “coconuts”. Supposedly they are black on the outside and white on the inside, and there is much learned rubbish talked about Fanon (who would never have been fooled by such rubbish, any more than that Biko would have been impressed by these black pundits hired by the white power-structure!). Now, it is true that these people are black people working for whites (or on behalf of whites, at second- or third-hand) and reciting talking-points not only invented by whites, but which usually, when analysed, turn out to have racist implications.
Therefore, say these ANC intellectuals (such as Ronald Suresh Roberts) these people have betrayed their black essence. But this is not really the case. The racist content of the utterances of figures such as Xolela Mangcu and Mondli Makhanya is latent, well-camouflaged, and they can therefore wriggle out of such accusations. It is designed to be deniable (and it is perfectly possible that many such figures do not even realise that they are serving racist agendas, although it is unlikely that they would stop doing it if they realised, because they are mainly motivated by money). Hence, by focussing shallowly on the accusation that such people are betraying their race, these ANC intellectuals actually undermine a more fundamental analysis of what the hegemonic white system is up to, and why such racist attitudes persist in the first place.
For although there is a degree of racism from blacks towards whites, it is a far less significant degree than the reverse. Blacks tend to be nervous of whites; the dominant discourse in our culture remains one in which blacks are on the defensive. Whites are unified and hegemonic; blacks are fragmented and fissiparous. The split in the ANC is the most recent and obvious example, but it is only the most extreme of the ways in which black politicians have been co-opted by the white-dominated capitalist power structure. Racism is handy for unifying the whites (and to a lesser but significant extent, the coloureds and indians) and sustaining them as pliant tools of the power structure. Thus the pathetic white racist correspondent cited above (a man who worked as a propagandist for Afrikaner banks) may think he is serving a racist past, but he is actually building a plutocratic future — and one which may well include the black capitalists he hates and fears.