The Biggest Issue (I): The Situation Gets Worse.

Across much of the world, social inequity in nation-states is determined by class, and to a lesser extent by gender. Only in Latin America and South Africa is race a significant factor. (This does not mean that blacks and browns are not oppressed in white-dominated societies all over the world, only that in Latin America and South Africa, the blacks and browns make up significant proportions of the population.) In those regions, class was determined by the fact that whites seized the country and all the possessions in it and then ruled through mixed-race half-breeds. Therefore, in a place like Venezuela or Bolivia, the paler your skin, the more economic and political power you are likely to have. The victories of figures like Morales and Chavez, politically and economically significant as they were, were predominantly racial victories.
Understandably, this is not acknowledged. In Latin America, as in apartheid South Africa, the refusal to acknowledge the racial context of social inequity was enforced by law — although in Latin America this law was not so tightly codified as in South Africa. Nevertheless, it was the law which prevented the Indians from getting their land back, it was the law which discouraged descendants of slaves from escaping from poverty, and therefore it was the law which ensured that white people in places like Peru and Brazil would always be rich enough to ensure that they could use their wealth to hang on to power. And if that failed, there was always the army which could be relied on to serve the interests of the people who lived in the best suburbs. (It must have been a shattering shock to the system when the Venezuelans discovered in 2002 that their army would follow the elected President rather than the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce even though the Chairman and all his friends lived in the best suburbs.)
In South Africa, this refusal to acknowledge race was driven, of course, by racism. Blacks and coloureds were poor because they were genetically irresponsible and feckless, and therefore were not capable of holding down real jobs or making use of a proper education. Therefore, South African society merely reflected the true merit of its citizens. One could believe this, provided that one was white, but there was a problem when it came to grand apartheid. Were Kaiser Matanzima and Gatsha Buthelezi merely monkeys dressed up in suits, or were they the highly-esteemed elder statesmen of, respectively, independent nations and quasi-independent nation-states with a noble history and playing a vital role in national and foreign policy? If the latter, which most whites were told and therefore believed, then obviously not all blacks were worthless. One had to acknowledge that a tiny fraction of them were capable of rising above their inherent inferiority.
Then again, there was the problem that many blacks had guns. The South African Police depended on armed blacks to keep order in townships when there weren’t enough armed whites. The South African Army had established numerous black battalions and had established armies in every independent homeland. The war in Namibia was largely conducted with black cannon fodder, and towards the end of the Rhodesian war, although the fact was not very widely publicised, it became clear that white Rhodesia could only survive behind a shield of black mercenaries. (The collapse came when it became impossible to pay them.) Blacks were not supposed to shoot whites, but what if they did?
So the whites had to accommodate the notion that blacks could under certain very specific circumstances be permitted to have white privileges, including the power of life and death.
All this might have been expected to ameliorate racism to some extent. No doubt it did. But racism is a very hard thing to remove because it begins very early in life and because it permeates culture. It would have been a very difficult thing to eliminate. So, instead of eliminating it, white society, as usual, took the easy path. They pretended that it didn’t exist, expanding upon the denial of racism which had always been a feature of the apartheid state (“separate development”, “plural relations”, “own and general affairs”, “consociational democracy). This was the birth of the “rainbow nation”, a pure advertising-agency image, which black South African politicians tolerated because the alternative was to face up to the intractable antagonism of the white community, something which black South Africans have huge problems addressing.
However, what seems to have been assumed was that white racism would gradually fade away. It was a natural assumption. Racism seemed related to sheer ignorance; to the fact that whites virtually never mixed with blacks on an equal basis. In the post-1994 situation, it might have been assumed that whites would gradually begin such mixing, and therefore racism would begin to disappear. Affirmative action and BEE would speed up the process. The public suppression of racism, under which everyone from Betsie Verwoerd down was invited to essentially say “I am not a racialist, but . . . “, was also supposed to help with this; if everybody ignored it, perhaps it would go away.
Since it did not, we now have a huge problem. Part of the problem is generated by the complicity of virtually all whites, to a greater or lesser degree, in apartheid. Many whites served apartheid; many more benefited from it. Few challenged apartheid; fewer still fought against it with any vigour. As a result, whites perceive themselves as guilty. By a natural human process of denial and self-delusion, whites therefore proclaim themselves to be innocent. The crime from which they benefited and shall benefit for decades to come is declared not now to exist, and indeed, never to have existed with reference to them. Instead, a different crime has been invented — the crime of saying that apartheid has had any impact on South African society. This is racism, and immoral, because it blames the victims of South African society — namely, the whites.
How has this bizarre situation come about? For it undeniably has; blacks, even quite radical ones, act sheepish and shuffle their feet when they talk about the legacy of apartheid, while whites routinely denounce anyone who dares to talk about such things. Presumably, the object of this is to compel everybody to ignore the elephant in the room, because it belongs to whites.
There is a fair amount of evidence that racism has become much more acceptable than it was a decade or so ago. If you examine South African political weblogs, the proportion of comments containing some degree of racism varies from about 40-50% on weblogs like the Mail and Guardian’s Thoughtleader and the related Constitutionallyspeaking, to something like 90% on weblogs like Politicsweb. Notice that these are nominally liberal and intellectual fora; weblogs like zasucks exist entirely to propagate racist filth. In the letters pages of newspapers one finds a slightly more measured tone, probably because many middle-class whites — the kind of person who writes letters to newspapers — are not under the direct authority of the ruling class; they get their instructions from the papers, not through memoranda and e-mails. But the pundits! Johnson, Mulholland, Myburgh and their avatars are all spewing the most obnoxious racism into the Avusa stable, and the implications of many other commentators are similar. Calland has now become openly neoliberal, while Steven Friedman calls for the judicial protection of hate speech because it so dominates the white political discourse which Friedman wishes to preserve (but why preserve it if it is racist?).
So, if there is racism, it is partly because racism is being promoted in elements of the media. This raises the question of whether racism has increased in the broad white community or whether it has particularly increased in the bourgeoisie. There is certainly a lot of racism in white cultural activity. Books like Disgrace and films like District 9 are cases in point, and a recent “alternative” film which depicts blacks in general as rapists and Nigerians as superstitious barbarians shows how unthinkingly such dogmas are reproduced by those who pretend to be intellectuals.
What is here meant by racism is the belief that blacks are inferior to whites as a result of some innate defect derived from birth. Typical examples are the DA’s call for “promotion based on merit” and hostility to “cadre deployment”, both of which are condemnations of black people being given responsible political jobs. Related to this is the concern about affirmative action amongst whites, which invariably entails the belief that affirmative action must lead to giving incompetent people jobs. The concern about black economic empowerment is of a different order; what upsets whites here is that black people are getting extremely large salaries. One might argue that this is a bad thing, because most blacks are very poor — but then, overwhelmingly more whites are getting much larger salaries, and most whites are not so poor, so the general effect is that whites are much more privileged than blacks, and getting, if anything, more so. Black economic empowerment affects less than 5% of the wealth of the country, but is blamed for all ills, because the concept panders to white resentment of the fact that a black person might be richer.
The situation goes further. A part of the white hostility to the purchase of submarines and fighters lay in the firm belief by whites that blacks don’t know how to sail boats or fly aircraft, and can’t be taught to do this; that such things ought to be left to whites. One looks at the situation in Zimbabwe, where many commentators solemnly proclaim that the blacks were plotting to destroy the country from the beginning (and, of course, South African commentators solemnly proclaim that the local blacks will lose no opportunity to do the same here — black commentators being quite energetic in promoting such ideas here).
The universal tendency to personalise all politics finds particular expression here. Prominent black politicians who displease the ruling class are not simply wrong — indeed, the reasons why they displease the ruling class are generally hushed up as much as possible. Rather, they are stupid, evil and corrupt. Malema is the prototype for this (journalists with expensive watches and costly cars are happy to denounce Malema for having an expensive watch and a costly car, thus showing that he is a hypocrite, with the further implication that virtually all black politicians are hypocrites unless the media specifically says they aren’t) but a large number of similar politicians are treated in essentially the same way. In general, black politicians and businesspeople are jeered at, and the worst possible spin put on their actions, because the audience for the jeering wishes to hear such things. White politicians and businesspeople are treated with respect, partly because they own the media, partly because they have much better connections with the judiciary than most blacks — but, particularly, because the predominantly white audience of the media instinctively feel that Helen Zille and Patricia de Lille are more trustworthy than anyone with a darker skin. This is not based upon their record (for the press avoid discussing records, since to do so openly would be a huge embarrassment in both cases).
Another problem however, is that racism can also be used to promote tolerance of misbehaviour on the part of black politicians of whom the ruling class approves. Most members of the Zuma faction of the ANC have been engaged in corruption and got away with it to a greater or lesser extent. While we are continually told that corruption is very bad, somehow it becomes less bad when it is Zuma or Mashitile engaged in it. This is not because whites particularly admire corrupt black people — it is, rather, that the racist mind-set automatically assumes that black people are corrupt. When the press declares: “There is a corrupt black person, isn’t it disgraceful?” its white audience will predominantly nod their heads. But if the press says: “Look at this ebullient, somewhat arrogant black person dancing and singing — isn’t it entertaining, and if he is a trifle corrupt, well, what do you expect?” then the white audience will yet again nod their heads. Whites have come to expect blacks to be corrupt and incompetent — unlike whites — because they are so instructed. Hence they have come to tolerate corruption by the back door, and what is worse, they can then tell themselves that because they are tolerating black corruption, they are being non-racist when really they are being racist.
Therefore, white South African racism is becoming more prominent and more energetic with time. Is this really a serious problem? That’s a case for a subsequent observation.


One Response to The Biggest Issue (I): The Situation Gets Worse.

  1. Jack Claxton says:

    Phew! A lot of words!

    Having (sort of) read all of that, it is not entirely clear to me exactly what “The Biggest Issue” is. Is it supposed to be racism, and then particularly as in “the belief that blacks are inferior to whites as a result of some innate defect derived from birth”?
    In the very first place I want to suggest to you that your notion of racism suffers from a singular lack of symmetry. For instance

    the belief that whites are inferior to blacks as a result of some innate defect derived from birth
    the belief that chinese are inferior to whites as a result of some innate defect derived from birth
    the belief that whites are inferior to chinese as a result of some innate defect derived from birth
    the belief that half breeds are inferior to pure breds as a result of some innate defect derived from birth
    the belief that whites are inferior to semites as a result of some innate defect derived from birth

    none of these are considered to be racism? You must certainly agree that such an understanding of racism is not one which can in any way be considered as having any currency and that therefore no conclusion derived from that can be valid in any possible way.
    Even that little part of “innate defect derived from birth” is a bit of a setup – an inflammatory sort of straw man, which I’m sure you’re able to appreciate, and I will therefore substitute “innate defect derived from birth” with something less emotive and somewhat more accurate.

    So, maybe what you meant to say is that it is not racism in general which is The Biggest Issue, but just one miniscule subset of racism, that one of infinitely many instances – the belief that blacks are inferior to whites as a result of genetically inheritable traits?

    It will come to no surprise to you that I (and by implication any rational and sane person) must reject any such a notion.

    Maybe it will not even come to a surprise to you that I reject your notion of racism altogether.

    I do in fact believe that as a result of genetically inheritable traits, blacks are inferior to whites in certain respects, and that the reverse is true, in certain others. I deny that this makes me a racist, in any way. It is a universally held and fundamental belief held by all people about other people, moreover one which can be substantiated, and to demonize it only when held by a white person is bigotry and indeed true racism of the worst order.
    Racism as such is a much overworked word, and its chief mode of use nowadays is to transfer a particular label from some sort of imaginary and despised ideology to some other person or group of people, and then to falsely associate a worldview, attitude or agenda to go along with the label. Precisely as you have done.

    So, yea, maybe time to explode a few ideas here.

    Apart from the pathological few, few apartheid era South African whites perceive themselves as guilty. This has nothing to do with denial or self delusion. It comes from the certain knowledge that apartheid had in fact made South Africa possible, and that there was no viable alternative at the time. The legacy of apartheid is in fact whatever good can be said of the South Africa of today, which would not have come about in its absence.

    I would even go so far as to say that “The Biggest Issue” really is the inability and the unwillingness to say this openly and bravely. Because only then will the underlying dishonesty of the current political discourse be exorcised. Why is this important? Because everything built on a lie is bound to fail.

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