How race poisons debate - Politicsweb

There may be reasonable disagreement about the best strategies for dealing with pathological behaviour, but it would be surprising indeed if there were any debate that tolerating such behaviour would only enable it to persist, and encouraging it would do anything other than aggravate it. As the principle in economics goes, if you want more of something, incentivise it.

Terence Corrigan

There may be reasonable disagreement about the best strategies for dealing with pathological behaviour, but it would be surprising indeed if there were any debate that tolerating such behaviour would only enable it to persist, and encouraging it would do anything other than aggravate it. As the principle in economics goes, if you want more of something, incentivise it.

This comes to mind in the recently released report into governance at the University of Cape Town.

Dated 11 October, the report was compiled by a high-powered team led by retired judge Lex Mpati, and examined a string of controversies at the institution, mostly associated with the leadership of the former Vice Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng and the departure from the university of senior staff believed to have come into conflict with her. It makes for distressing reading. It chronicles a litany of abuses of authority, grave as well as petty, at South Africa’s top-ranked academic institution.

Administrative processes were abused to pursue personal agendas. A toxic work environment was created that made particular individuals’ continued service untenable. Instruments meant to uphold professional behaviour – such as codes of conduct – were ignored. Those mandated to provide oversight failed to do so. As a consequence, a number of employees of the university endured damage to their careers, suffered financial hardship and emotional trauma. UCT was shaken by the tensions in its governance structures, and it’s fair to say that its reputation – an incalculably valuable asset for a university – was tarnished.

The report has attracted a fair amount of coverage. Inevitably, the weight of attention has been on the question of race and ‘racialisation’, or more accurately its weaponisation by Professor Phakeng and a couple of her supporters. This is a recurrent theme. At one point, the report comments: ‘The most troubling aspect of her leadership was the divisive way she used race and racial difference as a weapon in her interaction with almost everyone in UCT, regardless of their position. Her “crass” obsession with race, as [UCT Council Chair Sipho] Pityana described it, became worse, not better, with time. It became increasingly difficult for leaders and staff to attend meetings with her as she brooked no disagreement and caused distress to those affected.’   

Detailed exposition

This is a strong comment. It comes with a detailed exposition of the deficient conduct by the former Vice Chancellor and others it examined. One reads accounts of how she believed that noxious racists seeking to undermine her, and the imperatives of transformation, were omnipresent. She responded by cracking down on those of whom she was suspicious. She emphasised that she was black – authentically black, mind – in contrast to others. This was irrespective of how they might define themselves.

Coloured people (or, as some commentators might have it, ‘so-called Coloureds’) didn’t measure up. Reducing people to tears was to be disregarded, since white and coloured women feigned tears to garner sympathy. And when the University Council sought to investigate these matters, a supporter countered that this mirrored the ‘injustices of the past that often saw black women…being victimised by intertwining systems of racism and patriarchy’.

A generalised, unspecific sense of grievance, owing more to ideology, perception and personal paranoia, drove a destructive agenda of victimisation, whose immediate targets were real, specific people, with the university suffering collateral damage.

The report recommends a raft of remedial measures, including systems changes, the payment of financial compensation and apologies to those who were wronged.

There has been some commentary on this – notably a thoughtful two-part contribution in the Daily Maverick by Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass – which appears to exude relief and to suggest that an opportunity for a reset has arrived. (Professor Phakeng has stated that she believes the report to contain ‘inaccuracies’, Sipho Pityana has taken issue with it, and the Parliamentary Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation has called for it to be set aside, so do not expect the last word to have been spoken.)

But if this is true, it might be worth asking how things came to this point. Or, as analysts are wont to do, to ask about the ‘deeper’ causes. This is a profoundly important matter and extends way beyond a tarnished ivory tower of the academy.

The Beginnings…

Reflecting on the ructions in a world a decade ago – around the time of the so-called Arab Spring, as well as discontent elsewhere – the American political scientist Frances Fukuyama drew attention to the prominent role of middle class activists and intellectuals, even in societies afflicted by grievous poverty and injustice to which the middle classes were not always directly exposed. This, he said, followed the pattern of history. ‘The French, Bolshevik and Chinese Revolutions were all led by discontented middle-class individuals, even if their ultimate course was later affected by peasants, workers and the poor. The 1848 “Springtime of Peoples” saw virtually the whole European continent erupt in revolution, a direct product of the European middle classes’ growth over the previous decades.’ One could go on.

These were people with a stake in society and personal aspirations and tended to be educated. South Africa’s transition was propelled by a multi-class coalition, within which exactly that middle class – often described at the time explicitly as the ‘black middle class’ or as the ‘middle strata’ – were positioned to benefit handsomely. And unlike the poorer (think, ‘working class’ or ‘lumpen’) elements of society, this was a group that interacted closely and on terms of nominal equality with its white counterparts. An explicitly race-based approach stood to deliver to this group quick access to opportunities, to jobs and to status.

Intellectuals were particularly prominent here. Stepping into what might be broadly termed the post-apartheid elite (note: this did not necessarily mean affiliation, formal or otherwise, with the ANC) they set about articulating ideas about the ideological and cultural trajectory of post-apartheid society.  

Two early exponents of this activist intellectualism were Dr (alter Prof) Malegapuru Makgoba and Dr Barney Pityana. Dr Makgoba, an eminent immunologist, who was appointed deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1994, had declared an intention to Africanise the institution, derisively referring to its existing leadership as a ‘small inbred elite’. A group of senior figures at the University produced a report suggesting that Dr Makgoba had embellished his CV. He shot back with information from their staff files implicating them in malfeasance.

Template of sorts

The significance of this was less the battle itself than that it established a template of sorts for ideological competition. Makgoba had been targeted by ‘racialised power’, and was confronting it head on. Here, the target was not stereotypical, AWB-style racists. Rather, he and his supporters identified their enemies as ‘liberals’. Whether this is a moniker that his detractors would acknowledge as representing their views was arguably beside the point. The idea was to paint competing narratives as inherently illegitimate and complicit in the great original sin of South African society.

For Dr Pityana, an accomplished academic and theologian, the inaugural chairmanship of the SA Human Rights Committee provided a platform not merely to protect a commonly understood set of constitutional entitlements, but to define the terms of the society that was being created.

The tenor of Pityana’s approach was captured in a controversy around the appointment of the commission. At issue was a critique by Professor Dennis Davis, a noted legal scholar, who felt that certain outstanding candidates had been overlooked, while some of doubtful background – here he was referring to individuals associated with the previous regime – had been appointed. Pityana launched an intemperate attack on Davis.

‘Davis and his ilk are racists,’ Pityana wrote in a newspaper column, ‘They cannot countenance the fact that people were appointed, the balance of whom were drawn from the black community, the majority are women. In this instance the liberal old boys’ network did not succeed. While stating adherence to an open society, they want an open democratic society on their own terms. They are still not able to honour the judgment of a black president, nor have they accepted the reality that leadership in this county will be in the hands of back people.’

Here was a close reflection of the sentiments expressed by Makgoba: the denouncing of liberals, the racial terms of engagement, and the expansive view of the mandate and the stakes involved. Note too that Makgoba and Pityana both occupied thought-leadership roles. Their objectives and motivations were not pecuniary, but ideological. It was less the rewards or wealth or political office than the striving of a reconfigured society that appealed.

Consolidating a Narrative

It was fitting that Makgoba and Pityana were both involved (along with a few other notables) in penning a widely read and discussed opinion piece, in which they attacked the ‘media’ for the coverage of the candidacy for the Vice Chancellorship of Wits of Professor Sam Nolutshungu. (He had been offered the job, but there had been speculation that he had not been serious about accepting it. He was in fact suffering from cancer from which he died in August 1998.) ‘African Intellectual had to die to be believed in’ went the headline in The Star of 25 August, shortly after Nolutshungu’s passing.

Written in broad generalities, the article portrayed a ‘media’ driven by racism hounding a distinguished African professor. The media in this view was essentially an alien institution. It had no connection with, or empathy for the society in which it operated. For the authors, the macro-issue was South Africa’s identity as an African country and the need to identify and counter those who stood in its way. There was a clear (and well-nigh unreconcilable) binary between themselves as ‘Africans’, and thus presumably as the bearers of the new society, and the ‘media’, employing ‘foreign values in order to pursue a neo-colonialist, conservative liberal agenda’. (For good measure, there was also a dismissal of the ‘cliché of university autonomy’.)

‘The media is not sensitive to Africans and their values. It continues to take advantage of our generosity and Ubuntu,’ they wrote. And they concluded: ‘The media is only patriotic to a minority section of our society. What the media is doing and continues to do unchallenged is to promote the notion of European conservative superiority and excellence against incompetent and fraudulent Africans who lie their way to the top. The media continue to practice a subliminal racism by creating a negative image of the African. If we are to have any glimmer of hope, this type of reporting has to be seriously transformed. As Africans we should no longer tolerate this state of affairs in our country’s media.’

As it happens, The Star replied this piece, stating that its coverage of Nolutshungu’s candidacy had been supportive – and that the only significant criticism had come from Jon Qwelane, a columnist whose own strident views on racial matters were aligned with Pityana’s and Makgoba’s.

A significant theme

A racist media would remain a significant theme for some years – leading political figures regularly claimed this as the failings of the new government became manifest. In 1998, the SAHRC received complaints from the Black Lawyers Association and the Association of Black Accountants of South Africa – notably, organisations representing particular racially defined middle class constituencies – and started a highly controversial probe into racism in the media.

That Pityana had already effectively prejudged the matter raised eyebrows, as did some of the highly contentious research work commissioned (an analysis comically included drawing inferences about photographs of birds), but the real significance was that it illustrated an understanding of racism that was taking hold: ‘racism’, such an emotive term in South Africa, could be inferred almost independently of any intention.

The inquiry made much of the notion of ‘subliminal racism’. Thus, in its conclusions, the SAHRC stated: ‘To the extent that expressions in the South African media “reflect a persistent pattern” of racist expressions and content of writing that could have been avoided, and given that we take seriously the fact that many submissions complained that such expressions cause or have the effect of causing hurt and pain, South African media can be characterised as racist institutions. This finding holds regardless as to whether there is conscious or unconscious racism, direct or indirect.’

Not long thereafter, in August 2000, the SAHRC convened a major conference on racism in South Africa. Entitled ‘A Nation in Dialogue’, it was preceded by extensive preparatory work including public hearings – participatory, vaguely populist affairs to which ordinary people could voice their perspectives. These were consolidated into a report. Its 20 pages detail dozens if not hundreds of claims of mistreatment, typically with an assertion that these displayed racism. No attempt seems to have been made to test the veracity of these claims, nor to consider whether something other than racism might have been at hand. In many cases, detail was so scanty that empirical investigation would not have been possible.

The closest one comes to specificity is in this example, from the hearings in the Free State: Another oral submission concerning the SAPS told the story of Moses Seabe, a police officer, who was unfairly dismissed because he was opposed to racism in the police force.  Allegations of firearm theft were brought against him. Mr Seabe’s attempts to reapply for a position in the SAPS have met with failure.’

Here a name is provided – more than is at hand for the bulk of the report – but evidently this was not followed up. The report asserts that he was ‘unfairly dismissed’, presumably on the firearms charges. Could evidence be produced that refuted those allegations? As South Africa finds to its detriment, the loss and theft of official firearms is a dire and life-threatening problem, and one perhaps not advisedly lightly dismissed.

Loomed large

This arose from a call by the (then) newly elected President for the country to discuss and stand up to racism. Mbeki’s persona loomed large here. He had already linked his political project to the idea of a continental renewal and the promotion of a proudly African identity for South Africa – the African Renaissance – as well as to the combating of racism. Possessed of a formidable intellect and riding a wave of unassailable dominance by the ANC, Mbeki was able to merge intellectual and political prowess. 

Delivering an address to the conference, Mbeki quoted approvingly the work of the American scholar Alan David Freeman: ‘The concept of “racial discrimination” may be approached from the perspective of either its victim or its perpetrator. From the victim’s perspective, racial discrimination describes those conditions of actual social existence as a member of a perpetual underclass.

This perspective includes both the objective conditions of life (lack of jobs, lack of money, lack of housing) and the consciousness associated with those objective conditions (lack of choice and lack of human individuality in being forever perceived as a member of a group rather than as an individual). The perpetrator perspective sees racial discrimination not as conditions but as actions, or series of actions, inflicted on the victim by the perpetrator. The focus is more on what particular perpetrators have done or are doing to some victims than on the overall life situation of the victim class.’

Mbeki added, ‘Whatever else we may disagree about, I would hope that, at least, we would agree about these propositions.’

Agreeing on these propositions entailed accepting that distinct ‘classes’ of perpetrators and victims existed, and that individuals’ actions or intent or life experiences were not determinative of complicity in racism or, for that matter, in whether or not one had been so victimised. Cleverly, he’d positioned this as an axiom in this argument. This was very much in line with the views espoused by the SAHRC, and the intellectuals cited above.


This message was fortified – perhaps unwittingly – by an address made by Professor Patricia Williams, another American legal academic with a focus in racial issues. Speaking largely about her country, she noted that the beneficiaries of the country’s civil rights movement had opened up opportunities, but a new challenge awaited: ‘It is about the ideas, the culture, the thought of those whose bodies have pushed open the door; it is about whether we who have gained such recent admission will be able to leave our mark. It is about who may contribute to the canon, may speak in the boardroom, may participate in the artworld, may inscribe themselves on the pages of history. It is about whether we will inspire the hearts of the world with our vision too… It is no wonder that we have culture wars just now.’

She might very well have been speaking about developments in South Africa.

These vignettes are illustrative of the emerging set of ideas that were organising themselves in South Africa’s public conversation: racism, transformation and Africanisation. Each loomed prominently though formlessly. Each drew on real pain and frustration in South African society; there were real and serious discussions to be had about these issues. A multiracial, multicultural society with deep historical divides called out for this. But what was taking place was not likely to be conducive to it.

Firstly, it’s doubtful that it was rooted in verifiable reality, but rather in perceptions (genuine or contrived) about the state of the country and its dynamics. Claims could be promiscuously made with little demand for substantiation to be put forward. Secondly, exactly what these operative concepts denoted was vague. What did it mean to be an African, or to evince African values? Makgoba once told an interviewer that robust public contestation with leaders was alien to African culture – ‘This is not something that is peculiar to politics. It is peculiar to the way Africans operate’ – though this was rather belied by his own conduct over the years.

Thirdly, there was a strong suggestion of Jacobinism in all this. South Africa was to be an ‘African’ society. Racism, at best unintentional but always present, permeated all that might object to this and to what its advocates sought to achieve – and even what they sought to achieve, their endgame, was often unclear. 

The High Water Mark

The ideas staked out above came into their own over the next two decades. By this time, state institutions had largely come under the sway of the ANC, or at least its sympathisers (its programme of cadre deployment inserted activists into state offices). As Brian Pottinger has argued in The Mbeki Legacy, William Mervin Gumede in Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, and Xolela Mangcu in his To the Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa, Mbeki’s presidency was characterised by a demand for intellectual conformity. Racial solidarity – or what Mangcu termed ‘racial nativism’ – was a potent ideological mechanism for political control, but at the cost of the intellectual daring and innovation that a hugely challenged society required. 

Racial stigmatisation and solidarity could be wheeled out at those within the ANC’s orbit who stepped out of line, or at those outside it. So, veteran Communist and former political prisoner Jeremy Cronin could be damned as ‘a white messiah and a factory fault’ for expressing concerns about the political direction the ANC was taking. Tony Leon, leader of the Democratic Party (as it was then), was attacked by Mbeki at a public lecture as a ‘white politician’ who was ‘willing to enunciate an entrenched white racism that is a millennium old’. (This was over criticism of the government’s AIDS policy.)

And responding to the scandal over the notorious Arms Deal, Mbeki wrote (in what was probably an equally notorious argument):

As an important part of the struggle to realise this objective, we should not, and will not abandon the offensive to defeat the insulting campaigns further to entrench a stereotype that has, for centuries, sought to portray Africans as a people that is corrupt, given to telling lies, prone to theft and self-enrichment by immoral means, a people that is otherwise contemptible in the eyes of the ‘civilised’. We must expect that, as usual, our opponents will accuse us of ‘playing the race card’, to stop us confronting the challenge of racism.

The fishers of corrupt men are determined to prove everything in the anti-African stereotype. They rely on their capacity to produce long shadows and innumerable allegations around the effort of our government to supply the South African National Defence Force with the means to discharge its constitutional and continental obligations. They are confident that these long shadows and allegations without number will engulf and suffocate the forces that fought for and lead our process of democratisation, reconstruction and development.

It is important to note that this line of thinking was not limited to the ANC or the government – there, it might be dismissed as opportunism or self-serving politicking. (A Democratic Party document made this argument.) Just as in the 1990s, there were vocal constituencies outside formal politics that employed similar frames of analysis.

No ANC hack

Universities were again prominent, and the figure of Professor Makgoba looms large. Makgoba, incidentally, was no ANC hack, and had challenged Mbeki publicly about his view on AIDS, and incurred the latter’s wrath as a consequence. In 2002, he took over as Principal and Vice Chancellor of the then University of Natal and presided over its merger in 2004 with the University of Durban-Westville, an institution established largely to serve South Africa’s Indian population.

Professor Makgoba had previously written: ‘The classic ivory tower concept of a university is dead and may it rest in peace. Let’s AFRICANISE or else we shall perish as a nation.’ Makgoba was probably the foremost proponent of the idea of an ‘African University’. Once again, what this was meant to be was rather unclear. A great deal of stress was placed by its advocates on affirming an African identity and embracing African culture. The details of how this was to be done and what the end product would contain was undefined.

Professor Makgoba’s approach veered into the bellicose. In March 2005, he published an opinion piece in the Mail & Guardian likening white males to baboons, in need of ‘rehabilitation’. Given that simian allusions had been a classic racist trope (Makgoba actually referred to this in his piece), it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this was calculated to give offence. Their rehabilitation would involve ‘imitating’ all things African (the article does not suggest that they could truly become African but implies that they could be tolerated as caricatures of the genuine artifact), because this was a demand of the newly empowered in South African society: ‘When we say “Mayibuye iAfrika” we mean it and mean business. Democratic governments are representative of the will, values and aspirations of the majority and not the will and aspirations of a whingeing white male minority.’

As was noted at the time, it would be inconceivable that this sort of aggressive nativism and racial bluster would have been tolerated from a white official. But it is a feature of nationalist ideologies that their own claims may be seen as legitimate, while comparable counterclaims are not. The late John Kane-Berman, then CEO of the Institute of Race Relations, wrote a sardonic comment that dethroned white male baboons had actually shown considerable docility, and that those who now enthusiastically praised the new order were often those who’d comfortably accommodated themselves to the previous regime. Having accepted demands for conformity in the past, doing so in the present required only a little adaptation.

Transformation journey

Later, in a rather congratulatory piece about UKZN’s transformation journey, Professor Makgoba returned to this: ‘The real transformation challenge for building a non-racial learning environment is to confront and eliminate the current pernicious and dominant conservative, medieval, monastic and racist notions about a university and knowledge production that often masquerade as liberalism and to eliminate the protection of standards often perpetuated by mediocre and research unproductive white males from all institutions of higher learning.’

Makgoba’s term at UKZN was controversial. Attacks on ‘white males’ sat incongruously with a stated determination for the university to function as a premier research institution, given that white males were disproportionately represented among its research staff.

A view on this period of history was captured by Professor Nithaya Chetty and Dr Christopher Merrett in their book The Struggle for the Soul of a South African University. This work was concerned with the state of the university with regard to academic freedom and the mission of a university. Much of its critique centred on the ‘managerialism’ that came to dominate its operations, stultified open debate and alienated many talented members of staff. Both Chetty and Merrett had been critics of UKZN’s direction – readers should bear this in mind – but the book is detailed, impeccably referenced and gives the impression of credibility.

Ideological agenda

But according to Chetty and Merrett’s account, the administrative direction was intertwined with an ideological agenda – this being the ill-defined idea of ‘transformation’. Here they make an analogy to the phenomenon of McCarthyism: ‘McCarthy worked to a cynical, but effective, plan. He set up a popular cause and a supposed bogeyman; and then set about fabricating evidence to show that one was going to destroy the other. At UKZN the ideal is transformation, a conveniently elastic concept that has yet to be properly defined. The threat is alleged racism practised by ‘old cliques’ (liberals), ‘misfits’ (upholders of standards), those with ‘conflicting interests’ (members of staff associations and unions), ‘settler intellectuals’ (Indian and white staff), the ‘compromised’ (those who criticise political and personal agendas); and various individuals described by a variety of pejorative zoological tags.

The intention, and the effect, has been to delegitimise certain opinions through allegations of bias. Both McCarthyism and the condition of UKZN arose out of paranoia and insecurity thriving on imprecision and lack of substance. The inevitable result is conformity and the requirement that intellectual activity should genuflect before institutional power as a test of loyalty.’

As it happened, the metaphorical guns were trained not only on white staff, but on Indian staff too. This was absolutely inevitable when ‘transformation’ was overlain with Africanism, and where the most convenient means of denoting progress was in racial bean-counting.

In fact, a pressure group was formed at the university calling itself the Black African Academic Forum. It was geared entirely towards the advancement of Africans, not those generically classed as ‘black’, all of whom were nominally entitled to redress measures on the basis of a common history of discrimination. Indeed, it sought to remove Coloured and Indian staff from preferential policies (although the recruitment of Africans from abroad was to be encouraged). A document listing its demands was quixotically expansive, including establishing a fund to match competing job offers for African employees, PhD studies overseas (incongruous, given the Africanist orientation of the document’s authors), as well as career circumstances conducive to ‘an enriching social and family life’. Pervasive racism was claimed, again without citing any evidence.

Predictable stress on racism

The idea that racism pervaded higher education was taken seriously by the national education bureaucracy. In 2008, a ministerial committee was convened to investigate transformation (with a predictable stress on racism) in universities. Chaired by Professor Crain Soudien of UCT, it produced a 139-page report, which purported to show the dire state of higher learning in the country. Rather like the SAHRC’s report into media racism, it came to the conclusion that ‘discrimination, in particular with regard to racism and sexism, is pervasive in our institutions.’ The headline of a news article on the matter summed up the tenor of the report: ‘South Africa’s Universities of Shame’.

The report, however, conceded that its focus had been on providing ‘voices’. ‘As a result of the focus on this “voice”, which is subjective, the Committee was unable, and this is a crucial caution, to verify the claims, both positive and negative, which were made by the individuals and groups whom the Committee met during these institutional visits, as well as in the written submissions received.’

It also gamely admitted that it should not be judged by academic standards, and that it lacked the capacity to be ‘fair’ to everyone.

This was breath-taking. Of the nine panellists, seven held doctorates or professorships. That they were satisfied with an output to inform public policy that did not measure up to the scholastic standards they would (surely?) insist on from students under their supervision can only be described as deeply disappointing. That they did so in relation to so incendiary an issue as racism can best be described as irresponsible.

But no matter; the report provided a veneer of evidence (to the extent that it might be required) to support the narrative that racism was endemic in the dark heart of higher education.

On to Decolonisation!

It was around this time that Mbeki was removed from office by the ANC, making way – after a brief interregnum – for the ascendency of Jacob Zuma. Unlike Mbeki, Zuma had no intellectual pretentions. He presented himself as a humble, all-too-human man of the people. He proudly expounded an ‘African’ identity, as Mbeki never could. Zuma was comfortable singing and dancing, spoke Zulu visibly more comfortably than English, had deep connections to his rural roots and was a polygamist. He was also given to voicing dismissive views on South Africa’s constitutional order as being out of sync with the country’s culture.

Professor Laurence Piper of the University of Western Cape wrote during the transition to the Zuma Presidency that what confronted the country was likely going to be more profound than what had gone before. As he put it, From post-apartheid to post-colonial politics. ‘Postcolonial’ politics signalled sharp contradictions between the haves and have nots, between personalised power and established institutions, between different interests and ethnic groups. Quoting another scholar, Piper referred to ‘the hardships of poverty, of urban dislocation, of the problematic mingling of tradition and the now, in a pluralising modernity’. These conditions had long existed, but it was in this era that they were given gaudy and visible expression.

There had been initial hopes that Zuma might inaugurate a new era of cross-racial amity, for unlike Mbeki, he had no need to validate his Africanism. However, manifest failings of governance rapidly became apparent, these represented in part the accumulated outcome of long-term missteps and in part his own administration’s pathologies. The resultant criticism generated a pushback that often centred on identitarian issues – critics were guilty of racism, or they simply existed outside an African frame of reference, and so could not appreciate the appropriateness of what Zuma and his government were doing. 

‘Security upgrades’

Perhaps the most obvious example of this concerned the ‘security upgrades’ to Zuma’s homestead at Nkandla. This should have been an extreme embarrassment for the ANC, given the ostentatious spending on a politician’s private residence in the face of widespread deprivation and the party’s stated commitment to the country’s poor. Dealing with the torrent of criticism could be farcical (the video demonstrating the operation of the ‘fire pool’ to the strains of O Sole Mio makes for darkly amusing viewing). Elsewhere, the controversy was dismissed as ‘white people’s lies’, the language used to describe it was condemned as racist, while criticism was rejected on the basis that certain features embodied deeply held cultural beliefs. And insult law was proposed to fend off criticism of the president.

Thought Leadership in the Decolonial Phase

The Zuma ascendency gave little conscious thought to ideology, or to intellectual reflection as a whole. Zuma expressed a disdain for ‘clever blacks’. Rather, it seemed to revel in a supposed organic African authenticity that neither needed nor required any explanation. For those seeking something more erudite, thought leaders had the necessary answers.

Since the 1990s, race-conscious thinking had been maturing, as is set out above. By the time of the Zuma presidency, it had developed a well-known set of concepts which could elegantly express and legitimate a quasi-coherent ideological position. The earlier, clunkier ‘subliminal racism’ had given way to ‘systemic racism’, ‘structural racism’ or ‘institutional racism’. Along with it came ‘white privilege’ and ‘white supremacy’. These concepts had long been familiar in academia, but now came into popular usage.

Professor Pierre de Vos has helpfully explained this perspective: ‘Contrary to popular belief, racism is not a mere phobia. It is related to whiteness and white supremacy which are total systems of power that work for the interest of white people as a whole — irrespective of their individual beliefs or actions. These interlinked white power processes date back to the history of slavery, colonialism and apartheid.’

Or in the words of Dr Oscar van Heerden on the University of Johannesburg: ‘Institutional racism is not always manifested knowingly and intentionally: its power lies exactly in its ability to make itself invisible. This allows its beneficiaries to deny its existence (and genuinely believe in its absence) while benefiting from it.’

Intellectual current

Embedded in this was an intellectual current originating in the United States, Critical Race Theory. Some have argued that this is merely an academic fad, with little real-world application. However, the proponents of this view are clear that it is not to be seen merely as an intellectual framework, but that it has a distinct ‘activist dimension’. And although the term and acronym CRT came to public attention in this period, its tenets had been perceptible in South Africa for some time. Indeed, Mbeki’s address to the National Conference on Racism employed its thinking. In other words, it is less important whether the term CRT is used or even understood, or works of its exponents are quoted (though they are) than whether its perspectives inform thinking.

The overall idea was that racism was the default position of society. Whether or not an individual (white) person was bigoted or not was largely irrelevant, since the impersonal ‘system’ was racist. In fact, racism could exist without racists. What mattered was the outcome of a process or policy and how this manifested itself in racial terms. Often this has been cast in terms of ‘demographic representivity’. In other words, an objective racism – one not dependent on attitudes or prejudices – can legitimately be assessed on the basis on outcomes.

If an institution fails in racial terms to represent the society of which it is part, it is racist. If a law or policy has a ‘disparate impact’ on racial groups, it can likewise be regarded as racist. South Africa’s approach to ‘employment equity’ had taken this path since the 1990s. The notion that organisations should be ‘representative’ of the society around it in the absence of discrimination has been a beguiling one and was applied with especial energy in the state. (As the work of Thomas Sowell has shown in exhaustive empirical detail, representivity of this nature is at best a rare exception, irrespective of the power distribution in a society.)

Individual agency – what might be called ‘attitudinal racism’ – is a complicated matter. While there is a recognition that some element of unlearning of racism is possible, it is doubtful that this can ever truly be achieved by white people. (Here one is reminded of the idea that white males needed to ’imitate’ Africans.) If racism and ‘whiteness’ are the default position of the world these work to the advantage of white people. (Successful ‘minorities’ – in the US sense – such as people of Japanese or Korean ancestry could be explained away as ‘white-adjacent’, an idea that has its counterparts when discussing Coloured and Indian South Africans.) To the extent that white people may take a stand against racism, this will invariably be motivated by self-interest. Besides, since attitude, intentions and outcomes are different things, even the most benign of actions can be seen as contributing to a hostile, racist environment, depending on how representatives of the prescribed victim group might see it.

Key role

Still, overt, individualised and attitudinal racism plays a key role in narratives. It’s seldom difficult in referring to a well-known case of racism (real or contrived, petty or serious) to give the phenomenon a face, something to identify the idea with, something to direct anger towards. This can then be used as an illustration (‘this raises the issue’) of racism on a broader canvas.

From this comes ‘antiracism’. There is a certain semiotic genius in this. It is a catchy term that signals something stronger than nonracism. It suggests a muscular rejection of racism, and as it’s difficult to find anyone who will argue the contrary, the word has been taken up by many well-meaning people. But it has a larger meaning. As Ibrahim X Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist, puts it: ‘One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.’

Activist thought leaders, meanwhile, brought ideas that might have seemed counterintuitive and arcane to a wider audience. Examples and exponents are legion. Dr Samantha Vice, then of Rhodes University, wrote a highly publicised academic paper entitled ‘How do I live in this Strange Place?’, which argued that white people should dwell on their shame, work on repairing their moral decrepitude – ‘in humility and silence’ – and decline to participate in political life. The dominance of whiteness was a theme pushed by others, who argued for differential treatment of transgressions according to the racial criteria – a perspective actually taken up by the SAHRC.

Ructions in the Democratic Alliance following its disappointing 2019 electoral performance were explained in racial terms, even if some of the presumed victims had explicitly denied this. At one point, the Democratic Alliance’s national spokesman declared publicly that blacks should not extend trust to whites. Activist writer and filmmaker Gillian Schutte boldly declared that ‘all whites are racist until whiteness is defunct’.

Navigating a changing society

A special mention needs to be made of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion practitioners. It’s not possible to know just how large or lucrative this industry is. It seems to have evolved from human resource and change management consulting, whose services sought to assist businesses in navigating a changing society. But where the focus might constructively be on creating teamwork, teaching communication skills and mediating conversations among people of diverse backgrounds, contemporary DEI training has taken on many of the assumptions of the CRT worldview. Indeed, some of the most prominent practitioners in South Africa draw explicitly on US texts and activism (as indeed do other activists) to make their case. Robin DiAngelo’s work has featured particularly strongly. 

It’s an open question whether the DEI industry is performing a service or a disservice to South Africa. Admittedly, it is a small group of the most prominent (and perhaps most ideological) practitioners that garners the greatest attention. Much of this has come to light through highly publicised interventions in schools – generally upmarket, private institutions – during which a contentious mix of race consciousness (sometimes separatism) and ascription of characteristics to racial groups was promoted, along with very little scope for discussion. Antiracism, not nonracism, is the operative concept. As prominent consultant (now working for Netflix) Lovelyn Nwadeyi has put it: ‘Consult a Social Justice Practitioner committed to Anti-Racism, NOT non-racialism (that thing is dead and tired now).’

All of this comes at a price. Exact numbers are difficult to pin down, but one investigation put a workshop by Nwadeyi at R70 000. Roedean school engaged her for five workshops for its students plus a two-day event for its staff, bringing the total to an estimated R490 000. There is probably an equivalent price tag for corporates (and may explain why these events seem to bypass less well-endowed schools). Nwadeyi has been frank that her services need to be secured for an extended period. ‘One workshop will not fix this. Trust me, I know. Start thinking through how much time you may be willing to offer, think through a budget and get people like me and others on board.’ There is a generous pecuniary incentive here, not to address problems, but to ensure that they persist.

Social media mobbing

At times – not infrequently – allegations of racism were seized upon with vigour, driven by media attention, and increasingly by social media mobbing, even where the facts were contested. Think here of the 2014 Tiger Tiger nightclub attack (charges dropped for lack of evidence); the 2014 case of students at the University of Free State accused of trying to run over a fellow student (neither the SAHRC, nor the court found evidence to support this); the case of Schweizer-Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen, who had allegedly racially segregated children in her class (completely exonerated by the Labour Court and the SAHRC, although the latter took an inordinate amount to time in its investigation); and the supposed instance of discrimination against a black patron and assault against a white one at Hanks Olde Irish Pub in Cape Town.

Each case seemed to proceed from an assumption of guilt – and not merely guilt, but guilt owing to racism – which was quite predictable in view of the intellectual climate. Indeed, if racism was omnipresent, it was a reasonable assumption that all of these allegations were true. In each case they were not, though an internet search reveals just how much easier it is to find the accusation than the subsequent debunking.

The late Eusebius McKaiser, a highly articulate proponent of this perspective (not to mention frequent discussant of all manner of racial and social justice issues), once stated on a radio show that he hosted that it was unnecessary to have a comprehensive grasp of the circumstances around a specific allegation of racism, since his own background had given him the capacity to understand the pattern of what had transpired, if not its every detail. He didn’t need the detail to have ‘an opinion’. He had in mind the case of former Springbok rugby player Ashwin Willemse who had walked out of a television studio, apparently in irritation at racist treatment by other presenters. McKaiser was adamant that this illustrated the daily racism that characterised the experience of black people in the country and was supported by a chorus of listeners.

However, neither an independent investigation, nor a probe by the SAHRC could unearth anything substantive to back this up – largely because Willemse declined to make himself available to give his version of events. McKaiser may have felt confident in holding an opinion, but there can be little confidence that this was appropriately informed.

Bizarre piece

And at other times, easily verifiable falsehoods have been offered to support narratives. In one bizarre piece, Ayesha Fakie of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation was granted column space in the Mail & Guardian to inveigh against ‘National Braai Day’ on the logically attenuated grounds that it represented an assault by a culturally barren, racist ‘whiteness’ on other people’s heritage. Where white people had stood against racism, this is ignored. ‘John Brown’s uprising against slavery in the United States is not well known,’ she writes.

This denotes either profound, probably wilful, ignorance – or misrepresentation. John Brown’s role in the lead up to the American Civil War, both in Kansas and in Virginia, is known to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the conflict. He and the role he played in history have not only been covered exhaustively by historians, but he features as a character in the TV series The Blue and The Gray and North and South. (Interesting fact: in a tragic irony, the first casualty of Brown’s celebrated/notorious raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, was Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who failed to obey a command to freeze.) He is commemorated in a marching song, and one time school music lesson staple, though the song’s origins are muddled. He is even the centrepiece of a large mural in the Kansas State Capitol building. In other words, Fakie twisted history through a nonsensical clam to match her ideological narrative.

This was not a solitary example.

The Student Uprising

The so-called Fallist movement arose in 2015 in protest against colonial iconography, particularly the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at UCT. This soon spread to other institutions, and other symbols deemed to embody that past. It also morphed into a protest movement against university fees. At Stellenbosch, related protests targeted the Afrikaans language. Ultimately it came to represent a protest against a general sense of alienation felt by students, and took on a violent edge.

The Fallists stressed many of the themes that have been discussed here: socio-economic disadvantage; the supposed power of whiteness; racial nationalism; disillusionment with the state of South African society; and a suspicion of constitutionalism and mediating influences in society. It is worth commenting that what Fallism seemed to demand was not ‘transformation’, but something more akin to revolution. While transformation – however vague a concept it might be, and however prone to abuse – generally claimed some deference towards South Africa’s institutions, Fallism seemed willing to dispense with them.

Perhaps the real significance of the Fallist movement was less its achievements, whatever they may have been, than that it defined a mood. Professor Achille Mbembe described decolonisation at the time of the Fallist movement as being less a political project than a psychic state. It spoke to pain and alienation, although the word as it was being employed did not reflect its true meaning.

And from that, from the well of emotion interacting with real grievances, arises the potential for great harm.

Anyone wishing to explore this could do worse than read Professor David Benatar’s book The Fall of the University of Cape Town: Africa’s Leading University in Decline. He details how the institution was rocked by the protests, performative initially (splashing excrement on a statue) and later violent and intimidatory, and how UCT responded by repeatedly capitulating to protesters’ demands. Very little consequence followed even for criminal behaviour. (As an aside, Wits University under Professor Adam Habib took a more robust line against similar protests.)

Nor were the consequences of this limited to supposed racists. The Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Bongani Mayosi, committed suicide. In a eulogy, his sister said that the personal affronts and abuse he endured during the protests – even though he sympathised with their cause – took their toll on him.

To the Present Moment and Beyond

Tolerating something will ensure that it endures; incentivising it will see it flourish. Reading the Mpati report with an eye on the past three decades makes these words echo loudly.

Much of the report amounts to a ‘calling out’ of the invocation of racism by one who claimed to have been victimised by it. This is an unusual thing to do, for Phakeng, as the putative victim in this case, had invocated racism in an environment in which the idea of an omnipresent and insidious racism might be presumed to be exercising its malign influence. It has ample precedent in South African public discourse, in the country’s academic institutions and at UCT itself. Institutional racism, fortified by the subtle prejudice of individual bigots, has become a veritable axiom of ‘progressive’ thought.

It is surprising that the report dwells on the lack of evidence for the accusations made by Phakeng and her supporters. Evidence has seldom figured prominently in debates coloured by racism allegations. And it is questionable within the current milieu whether an ‘obsession’ with race can indeed properly be described as ‘crass’ – for can something that is held to exercise such an elemental influence over every person’s being ever be dismissed in such terms?

Phakeng made much of the differences between herself as an African and others who were generically black, in other words, Coloured or Indian, according to South Africa’s particular schematic.

One instance that stood out and left the Panel shocked was the evidence of a senior member from HR, who is not African. She recalled a conversation with Phakeng when she prefaced what she wanted to say with the words: ‘As a black person….’.  She had not gone further when Phakeng interjected: ‘…[Y]ou’re not Black…you don’t have hair like me, you don’t smell like me, you don’t look like me and you don’t taste like me.’ Apart from being offensive, the interjection left the witness wondering what right Phakeng had to allocate a racial identity to her.

A perceptive observer might note that Phakeng would not be the first to identify racial odours: the late Betsie Verwoerd once noted that too much exposure to a black carer would dull the sensitivity of a white child to the ‘characteristic smell’. Phakeng clearly could still make such sensory distinctions. But here again, within the context sketched out above, it’s not difficult to make the argument that she was merely asserting proud and rightful ownership of her own racial identity and defending it from appropriation by more privileged interlopers.

Contemporary race politics arguably takes as its starting point the existence of groups and their innate characteristics – even if this may be ascribed to socialisation and discrimination rather than biology. Much of the race discourse over the past three decades has certainly made this clear and has at times even denied the possibility (and desirability) of people integrating into ‘groups other than ‘their own’.

Mirrors apartheid logic

It may not even be especially ironic that this closely mirrors apartheid logic. (An aside: in 1996 in an IRR publication, Professor Thembo Sono argued the idea of an ‘African University’ with Professor Makgoba. His response was that the methodology suggested closely mirrored the idea of a ‘Bantu University’, the two not having much empirical distinction, merely an ideological one.) But this is hardly surprising, since racial and ethnic nationalists have a great deal in common as to their worldviews. It is predominantly in their choice of subjects and beneficiaries that they differ.  

All in all, Phakeng could plausibly claim to have acted within a large volume of precedent, and with a presumption that it would be received with sympathy and favourability.

One hastens to add a crucial codicil: to be critical of the processes described here, and to understand the pathologies they represent, is not to dismiss them entirely out of hand. For much of what has developed into the malaise that confronts South Africa has its seed in some very real issues. Apartheid was a dreadful reality and its scars linger. Inasmuch as there is a reflexive and opportunistic seizing on allegations of racism to cast them as evidence of a racial denouement, incidents of racism and racist violence do occur.

If ‘Africanisation’ and the idea of an ‘African university’ have been used to push an agenda of exclusion, these ideas could be the prompt for productive reflection on the role of institutions in South Africa and the continent. (UKZN has been making some progress towards using Zulu as an academic language. This is interesting, although it is hypocritical to celebrate it while demanding the removal of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch.)

While the Fallist movement was willing unconscionably to employ coercion and demand ideological obedience (some critics termed it fascist), it had resonances with students who saw universities as a gateway to an otherwise unattainable socio-economic mobility, and saw this threatened by fee increases. Or for that matter, for students who struggled academically owing to poor school preparation and the challenge of studying in a second language.

All of these are real issues and demand proper reflection and discussion. Sadly, casting them in inherently racial terms removes much of the possibility to dealing with them. Those wishing to counter the racialised narrative would do well to consider how some of these grievances might be addressed.

‘Essential pillars’

The report comments: ‘Good governance and accountability are the essential pillars of UCT’s success and reputation. Without these, conditions were created for conflict related to diversity, equity and inclusion resulting in unprofessional conduct and bullying. A new culture is needed of respectful dialogue, empathy, fairness and equity.’

Once cannot dispute this sentiment, though one would need to emphasise that diversity must include diversity of thought, that respectful dialogue necessarily includes the likelihood of starkly different views, and that empathy, fairness and equity must be extended to all individuals irrespective of the colour of their skin, the content of their chromosomes or their place on any real or perceived hierarchy.

It should also place a non-negotiable premium on the production of hard, verifiable evidence for claims and assertions, evidence that must be open to good faith scrutiny so that reality in all its complexity may be understood. Perceptions, ‘voices’ and perspectives are all crucial elements of a conversation, but cannot be the only elements, nor indeed necessarily definitive ones. And while theories – such as ‘white supremacy’ – may help some to make sense of the world, they do not provide satisfactory or incontestable explanations in the absence of evidence specific to any given situation.

Theories, too, must be open to critique. Reasonable people, in other words, must be able to conduct reasonable conversations, even while experiencing heated disagreements. A great deal of what has transpired in South Africa, on its university campuses, and among its thought leaders has effectively abjured this.

Without a reorientation of South Africa’s intellectual and discursive culture, not only UCT, but South Africa’s future is at risk. It remains to be seen whether South Africa’s thought leaders will realise this.

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.

This article was first published on the Daily Friend.