Class, more than race, is at the heart of our problems

by | Jul 11, 2016 | General | 2 comments

It’s time for the whole population to embrace and join the ‘human race’, and for a fresh approach to the causes of inequality, poverty and unemployment

The producers of the long-running Judge for Yourself constitutional talk show on the ENCA channel excelled by inviting three young women to discuss the lot of the youth of the country in the run up to Youth Day. Their anger was palpable, their disappointment with the current state of affairs in SA, touching.

They were empathetically probed on what lay below the recent upsurge in activism among students. One represented Afriforum, one the Wits Student Representatives Council and one the #FeesmustFall movement. A lively debate ensued during which many viewers may have spluttered into their sundowner sherry as whiteness, racism, the Constitution and the role of identity among “born-free” youth of SA received an airing. Never directly under the yoke of apartheid, they all live in its dark and abiding shadow. Why?

It is really quite remarkable that 22 years (think Germany and Japan in 1967) into the new democratic order, which is expressly aimed at respecting human dignity, advancing the achievement of equality and the enjoyment by all of the various freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, there should be ongoing reference to “Your coloureds, your Indians and ‘whiteness’”, to use the terminology of the #FeesmustFall spokesperson, who frankly confessed that she has to reject all “whiteness”.

The object of the exercise in putting nonracialism and nonsexism at the front of the constitutional stove in 1994 was to establish a new order in which unity in diversity is achieved and the divisions of the past are healed by establishing a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights.

The stark fact that an articulate and obviously intelligent fellow South African feels obliged to “reject all whiteness” is a strong indication that there has been a miserable failure to achieve that “multiparty system of democratic government to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness” that is contemplated in the founding provisions of the Constitution.

The Wits SRC participant in the debate even went so far as to question the supremacy of the Constitution and to mock the failure of the dominant political alliance to transform the state. She correctly pointed out that failure to deliver services (she politely called this “inefficiency”) and the rise of corruption are the areas on which attention should be focused.

Afriforum’s representative was in the minority. Nothing she said was acceptable to her fellow panelists; her suggestion that racism is a two-way street was met with derision; white monopoly capitalism, the standard whipping boy, came in for a hammering and there was no sympathy for or analysis of a fact she raised: more than 400 000 whites live in squatter camps today. The intersection of class and race discrimination is surely obvious to all, and especially so to women, who have to deal with gender glass ceilings as well.

It is fervently to be hoped that further study and discussion will bring the panelists closer together in the shared realisation that the best way forward is to get serious about properly and efficiently implementing the Constitution as the appropriate blue-print for the “better life for all” that it envisages and everyone wants. A revolution will be messy and destructive. The evolution of the transformative power of the Constitution is surely a more viable and constructive way to go about improving the lot of the youth of SA.

The affirmative action measures our Constitution has in mind are based on disadvantage, not race. Using race as a proxy for disadvantage is becoming increasingly inappropriate, despite the early endorsement of this device by the Constitutional Court and the existence of constitutionally dubious race based “designated groups” in some affirmative action legislation.

The presence of over 400 000 squatters whom apartheid-era apparatchiks called the “white group” in SA today, suggests that class, not the outmoded and artificial race classifications of the past, is becoming the determinant of disadvantage, as does the emergence of a large middle class drawn from the descendants of those previously classified as black. Distressingly so, rural black women who are poor remain at the bottom of the pecking order despite constitutional lip-service to “social justice”.

Yet only 4.7% of the SA population in 2016 regard race relations as a pressing issue, according to a recent survey by the SA Institute for Race Relations.

The finding of the survey is not surprising: at Union in 1910 a quarter of the SA population had European roots; today that proportion has dramatically shrunk to 8.9%, with only 5% of those under five years old in the same group. This trend suggests that the problem now identified as “whiteness” is solving itself in SA by way of attrition through emigration and the refusal or failure of young whites to breed while settled in SA. In time, whites will pale into complete demographic insignificance and those who seek scapegoats for the failure of the state to deliver on the lofty promises of the Bill of Rights will have to search elsewhere for a more credible new scapegoat than “whiteness” or the fabled “white monopoly capitalism” that is in fact no longer white, a monopoly or all that capitalist in SA today. Some are already tending in that direction; they are blaming the constitutional dispensation for the current ills rather than the remnants of the so-called white population of the old SA.

It is surely time for the whole of the current population to embrace and join the “human race”. Addressing the divisions of the past is a pivotal part of the promise of the new dispensation. This worthy aim can hardly be achieved by the perpetuation of race classification. The abolition of race classification on the statute book needs to find its way into the everyday discourse of our rainbow nation, however faded and tattered the rainbow may look in this time of drought.

A fresh approach to the causes of inequality, poverty and unemployment is needed.

It will hopefully not take long to pinpoint that nondelivery of quality basic education to the masses and an outmoded and less than free labour market are what hold the country, and in particular its young people, back in its process of transformation for the better. The rampant spread of corrupt activities in the corridors of power in SA today has much to do with the skewed nature of power relations. The place to start is with basic education, not higher education.

The host of the show may wish, as he muses about the humanity of whites and the “whiteness cross” he has to bear, to consider the words of the American philosopher Judith Butler:

“Without grievability, there is no life, or, rather, there is something living that is other than life. Instead, ‘there is a life that will never have been lived,’ sustained by no regard, no testimony, and ungrieved when lost. The apprehension of grievability precedes and makes possible the apprehension of precarious life. Grievability precedes and makes possible the apprehension of the living being as living, exposed to non-life from the start.”

When babies are abandoned in toilets, fully one-third of young children get no access to early childhood development facilities and three-quarters of them are stranded in dysfunctional schools lorded over by SA Democratic Teachers’ Union cadres, doomed to fail at school and in life, grievability comes into sharp focus as the underlying cause of the justifiable anger and the bitter disappointment expressed.

Far too few of us care when shacks in informal settlements are consumed in a conflagration. The devastation to the lives of the shack dwellers, especially those who survive these regular and wholly predictable fires, is not addressed other than in the most perfunctory fashion by officialdom and those in civil society who have the means to help. The grievability of the poor in SA today is minimal. Addressing this problem is, inter alia, a matter of affording access to adequate housing and provision of basic education to all. The Bill of Rights contemplates it. The state does not adequately deliver. As observed, corruption and inefficiency are to blame.

It is just possible that the rejection of all forms of “whiteness” is a visceral response to the lack of grievability of the poor and the marginalised in SA in 2016. You be the judge.

Hoffman is a director of Accountability Now

This article first appeared in Business Day

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  1. Pam immelman

    Only if we have the heart of Jesus will anything succeed. He is not a respector of race, gender or class

  2. Anton Boswel

    Hi Paul, perhaps one approach in a future case would be to use DNA as a basis to argue race is an artificial construct, as we all share the same DNA and attempts to divide us based upon an accident of birth is just as morally reprehensible as apartheid polices. Perhaps we should also encourage all citizens to refuse to identify themselves in terms of race on government forms etc., as the Race classification Act has already been abolished…


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