Why the struggle for non-racialism in South Africa must continue

Why the struggle for non-racialism must continue in South Africa: a discussion primer

In this week that we commemorated the launch of the UDF in South Africa, and as we move towards the 20th Anniversary of our democracy, it is important to understand and discuss what we mean by the term “non-racialism” and whether we have achieved non-racialism in South Africa. Or is apartheid in South Africa simply “under new management”, as some have claimed.

These questions are important if we are going to move significantly forward in our national life as South Africans, and if we are going to build some form of positive social cohesion.

It is also important to for South Africans to understand the distinctions between the following terms:

  1. Non-racialism (and integration)
  2. Multi-racialism (and assimilation)
  3. Anti-racism

These three terms are not the same and sometimes people use the one while they actually mean the other.

  1. The legal victory:             Apartheid in its legal sense has been defeated. No-one can seriously argue (as some Israelis have tried to do this week) that South Africa is an apartheid state. In terms of our constitution, South Africa is no longer an apartheid state. But is it a non-racial state?
  2. In practice, much of what is done in this “new” South Africa is still done in racial categories. Official forms often require that we indicate whether we are white, coloured, Indian or African. This is justified by the slogan “we cannot manage what we cannot measure” and therefore if we want to for example measure how far “blacks” have moved away from poverty in South Africa, we need to be able to have statistics to back it up. From a purely practical perspective, this might then be necessary. But are we willing to put a deadline to this practice or will it be with us forever? Or are we willing to say that when x amount of people have moved out of poverty, we will drop this practice. This is something we as South Africans need to talk about. Trevor Noah is for example correct (since he has a white father and an African mother) to fill in that he is “white”. But equally he could fill in African or Coloured. But hopefully none of this will be necessary in the future.
  3. Also, in practice Apartheid is still being practiced by many South Africans: Unfortunately, despite the legal victory against apartheid, some South Africans continue to practice a form of apartheid in public institutions, especially at schools. Many people would want to deny that this is happening, but if we are honest enough with ourselves we will see to what extent Apartheid is being practiced and this must simply stop. This problem is probably as serious as the problem of not delivering textbooks on time.
  4. The Jimmy Manyi example:  this young man got into trouble for merely expressing the logic of government thinking, although he over-reached himself (as many politicians do) by saying that the logical thing in South Africa [in terms of government thinking] would be that Coloured people should be more spread out across the country in order to reach the top positions in government. If you therefore take government thinking and processes to its natural conclusion, then Manyi’s comment about how the Western Cape is “overpopulated” with coloured people cannot be faulted since government cannot reach its targets in terms of its own processes and logic. Many “Coloured” people in senior government positions in the Western Cape find a ceiling above their heads because EE (Employment Equity) targets in the Province mean that there should be an “African woman” in the position above them. If the same person however moved to the Eastern Cape, he/she would probably become a DG because there the target is different because of the “spread” of the “population groups” in South Africa. It is of course also ironic that the person who heads up Stats SA (Min Trevor Manuel) was the one who strongly rebuked Manyi, since  that is the Department that insists on measuring South Africans in racial categories.
  5. Besides having to fill in forms for statistical reasons, the use of racial and even ethnic terms in the new South Africa can be frustrating. In Apartheid South Africa, those of us who struggled for non-racialism would never have spoken about coloureds, for example. We would have said so-called Coloured or we would write the term coloured in brackets to show that it is not a term we are comfortable with. Having however won the legal battle against apartheid, we now find ourselves in a situation where the term is becoming more and more acceptable and widely used without brackets, not only in social circles but also in political discussions. Some people even use the term “bruin” while others use other terms. Did we really struggle against apartheid to make these terms more acceptable?
  6. Some interesting political twists we need to be aware of: The one twist is that some South Africans might think that this is acceptable/normal and therefore actively organise for “bruin” and “white” unity against the black masses, and this might lead or have already led to new alignments in our political life in South Africa. The second twist has to do with the issue of “bruin” people being the indigenous people of this land, but that is perhaps a topic for another article dealing with ethnicity, land, etc.
  7. Blacks in general and Africans in particular: Many of us (unless I speak only for myself) who were in the UDF did not struggle for the liberation of “blacks in general and Africans in particular”, but for the liberation of all South Africans, including the oppressors. But this is a term that is extensively used in and by the ANC today. The nett effect of this within the ANC is that it translates into who is in the top leadership of that organisation. This might once again be a mechanism used in a necessary “phase” but once again if this is a phase, it must be identified as such and there must be clarity about when this phase will end.
  8. One example to counter this: In 1985, the SACC decided to hand over the role of the General Secretary to Dr Beyers Naude. I was present when this happened, and Bishop Tutu made a very interesting comment that we South Africans are “crazy”. How can we hand this top position over to a white person as it was formerly occupied by a Black person. But this was the spirit of the SACC and the UDF at the time – for us it was not about race and colour, but about whether person x or person y is best suited for that post. This and other examples are in our national memory and we should retrieve it and build on it.
  9. The use of the term “minorities”: Some of us should perhaps say “we did not struggle to be part of a minority” but to be part of a South African majority. Just as we did not struggle to use the term “coloured” freely, neither did we struggle against apartheid only to be bundled with a group called “minorities”. This is a term often used by FW de Klerk in his insistence that minorities must be protected, but it becomes worrying when Julius Malema uses the same term when asking the question: “Why must all economic ministries be occupied by people from the minorities?” The one group that we would expect to be forward-looking would be the Youth league, but the use of these terms in their circles should be a warning to us that the struggle for non-racialism is still a long struggle.
  10. Attitudes: this is very difficult to counter or even quantify, but negative racial attitudes continue to be part of our national life. To some extent this should be expected since we are less than 20 years into our democracy, but work must be done to continue to counter these attitudinal issues, and the spirit in which it must be challenged should as far as possible not be judgemental, but in a loving way. One example of this is that the investigation of who murdered a black person in a township must be done on the same basis as the murder of a white person in a suburb. If there is any difference in the way these are dealt with, impunity will begin to take root and the violence in our society will continue to grow.

Quo vadis? What is the way forward?

  1. South Africans need to talk about this openly and understand the differences between the terms and the practical reasons why some of these terms are still part of our national life. Much of what we are doing is not non-racialism but multi-racialism, mixed salad – where you can take the different parts apart-  rather than potjiekos, where everything is integrated. Ultimately, we should all become anti-racist, where we all agree that there are no races, but that there is only one race, viz the human race.
  2. We must strongly express the desire that the use of these racial terms will no longer be necessary and agree together when or under what conditions we will stop using these terms. It should not feature in our national life forever.
  3. Systems must be set up to ensure that there is absolutely no discrimination in who are allowed in our schools, and how services are rendered in society (eg murder investigations).
  4. We should all learn as much as possible about each others’ cultures and languages as possible and also appreciate the cultural differences.
  5. Closing the economic inequality gap, mainly through quality education but also through other means, is probably the quickest way to make the use of these terms unnecessary.

South Africa can become a great nation and we will be a gift to the rest of humanity if we deal with the issues of non-racialism, multi-racialism and anti-racism.

Written by Rev Edwin Arrison on 25 August 2012 (as a discussion primer).


3 responses to this post.

  1. To build a non racial society we must begin by recognising the social construct of racism,and acknowledging that racism in its passive and active forms are still plagueing our society.Apartheid, slavery. Colonialism and post colonialism has taught us the social techniques to recognise people based on their outer appearance, their color, their hair, their sound and accent. Furthermore being an anti-racist or an anti-racism agent is required in the everyday practise of living for or toward the dream of realising a non-racial society. Multi-racialism I believe also has a role, for the journey that we embark toward non-racialism cannot be realized when we have no focus on building a multi-racial/multiethnic/multicultural society. Moving from a racist apartheid South Africa requires us to be in spaces and places where multi-racial/ethic/cultural peoples are able to live, work and be in with comfort. Journeying towards non-racialism requires people to stumble through the chaos of a multi-racial society being true to our difference, as we journey on into a place where our difference grows dim in the luminous darkness of our social engagement and enrichment of our diversity unrestrained.



  2. Posted by Karabo on May 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Rev Edwin Arrison you just said it all.God bless you.



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