OPINION | Nonracialism is an intellectual tradition in SA

11 September 2020 - 16:36 By Ghaleb Cachalia
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The writer has defended the DA’s commitment to non-racialism. File photo.
The writer has defended the DA’s commitment to non-racialism. File photo.

Quoting Karl Marx as an 18th century philosopher [sic] on history being made “under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”, Xola Pakati accuses the DA of “downright deceit” in apparently ignoring “the triple social constructs of race, gender and class since 1652".

How he arrives at this is frankly mind-boggling and is accompanied by a hoary slew of slurs that merit no particular rebuttal save to say that they are as unfounded as they are fanciful.

Pakati arrives at these conclusions in the wake of the DA’s policy conference which affirmed, among other things, a commitment to nonracialism. He fails to understand that this follows the intellectual traditions pioneered in this country by Pixley Seme, Sol Plaatje, JB Tabata, Neville Alexander, Pallo Jordan, Steve Biko and Thabo Mbeki, many of whom, as Firoz Cachalia points out, “challenged notions of fixed racial identities and attempted in their different ways to formulate more unifying and humanising ideas about who we are as individuals, as communities, and as a South African people”.

As Cachalia points out, “The adoption of the new constitution in 1996, which in its preamble begins with the words “We the People” — meaning “We, the South African People” — confers rights of political participation and personhood on all without regard to race or other irrelevant considerations. Its adoption gave us a second chance at a new beginning and represented still unfulfilled possibilities.

This is lost on Pakati.

Of course race matters, but it should not and therein lies the rub. Gerhard Maré, a Marxian political sociologist who argues that ideological positions which analyse conflict in SA in terms of race are not in the interests of disadvantaged people, makes the case for why SA needs to move away from apartheid race classification. For Maré nonracialism amounts to a rejection of racial categories and opens up avenues to seek new ways to define people. Maré’s thesis is a rejection of race and the belief in the existence of races. The DA’s stance on the issue echoes this.

Mare’s book, Declassified: Moving beyond the dead end of race in South Africa, explores why race classifications have been kept alive 24 years after the Population Regulation Act was repealed. The author says he would be pleased if his book succeeds simply in getting recognition that there are urgent questions to be asked about “the insidious and invidious ways in which notions of race remain the unquestioned bedrock of our thinking”. 

Nelson Mandela’s championing of reconciliation echoed this, as did the first president of Mozambique, who said as much in his Independence Day speech: “Because our struggle never took on a racial character and because our people were always able to distinguish between the colonial fascist regime and the Portuguese people, without any complexes of any kind ... we can build a future of friendship together without hatred or feelings of revenge.” 

Neville Alexander, a remarkable intellectual and prisoner on Robben Island with Mandela, found practical expression in his assertion that race as a category should be ignored in admission to higher education. He was scathing on the ethics of present-day politicians and administrators, but as the editors (Brigitta and Lucijan Busch) of Interviews with Neville Alexander: The power of languages against the language of power note, he “holds up the deracialising practices of the new, young, educated middle class as one of the few success stories in an otherwise bleak and imploding society”. 

As Roland Czada writes in Neville Alexander’s non-racial, inclusionary vision of nationhood (University of Osnabrück, Germany) he “had a true fear genocide could happen in SA someday. He was afraid the deployment of racial categories in legal rules, policies and regulations would legitimise and perpetuate to think and act in a racially  discriminatory way towards others who should rather be seen as fellow citizens.” 

In his essay, Black-consciousness and the Quest for True Humanity, Biko addresses a universalist theme, suggesting that ‘Blackness’ is not a permanent condition: “Blacks have had enough experience of racism not to wish to turn the tables. While it may be relevant now to talk about Black in relation to White, we must not make this our preoccupation for it can be a negative exercise ... we have set out on a quest for true humanity ... in time we shall be in a position to bestow upon SA the greatest gift possible — a more human face”. 

All of this escapes Pakati despite the former secretary-general of the ANC Gwede Mantashe’s admission that “the ANC must be bolder in its pronouncements on nonracialism”. Pakati’s views fly in the face of this and the observation by Trevor Ngwane, a scholar-activist who works in academic and political spheres, that the ANC is moving towards being the custodian of African nationalism. Pakati’s views are a reaction to the DA, which has now become the custodian of nonracialism.

Abba Omar, ANC veteran and former deputy director-general of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) from 1998 to 2002, in his writings on nonracialism, says, “nonracialism will ensure there is no skills flight. It will help, as Firoz Cachalia put it, equalise the “opportunity to acquire the capabilities of achieving a meaningful life.” Omar describes his dream of a SA in 2030 as “one where poverty and inequality has been reduced; where we all know the taxi sign language, where mixed couples are not a curiosity and where the minorities can proclaim: 'We, too, are Africans.'”

This is the forgotten nonracialism of the ANC. This has always been a golden thread in the DA and its antecedents. It is now clearly and unambiguously a tenet of our values and principles which inform and guide our policies. For all of Pakati’s fulminations, he would do well to study the nobler history of our country and of his party for that matter — particularly given that a major driver of dissent is the high SA levels of inequality, with a Gini coefficient of 0.58 — among the highest in the world — while the politically (and otherwise) well-connected few get rich. The time has come to debunk the belief in ‘anti-racist racism’ that fuels this unacceptable state of affairs.


  • Cachalia is an MP and DA shadow minister of public enterprises

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