Monday, February 25, 2008

The Infrastructure of Racism is Still Intact

This is an article recently published in the Mail and Guardian.

By Andile Mngxitama

The poverty of understanding racism in South Africa was recently exposed by the Skielik killings. The four murders were depicted by the media as being caused by the temporary insanity of a troubled young man. The murdered victims simply disappeared into the sprawling squatter camp, as we were bombarded with psychosocial profiles of the perpetrator proving that he was the actual victim.

There were of course ritualistic sterile condemnations from our political parties. After the funerals we all went back to our lives. This lack of understanding around racism and how it can be fought and defeated is strange but understandable in this country. Strange because we remain a country the very fabric of which is deeply determined by racism. Understandable, because 1994 didn’t signify a break with the racist structures which define life; instead 1994 gave South Africa its first black president. In a sense South Africa had its Obama moment in 1994. It will give the tormented black world a nice fuzzy feeling.

The late Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael) has argued that there are two interdependent elements to racism -- individual and institutional racism. Individual racism occurs when individual white people exercise power to discriminate or hurt black people. For example the Skielik case, where a singular white person acts out his racism. This type of racism is easy to see and condemn, but actually it’s not the real deal, despicable as it is. Individual racism survives on the back of institutional racism. Here we are talking about the totality of white power. For instance when the story of hundreds of black babies dying in Frere Hospital broke, there were no calls for the head of the minister of health; instead, that story died out very quickly. The issue here is that black suffering can’t be seen or heard, not so much by whites (that is to be expected) but more so the institutions which matter in society, our government included.

It is institutional racism which made it possible for the Skielik killer to attack black people for the second time. As a white person one takes it for granted that one could do certain things to blacks with no consequences. Blacks mostly share this belief too. See how farmers get away with murder, literally, in a black country. White superiority is a state of mind. But this state of mind is not just a figment of the imagination. It’s real.

What happened in 1994 is that black political leaders, eager to prove that blacks are human too, had to forgo any notions of justice or revenge. Justice is what humans have demanded since the beginning of time -- at times they even resort to revenge. The Nuremberg trials are one such example. But for blacks to demand justice is to ask for an impossibility. How can subhumans demand justice? Nelson Mandela had to show whites that we are human beings too and are fit to govern. They let him share the Nobel Prize with a man who represented the tormentors of blacks.

It would seem that humanness can only be conferred to blacks by the white world. This is the only way we can be human, but because we are being accepted in a human family overly determined by whiteness, we never really become human. Of course some blacks can achieve something akin to humanness through association, assimilation, money and education, and denial -- but our humanness remains skin deep. And we know it. So most of us, especially the middle classes, go into a “nervous condition”, the perpetual terror of being found out. Hence, occasionally, our politicians and intellectuals are seized by outbursts and sterile insults against the white world. This utter helplessness leads to unexplained obsession and antipathy towards whites.

The absurdity of trying to deal with racism while preserving the structures that reproduce racism was recently displayed by Jimmy Manyi, the vocal champion of transformation and racial equity in the workplace. It was a sad spectacle to see him defend the right of the bread company to take bread away from the hungry mouths of blacks. He provided a black cover for white capital’s attack on the black body. This is the end result of BEE, really, for it seeks to preserve the inherited racist patterns of production and consumption.

Understanding racism requires much more than occasional condemnations. Racism lives in the very fabric of our society. The day we think it abnormal for blacks to be sent to state hospitals to die or to be mis-educated in state schools, the day we think a squatter camp is an abomination and that an RDP house is an insult, only then shall we begin our quest towards understanding racism. To clamour to be human, when to be human is over-determined by whiteness, is to fall into a trap.

Andile Mngxitama is the national organiser of the National Land Committee

Past articles
Thinking Through International Understanding in the UWC Movement
Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma: Thinking Back and Looking Forward

Coming Soon
The Food Project
Beginning the Growing Season: Seeds in Boston
Snapshots of In Defense of Food