SA lexicon reflects ANC’s perpetuation of racial nationalist ideology - Businesslive

Jul 01, 2019
1 July 2019 - Racialism nowadays is not only sharply contrary to the sentiments of most South Africans, but is the main obstacle to overcoming the effects it wrought in the past.

Michael Morris

Out of habit, perhaps, when we talk about SA society as a whole we often resort to additional nouns to make ourselves clear.

We’ll talk of “suburb” and “township”, say, or “black” and “white”, to be sure of conveying a fuller picture, or avoiding the risk of excluding anyone. Few will talk of “South Africans” and be confident of being understood to mean everybody who lives here.

Bringing extra nouns into service seems necessary to encompass the sum of common citizens rather than merely a familiar — or unfamiliar — fraction routinely coded in words such as “we” and “us” or “they” and “them”.

Undoubtedly this wells from our history of division — along with the failure of policy over the past 25 years in bridging the socioeconomic chasm it created.

Yet the irony of our observable divide is one of misperception.

The cynical use of apartheid’s racial framing since 1994 has meant that, perversely, many are almost comforted by the familiarity of what turns out to be only an illusion of a society deeply at odds with itself.

This much emerges from the latest report from the Institute of Race Relations, “Reasons for Hope 2019: Unite the Middle”. Based on a demographically representative survey in 2018, it confirms the patterns of public opinion revealed in similar annual polls over recent years.

A solid majority — 88% of all respondents (86% of blacks, 96% of coloureds, 100% of Indians and 98% of whites) — agreed not only that “different races need each other for progress”’, but that “there should be full opportunities for all”.

Society’s vulnerability to the race hostility peddled by some politicians is evident in the rise in the proportion of black people who think whites should take second place, from 29% in 2015 to 62% in 2018.

Yet, higher percentages (76% of all respondents and 74% of blacks) agreed that better education and more jobs — the well-established building blocks for upward mobility in most societies — would in time “make the present inequality between the races steadily disappear”. 

As my colleague and author of the report Anthea Jeffery writes: “Politicians may seek to play up racial differences for their own purposes, but most South Africans are well aware of the key role of better skills and increased earnings in reducing racial inequalities and building inclusive prosperity.”

Overall, the survey reflects a society not riven with hostility, but remarkably united in its interests.

Nearly a century ago, novelist Olive Schreiner wrote of “a common South African condition through which no dividing line can be drawn”, a “unity” that was “a condition of practical necessity … daily and hourly forced upon us by the common needs of life”. On such unity would depend “the production of anything great and beautiful by our people as a whole”.

Main obstacle

That prospect has twice been undermined by racial nationalist ideology; first under the National Party, and, since 1994, the ANC.

To both, race was and remains damagingly central. Racialism nowadays is not only sharply contrary to the sentiments of most South Africans, but is the main obstacle to overcoming the effects it wrought in the past.

The striking example is empowerment: support in the low percentages for race-based measures (1% of black respondents said “speeding up affirmative action” is a top priority for the government) is far surpassed by the high percentages reflecting the yearning for jobs and education, clean government, more effective crime prevention and better services.

No less striking, for its obviousness, is that “empowerment” — of a truly effective order, capable of genuinely helping SA’s nearly 10-million unemployed, and the hundreds of thousands of children yearly subjected to dysfunctional public schooling — is in such great need nowadays.

On this, most South Africans agree. We don’t need qualifying nouns to express the public will.

• Morris is head of the media at the Institute of Race Relations.

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