A good friend of mine, Sanda Fata, posted a quote on his timeline last week that caused me to reflect and think very deeply. I respect Sanda and so trust his perspective. Here is the status that Sanda posted:
Most white South Africans don't want to be part of South Africa, but all they want is huge stake of South Africa (Nkosivumile Gola) uvuthiwe mntanam.
I am convinced that the issue at stake in South Africa is not a race issue (race classification and the empowerment of one race and denigration of another is the cause of our problems, and so it cannot be our solution). As I prayed, and thought about this issue I wrote the following response to Sanda.
Comrade Sanda Fata - thanks for sharing this. It caused me to think deeply. I agree with part of the statement of Comrade Nkosivumile Gola. Indeed there are certain South Africans who want a larger stake of the nation at the expense of others, and I am afraid that in large measure they are white South Africans. However, I think that it is a mistake to tie the struggle for emancipation and transformation to race. It is a mistake because it is wrong and so in the long run it will be futile. We cannot base our struggle on something that people cannot choose or change. The core of the issue here is not whiteness, it is something more powerful, something about which people can make choices and can actually choose to change. Apartheid ideology did its best to problematise blackness. We can see how wrong that was. I contend that it is a mistake to judge persons based on something they did not choose and cannot change. So, what should we do? In my view our struggle should be a class struggle. There are South Africans of a certain class that subjugate others through their choices, their consumption of resources, their desire for power and wealth at all costs, their denial of human dignity (and so also human rights). These South Africans are white, but they are also brown and black. It is their choices around class that are problematic (hence I contend that a class struggle is necessary, and not a race struggle). A class struggle emerges when there are competing social and economic interests between people in society (such as access to health care, education, dignified work, a living wage, the right to flourish). These choices can be changed by the classes who hold wealth and power, and so I feel we need to spend our energy, time, and creativity addressing the class issue rather than the race issue. History has shown that race struggles are based on prejudice (about something that people cannot choose or change) and so they never succeed. Persons who appeal only to race do so because it is very easy to blame the 'other' who is different from ourselves, but it is a mistake since there are poor whites, poor brown people, as well as wealthy black people, powerful black people etc., I would encourage you to look at this great book by my friend Joerg Rieger We hope to have him visit South Africa again soon: Rieger, Joerg ed. 2013 Religion, Theology, and Class: Fresh Engagements after Long Silence New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan http://www.amazon.com/Religion-Theology-Class-Engagements-Approaches/dp/113735142X
At the core of my argument is that South Africans need one another. Our diversity is a gift. I am convinced that we need each other in order to forge a better future for all, we cannot attempt to make things better by once again polarising persons along the lines of race. Moreover, I am convinced that social and economic issues are central to the struggle that we face in South Africa today - indeed, suffering is still almost entirely a reality among our black sisters and brothers. However, it is not their race which causes this suffering, it is our economic and political choices. Inequality is a class issue, not a race issue.
I would love to hear your perspective.
This topic has generated some wonderful, and very challenging, conversation. Below are two very thoughtful comments from my colleague, Cobus van Wyngaard (from the University of South Africa).
Dion, I really struggle to follow.
"I think that it is a mistake to tie the struggle for emancipation and transformation to race. It is a mistake because it is wrong and so in the long run it will be futile." - it is a mistake because it is wrong? But why is it wrong?
The idea that whiteness is something "merely biological" that "cannot be changed" isn't true. The history of whiteness is full of whiteness changing, and changing who is considered part of those called "white".
Would you suggest we also stop problematizing oppressive masculinities? I cannot change my gender, but does that mean women may no longer point out how I participate in an oppressive structure, regardless of whether I choose to do so or not?
"History has shown that race struggles are based on prejudice (about something that people cannot choose or change) and so they never
succeed." - I'm like, what? Civil rights. Anti-apartheid. To name just the most prominent ones. Race based? Without a doubt. Successful? I'll leave that to history to decide.
To reduce either race to class or class to race become problematic. Modern capitalism was and continue to be racist, regardless of the diversity of those who participate in it. Of course we need a class struggle, and I am convinced that we won't end racism without attending to oppressive capitalism, but the flip side is that racism also assist in keeping capitalism in place (for one thing, by keeping a permanent underclass of people in place who's living areas can be used as environmental dumping grounds, or who can be used by capitalism as cheap labor). There seem to be a clear pattern that these people are of darker complexion than me and you. To say that "it is not their race which causes this suffering, it is our economic and political choices" ignore 500 years of racial history.
I think my core difference is with your idea about some fixed notion of whiteness which people have a choice about. Even if true, we would still have to struggle against how this whiteness participates in an oppressive structure, but I don't think it is true. I think whiteness continually change, and we choose how we participate in this.
I'm not convinced that your friend Rieger would agree that we should stop struggleds concerning race either.
We MIGHT still argue about what is primary (although I have problems with this kind of argument as well), but to merely say that "hence I contend that a class struggle is necessary, and not a race struggle" really ignore what people of colour all over the world is teaching those of us who look like me.
Here is my response to Cobus:
Thanks for your very thoughtful comment Cobus - would you mind posting it on my website (or allowing me to post it on your behalf)? It is very helpful for taking the conversation forward.
I like the distinction that you make between being white (or black, or brown) and the manner in which we choose to live into that identity.
However, I continue to maintain that there is a difference between being white or black (which is not something that one chooses), and whiteness or blackness. You used the very good example of gender concerns – gender and biological sex are not the same thing. How we are ‘gendered’ could lead to us adopting, or being quite different, from the dominant stereotypes of those of the same sex. In my argument this applies to race as well.
It is a mistake to think that all white people (or black persons for that matter) will behave in a certain way, and make similar choices to all other white persons (or black persons), by virtue of their race.
Within the context of this discussion, however, that is precisely the point that I wanted to make - we make a mistake when we say that it is 'being white' that is a problem in South Africa. Perhaps one could say that there are certain types of ‘whiteness’ (or blackness, or brown-ness) that are problematic in the context of the common good. In this sense what we are engaging at the problematic aspects that are attached to a race group, rather than problematizing people based on their race.
Hence the point that the class struggle (which is social and economic in most societies) is at the heart of what is problematic in South Africa. If we get stuck on the point that ‘whites’ are the problem we make the mistake of prejudicing persons based on their race. Doing so could also mean that we miss one of the very important (perhaps even central) problems we face – social and economic inequality and consequences that stem from that.
The ‘Occupy’ movements showed us an important sociological fact – namely, that class is often much more telling in terms of solidarity and difference than race is. For example, in the USA the average ‘white’ working American has much more in common with African American counterparts than with Bill Gates (or African Americans have much more in common with their white working class counterparts than with their African American President, Mr Obama). In South Africa the same argument could hold for the inequality between the majority of white South Africans and the super-elite (or the black majority and black super-elite). Simply lumping all white South Africans in one binary and all black South Africans in the other binary is neither helpful nor true.
So yes, race is important, in fact it is critical, but is it the leading issue in the problem that we face? I would say no. Black and white South Africans have the some problem (and it is not each other), it is a system which perpetuates inequality and then encourages us to spend our energy fighting one another rather than creatively and effectively engaging wealth and power. Of course our experience of this problem of inequality is an expression of the inequality itself - white South Africans certainly don't have the same trauma and violence associated with their experience of our unequal society. However, a time will come (as has been seen in many other contexts of inequality) where the same violence will be visited upon them if they cannot or will not change. I also agree that Joerg Rieger (if I read him correctly) is not saying that matters of race, gender, geography etc. do not matter. They matter a great deal. But to deal with them we must be careful not to get caught in misunderstanding the problems that give rise to abuse gender roles, or abusive race identities etc.
Cobus posted the following comment as a follow up:
Dion, perhaps we are closer together. The different ways we use words make conversations difficult, but perhaps for that reason important.
I would however push back by saying that you cannot entirely separate "white bodies" from whiteness either. While I may struggle against oppressive whiteness as a white person (and indeed I should), this doesn't take away that a racialised society would still treat me as white, and being able to identify and describe (problematize?) where this happen remain important. In that sense I cannot "quit" race by mere opposition to racism. In that sense, "white people" is indeed a problem as well, although white people might be *more* than a mere problem, they might simultaneously be part of a struggle against racism (although I would argue that recognizing and continuously how our own actions and assumptions contribute to the problem is a prerequisite for participating in this struggle).
Class struggles that ignore race easily perpetuate certain problems. Most visible is the examples of how Solidarity might actually address class struggles in certain communities (and while there analysis isn't always correct, it's not always wrong either) but they will remain unable to actually address the broader problem, because they cannot see how their class struggle is waged by keeping certain racial structures in place. Historically similar problems was seen in the way race was used to break the class struggle around the South African mines in the early 20th century, by separating black and white workers. Insisting that we ignore race for the moment in order to fight capitalism has been shown to perpetuate problems. Sometimes we do it as a pragmatic move (like black women under apartheid that made decisions to postpone gender issues in order to find solidarity in a struggle against racism), but I think that a better solution is to work for ways in which we can keep all of these on the table simultaneously (without arguing that everything is simply different manifestations for a class struggle, or simply different manifestations of a struggle against patriarchy - which has also been argued at times - or anything else). I'm more convinced of the argument that the way in which oppressions intersect should remind us that we actually need the various struggles if we want to successfully, work on that which concern us most. If it is the struggle against capitalism, then anti-racists should be considered potential allies, even with a slightly different focus, same for the struggles against patriarchy, white supremacy, mass environmental pollution and various other systems of domination. To call for some kind of pragmatic alliance where we focus on the "actual issues" seem to me to actually work against a joint struggle.
As for the blog, I don't mind if it's posted anywhere, but having multiple conversations on multiple platforms doesn't help. If our dialogue produce something helpful, then perhaps its best to publish the dialogue together.
My final comment was the following:
Cobus, another very thoughtful and challenging comment. Yes, I think we need to work on a conversation that we can publish together. Please can you PM me your email address? Let's see if we can make that work out. It would be worthwhile. I have a Masters student doing some excellent work on this topic - perhaps we could invite him into the conversation as well. I will copy your two comments from above as a follow up to the original post on the website. At some point I need to figure out how to incorporate Facebook comments into my site.
So please watch this space - it is likely that Cobus and I will work on formalising our conversation in a published article (perhaps with one other colleague, if he is interested and has the time while completed his Masters degree). I am grateful to Sanda who started the conversation, and to all of the persons who commented via Facebook and twitter (and via emails and direct messages) on this topic.