Redressing disadvantage and fighting racism in South Africa

Submitted by AWL on 21 May, 2006 - 10:51 Author: Neville Alexander

We have received a copy of a paper by veteran South African Marxist Neville Alexander on "Affirmative Action and the Perpetuation of Racial Identities", from Rajni Lallah of Lalit, Mauritius. Rajni writes: "I thought I'd you'd appreciate getting a paper of Neville Alexander on affirmative action and the perpetuation of racial identities in post-apartheid South Africa. Lalit comrades find it excellent and very useful in debate".

Excerpts from the paper:

Firstly, there is no need to use the racial categories of the past in order to undertake affirmative action policies. In the South African context, because of the demographic fact of a black majority at this stage of the evolution of the population's cultural consciousness, the strategy would be equally effective and more precisely targeted at the level of individual beneficiaries if class or income groups were used as the main driving force of the programme. The large area of overlap between "race" and "class" in South Africa makes this approach possible. In addition, it would make it possible for all economically disadvantaged individuals, irrespective of colour, to benefit from the programmes that derive from the strategy.

Secondly, the humiliating experience of racial self-classification and the entire replication of the technical hocus pocus of the apartheid racial ideologues required for the identification of citizens in terms of their "race" would be eliminated. In cases where the monitoring of change in demographic terms is necessary - because such change is feasible in the short to medium term - there would be no problem in finding other ways of registering the fact and/or the tempo of shift. Instead of subjecting institutional bureaucrats to the thankless task of becoming like their apartheid predecessors, without necessarily using "techniques" such as the "pencil test" or the test of linguistic shibboleths, the monitoring of the required shifts would become a comprehensible and generally acceptable practice. Similarly, we could use the language skills of people to promote redress in an organic manner. No new civil servant, for example, should be appointed unless s/he has a certain level of proficiency in one or more indigenous African languages. In short, we need to study each domain in which corrective action is to be undertaken in detail, so that we can identify the real sources of disadvantage suffered by the relevant individuals and groups. By using the shorthand of "race", we not only give advantage to middle class black people as against working class people, we also entrench - avoidably - the very racial categories that undermine the possibility of attaining a truly non-racial democratic South Africa.

Thirdly, without in any way denying the tenacity of social identities, it ought to be clear at least to the more reflective state officials and political leadership that if we agree that identities are not given but constructed[16], we should use every opportunity to bend our people towards the realisation of the non-racial values which are enshrined in Section 1(b) of the South African constitution. The acknowledgement of superficial differences should not become, even potentially, a lever for marginalisation or exclusion of any individual or group of people. This is the essence of a non-racial approach to the promotion of national unity and social integration and cohesion. As against this insight, almost every actual AA measure tends to undermine such integration and cohesion. And, let it be said clearly, no concessions need to be made to the beneficiaries of apartheid and colonialism. The principle of historical redress remains the lodestar of any serious policy of social transformation in the present phase of South African history...

... The socialist alternative

South Africa continues to be a land of good hope, also in respect of the challenge to the human species to find forms of social life where superstitions about "race", among many others, no longer disfigure the lives of people. Besides the alternative discursive strategies suggested above, it has become clear to many thinking South Africans that in the domains of both the economy and society, less risky and perhaps more effective strategies are possible. By way of example, economists such as Terblanche (2002) in Part 4 of his work on inequality in South Africa, propagates an outright paradigm shift to what he calls "a social democratic version of democratic capitalism" which relies less on the neo-liberal premise that all growth comes via the private sector and demands a much larger role for the state in driving transformation. His nightmare scenario is one where the trend towards a first-world capitalist enclave continues unabated for another 30 years with the result that the bourgeoisie of this enclave will be so much smaller and so much richer relatively and absolutely than what they are at present and "the lumpenproletariat on the periphery" so much bigger and so much poorer. Allister Sparks, one of the country's best known and most serious journalists argues similarly for a more socially responsible liberal democratic dispensation. Basing himself on the approaches of the Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, and others who are located in the "third world", he, too, proposes a state-driven public works programme akin to Roosevelt's New Deal and the valorisation of survivalist economic transactions and assets that are held by ordinary people in the so-called informal sector.

Those, like Sparks and Terblanche, who seek an alternative capitalist path of development, a kind of Mona Lisa capitalism, necessarily come up against the logic of the historically evolved system, especially in the present phase of aggressive and rapacious neo-liberal "globalisation". Theirs is a worthy quest. However, those of us who do not believe that this system can be improved by piecemeal reform have to continue to put forward the socialist alternative, which is based on a different albeit currently below-the-horizon set of values. We simply have to continue to expose the contradictions of the system, initiate and support the most radical democratic reforms, i.e., those that tend to strengthen the position and the security of the urban and the rural poor, and at the same time, continue what Friedrich Schiller, author of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, called "the aesthetic education of the human species". I hope I shall be forgiven for suggesting that, next to a few other countries, post-apartheid South Africa is the place where the curriculum of this education is being formulated.

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