Read anything about the supposed primacy of race in South African policy-making today and you will be urged to accept the truth of it on the grounds neither of evidence nor reason, but of a high-minded moralism that implicitly claims to be above scrutiny.
The moral veneer is thin, however, and what lies beneath it is offensively cynical.
By appearances, to be sure, there is something creditable – if superficial and deceiving – about the authority that is thought to be invested in the moral argument for race consciousness. It is the sort of thing that people might say ‘comes from a good place’.
After all, the scale at which race was exploited in the past is visibly and palpably present in lingering consequences mostly for the same racial categories of people who suffered historically.
On the face of it, then, reversing the consequences must depend not only on an acknowledgement of race (rather than, in the popular idiom, ‘race denialism’ or ‘colour-blindness’, neither of which in fact defines the counterargument), but on deliberately exploiting race again as an obvious remedy.
Only by ‘progressive’ racialism, the argument goes – through redress, empowerment, redistribution or preferment – can the damage can be undone.
Anyone who argues otherwise is judged to have a blind spot, and the blind spot is essentially a moral one.
Liberals rightly object that racialism – whether supposedly corrective or flagrantly exploitative – remains offensive for the same reasons: first, that people are not what they look like, and to treat them as if they are is fundamentally immoral, and, second, that any policy framework built on so flawed a conception of society is doomed to deficiency and error.
In South Africa, apartheid is no longer the sole damning illustration; today’s burgeoning underclass of economically excluded millions after 26 years of the steady re-racialising of policy is every bit as eloquent.
Abandon racialism itself
The only counter to it is to abandon racialism itself – in other words, see people for who they really are, and address their needs accordingly.
Which is why rubbing away the thin gloss of moralism is both necessary and discomforting. Beneath it is a far uglier truth about the public conversation in South Africa; the near unchallenged dominance of political and social commentators punting illiberal ideas for everyone else that they would never tolerate being applied to themselves.
Not one of them would be able to defend his or her job, salary or status, or any ordinary choice – where to live, which doctor to see, which school to send their children to, what to buy and from whom, what to read, see or think, or how to self-identify – except on the grounds of liberal principles that place the individual, whoever he or she may be, at the centre of society.
Yet all these considerations are excluded from their analysis of the lives of others, the rest of us, as if the authors are not part of this society, and don’t care much about it either.
This has been especially evident in the wake of the Democratic Alliance’s endorsement of redress and empowerment that deliberately focuses on overcoming disadvantage where it exists.
Some of the most prominent responses are breathtaking examples of the same kind of race consciousness apartheid ideologues persisted in implanting in the minds of devotees.
We are led to believe that if the DA abandons racialist thinking it can only mean it must cleave to race in a new, flawed, way.
Thus, according to Marianne Merten: ‘Now, the eternal question asked of the DA has returned as strongly as ever: Does it actually care about the majority of South Africans and, if so, are they or the country’s wealthy, white minority its priority?’
Even the party’s economic policy thinking ‘(again) … raises the question of which demographic the DA is trying to represent’.
Coupled with this line of thinking is the contorted assumption that the DA’s commitment to non-racialism is actually a cunning racial strategy devised by liberals outside the party, the IRR being wheeled in as the usual suspect. (‘So let’s call what happened a rearguard take-over by the IRR….’).
Constructive, practicable measures
It is doubtful that anyone outside the IRR has done as much work on alerting society to the sheer scale of continuing – even deepening – disadvantage, or, more importantly, crafting constructive, practicable measures to overcome it. That race-based measures over the past more than two decades have failed to address South Africa’s mammoth disadvantage deficit emerges from research highlighted by the IRR just days before Merten’s misplaced ‘rearguard’ dig.
The Invisibles: South Africa’s underclass presents the bald facts of the lives of ‘the poorest people in society [who have] no jobs and few prospects, little or no education [and no] decent housing and services’.
In their report, Centre for Risk Analysis researchers Bheki Mahlobo and Thuthukani Ndebele make the point that ‘[m]iddle class and high net worth individuals usually occupy centre stage in public discourse, while the poor are often kept out of sight and out of mind’. These ‘invisibles’, they write, ‘form the majority of South Africa’s citizens by any reasonable measure. Even so, they are often voiceless in the economy and in politics.’
Not much denialism, there – and somewhat more than merely ‘a nod to the more vulnerable’, as Merten wrote.
It is a consolation that not all commentators are blind to the ironies, as the following tweet shows.
Yet, perhaps without thinking much about it, others have indulged in a spectacular display of patronising omniscience in suggesting they know exactly how and what black people think – prompting DA policy head Gwen Ngwenya’s pointed tweet:
Instead of their sanctimonious and patronising sermons on the imagined failures of the Democratic Alliance (or the IRR) and the sins of ‘race denialism’, I for one would be much more interested to hear from these commentators how, in light of their untroubled public commitment to the non-liberal project of race and group, they would defend their jobs, their status, their salaries, their life choices, their history, and their belonging in a society they say they do not believe can legitimately be understood other than in terms of race and group.
Where there is a flat contradiction – as there is in South Africa today – between how opinion shapers live and how they say the rest of us should live, the peddling of unexamined clichés on the strength of a moral authority that is shallow and unconvincing cuts to the heart of the credibility crisis in our public conversation.
The poor – most of them black, and most of them poor because of the poorly addressed effects of racialism – have been failed by illiberal ideas which most leading commentators insist society must endorse without dreaming for a moment of tolerating any such notions being applied to themselves and their pursuit of success and self-esteem.
Consider this the next time you read some drivel about race denialism and I guarantee only one question will leap to mind: who do they think they are kidding?
[Picture: The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash]