When black lives don’t matter

Michael Morris | Sep 04, 2019
The government’s racial nationalism is laid shockingly bare in its 19th Commission of Employment Equity annual report. Every bit as shocking is the nodding endorsement of the intelligentsia.

Sixty-nine years ago, the architects of apartheid – labouring, still, in the infancy of their two-year-old administration and anxious to consolidate an ideological programme not yet endorsed by a majority of white voters – crafted a keystone statute that would guarantee the centrality of race in South African life and law for decades.

The Population Registration Act of 1950 determined that South Africans would be judged by the accidental fact of their appearance and their birth. Every other political step taken in the next four decades of apartheid’s rise and fall would be shaped by this law.  By the time it was repealed on 28 June 1991, the damage was incalculable. We live with it still, and will do for a long time to come.

What is especially egregious is that the fundamental precepts of this unconscionable law of 1950 were resuscitated after 1994 and remain the lodestar of the ruling African National Congress these 25 years later.

It is a tragic irony that has come at a high cost to South Africans, and especially to those still burdened by the effects of apartheid’s depredations.

There is a particularly awful irony this week, in the light of attacks on African immigrants and so-called ‘foreign-owned’ shops – and it is a damaging irony underlined by last week’s release of the government’s 19th Commission of Employment Equity annual report.

This document, purportedly intended to advise the public of the scale of post-apartheid ‘transformation’, achieves the perverse objective of reinforcing the very reverse, and dangerously so in the case of immigrants.

In a section titled ‘Acronyms’, one item is no acronym, but a definition worthy of apartheid’s early architects. It reads: ‘POPULATION GROUPS Means African, Coloured, Indian, White and Foreign National’.

The attention given to each category is evident from the number of mentions it gets in the 112-page report. ‘African’ comes up 128 times (‘Black’ is mentioned seven times, but only in reference to empowerment legislation); ‘White’, 114 times, ‘Coloured’, 92 times; and ‘Indian’, 94 times. The last category, ‘Foreign National’, gets the second highest tally, of 125 mentions.

And of this tiny fraction (suggested to be between 1.6% and 2.2%) of the South Africa population, the report says: ‘The high representation of the Foreign National Population Group, particularly at the lower occupation levels remains a serious concern. Questions need to be asked as to whether our labour laws governing migration are adequately implemented in South Africa, especially in a country with a current unemployment rate in excess of 27%. The justification for them occupying positions that require very little or no skill at all needs to be assessed given the high rate of unemployed South African locals seeking for work. (sic)’

Singling out this special class goes one step further than the hated law of 1950, which (using the terminology of the time) defined ‘native’ as ‘a person who in fact is or is generally accepted as a member of any aboriginal race or tribe of Africa’.

Today, however, ‘African’ means something other in democratic South Africa.

In a recent article, Susan Tolmay of Amnesty International South Africa asked: ‘How is it that in 2019, 25 years after the first free elections, with our history of struggle for human rights and an end to discrimination in all its forms, we are treating people so inhumanely, in ways our struggle icons fought against? What does this say about us as a nation?’

The answer lies in what our society is prepared to accept as the definition of ‘equity’, a regressive racial delineation of who belongs, who deserves, and who doesn’t.

And what it comes down to is not transforming our society into an indivisibly non-racial whole – or recognising that that is, in fact, our existential condition – but pitting ‘population groups’ one against the other.

As the Institute of Race Relations says in a press release today, the ‘highly divisive style of politics employed by some politicians and endorsed by many commentators’ is a profound problem in South Africa today. ‘Appeals to racial nationalism,’ it goes on, ‘act to legitimise hostility towards, and the scapegoating of, ‘others’ – it should come as no surprise when the same debased logic is applied to an ever-widening circle of outsider groups.’

We treat people so inhumanely, to borrow from Tolmay’s phrasing, because too many people go along with racial nationalist reasoning without the faintest twinge of conscience.

So-called progressives are simply too scared to challenge it. Pathetically enough, they are not scared for their own physical safety – as ‘foreign nationals’ have to be – but, in their lily-livered way, are scared of being thought of as anything less than down-on-their-knees imbongis of the racial nationalism fostered by the ruling party.

Perhaps they are comforted by Police Minister Bheki Cele’s insistence that the violence this week is linked to ‘criminality’ rather than ‘xenophobia’, and that ‘(for) now there is nothing that has sparked any form of this conflict between the South Africans and foreign nationals’.

To its credit, Right2Know stuck its neck out to say: ‘We recognise that there are many sources of the violence but it is also clear that statements of outrage and condemnation by state officials at all levels (Cabinet, Parliament, the Gauteng Province, SAPS and Metros) fuelled the actions of ordinary citizens who interpreted those statements to be licence to take the law into their own hands. Senior political leaders find an easy target in the vulnerable Africans seeking to make a new home in South Africa.’

Many good South Africans will endorse the sentiments of shop owner Lerato Peete, who told the Sowetan that she was ‘ashamed to be called a South African’. How, she asked, ‘is it possible that a black person can be foreign in Africa. Who is a foreigner in Africa?’

What is shocking is that in none of the reporting on the Commission for Employment Equity report I have seen has anyone spoken up on the grounds of principle, or rejected the content for its reliance on racial nationalism that so blatantly prescribes who belongs, and who is worthy, in South Africa today.

Where is the outcry? Where are the ‘progressive’ voices?

They are silent – because, in the fest of blaming others, whether ‘whites’ or ‘foreign nationals’, for South Africa’s failure to come anywhere close to matching its ‘liberation’ promise, far too few are willing to contest the foundational principle itself.

And, in August 2019, that is tantamount to saying that black lives don’t matter either.

 

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

 

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