Monday, 11 April 2005

My naam is Rassie

A while ago, News24 published an online column by Jon Qwelane titled "I am not a racist." I read through it and thought there are some serious errors in the argument and in Jon's judgement, to which I responded and sent the little impromptu piece below into the void of the News24 newsroom. I have no idea what they do to such responses, whether it immediately gets dumped, graces the funny wall or dartboard in the room or actually gets forwarded to the person in question (which would be my first choice). Cerebus replied to mine (see above) and it makes for the beginning of a nice debate, if someone wants to pick up the thread.

Anyway, here goes:

Having read Jon Qwelane's "I am not a racist" piece, I want to comment on the following paragraph:

"Also, no black person can ever be a racist, however hard he or she tries. Racism is an exercise of power relations and, necessarily, one has to have power - political, economic, religious, military, social, etc - for one to exercise racism over others."

I don't know whether this is a statement referring to South Africa only or the whole world, but I want to say please please please do not tell me you think this is true. Surely the last time I checked there are countries (including South Africa) where black people have political, economic, religious, military and social power. The way I understand this quote is that nowhere do blacks have such power, therefore they cannot be racist. By inference, only once they acquire such power, will they become racist.

The definition of racism used by ICERD (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) as used on the website of the South African Human Rights Commission defines racism as: "Any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise, on equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, or any other field of public life."

This definition makes the apartheid government racist, that is clear. It also stretches to other actions as racist: Idi Amin against Indians in the 70s, Japanese against Chinese in Manchuria, Spanish football fans against black players recently, Robert Mugabe against farmers, judges and politicians etc.

I have recently also been shocked by how deeply ingrained white racist views are still in South Africa, including the exclusion of the boy from a church in Mossel Bay reported on in Sunday's News24. This approach of Jon Qwelane doesn't help. Instead of focusing his anger he takes a shotgun approach and points it at all white people, everywhere. This first of all undermines the nuances attached to race and racism, it is not only a black-and-white thing. Can coloureds and Indians be racist, or are we only talking so-called African blacks? And does being African include Arabs in the north of the continent?

By using simplistic and generalised arguments such as the one in the column, it further undermines the integrity of an underlying argument that says (I think): "People, look at South Africa, we still have racism in our midst, and I am angry about it and angry with the people defending some actions as colour-blind."

Another case in point: according to the schema of no black can be a racist, where does a person like Joe Seremane fit, referred to as Leon and Gibson's "black sidekick". If he shares their views, does it make him a racist against black people, even if he is black and, by Qwelane's definition, cannot be one? What is this type of racist called? Or does it not matter? If you're a racist, you're a racist and what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. That's the type of argument I'm hearing. And that saddens me, if this is the type of contribution we can expect to address the very important issue of race and racism.

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