Neville Alexander’s warning

The ex-Robben Island prisoner and arguably South Africa’s foremost public intellectual cautioned against the spectre of violence that will arise from not resolving inequality and racism.

“Things can fall apart very quickly. Our entire socio-historical fabric can unravel within a few weeks: it took less than a hundred days in Rwanda! … In the words of the unforgettable lines in one of Dennis Brutus’ poems, ‘from the shanties creaking iron-sheets/ violence like a bug-infested rag is tossed/ and fear is immanent’. Once this happens, we will be faced with the phenomenon of the ‘failed state’ and, as we all know, the road from there to some kind of sanity is a very long one.” – Neville Alexander, “Afrophobia and the racial habitus” in Thoughts on the New South Africa (Jacana, 2013)

In his life’s work and struggles against racial capitalism both before and after apartheid, Neville Alexander warned against the spectre of racist, caste and religion-based genocide – not unlike that which was unleashed against the people of Bosnia or Rwanda and which now haunts countries elsewhere, including in the treatment of those seeking refuge in Europe. Alexander said persistently and even imploringly that the failure to resolve the national question and address the fault lines of class and spatial inequality, racism and patriarchy would lead to exactly the situation we now face in parts of this country. It is ever present not only because of the underlying failure to address its origins in the racist forms of greed and capital accumulation that is so deep in our history, but also by the unthinking racist language and ideas used by politicians, sections of the uncritical media and others who ought to know better. 

Prejudice and even racist attitudes remain prevalent in many parts of our society because of its deep and socially acrid roots and the continued ambivalence and cowardice of those in power who have failed to confront it head-on; through the failure of our educational institutions where universities continue to describe their students and staff using the unmitigated categories of apartheid nomenclature without any reservation; and where poorly trained media “analysts” and presenters seem not to have a clue about what the effects of their continued use of the apartheid racial categories has meant and continues to mean. All of this is compounded by the profoundly ignorant tweets and posts that pervade social media as it continuously facilitates the manufacture of blinding ignorance and crass stupidity. An example of the latter is in the racial characterisation of what transpired in Phoenix, KwaZulu-Natal. The periodic xenophobic pogroms too are a reminder to all of us that violent action against “the other” can be mobilised easily and rapidly through social media. 

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The present situation in our country has arisen from a combination of factors, both historical and current. These include the failure of a government, led by the ANC, to deal with those issues that affect the daily lives of the vast majority of the population. Evidence of this failure can be drawn from the facts relating to stark and growing poverty and its consequences for hunger and food insecurity experienced by so many people, the rampant and increasing lack of jobs especially for the young of our society and the increasing insecurity of those who do have jobs; the chasm of wealth and income inequality that is widening daily, especially since 1994; and the psychosocial effects of Covid-19, added to the trauma of pre-existing gender-based and other forms of violence that are enmeshed in the fabric of social life. 

Under these conditions, Alexander was emphatic: “Suffice it to say that unless the Gini coefficient is tackled seriously, all talk of social cohesion and national unity is so much nonsense.” This means that unless the material conditions of life for all are radically transformed, building a cohesive nation will remain impossible. The situation is exacerbated by the failure of the ANC-led state to intervene in and resolve its internal leadership struggles compounded by elitist attitudes and aspirations to glamorous lifestyles amid the devastation of growing shack settlements, townships and former homelands, while the blight of corruption, fraud and outright theft continues to spread. 

Perhaps the greatest underlying and historical factor in the build-up to the present is the complicity of the ANC leadership and its allies in furthering apartheid’s structural and deeply entrenched characteristics by adopting fiscal, monetary, social, economic and other policies that continue to undermine the lives of the impoverished and socially marginalised majority. These policies privilege a tiny minority by promoting the interests of corporate capital and its agents, to further its anti-poor, racist, gendered and class-based ideology and insistence on continuing and elaborating on these dystopian policies. It should be obvious to us all that the current state of affairs would not exist in a society where social and economic resources are used for the good of the citizenry, where the political leadership is not engulfed in unconscionable looting of public resources. What we witness at this moment is unlikely in a society where the basic rights that secure the conditions of life for the vast majority are respected, even if they are not met fully. 

In Thoughts on the New South Africa (Jacana, 2013), Neville Alexander explored the spectre of racist, caste and religion-based genocide.

A reservoir of prejudice

In this context, what has re-emerged is race-talk and with it the spectre of racist violence and conflict. This talk and its effects are fostered by uncritical parts of the public media, which is hugely influential in shaping society’s views and discussions about “race” and “ethnicity”, and by what is happening on social media, in government speak and regrettably even in institutions of education, which should know better. What do we mean? 

There is no doubt that “race consciousness” is entrenched in our society and lies sometimes at the forefront of social interactions. There is no question that there is a deep and enduring reservoir of racial prejudice, ideas about hierarchy and other bigoted ideas in our society. 

The use of “race” as a concept is often associated with social hierarchy, prejudice, discriminatory practice and stereotypical depictions of members of society. Alexander rejected the concept of “race” not only because of its reliance on observable characteristics and attributes but also because of the dangers inherent in racial (and racist) descriptions – and because the concept is “pregnant with confusion” and so given to opportunist use in political, economic and ideological domains. He sought a new vocabulary about the use of race, highlighting that there is no logical reason “for inferring the reality of ‘race’ from the fact of racial prejudice”. So while racism and racial capitalism is real, “race” other than a social construct is not.

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We are told that there are human races that are fundamentally (even biologically) different; that some are better or more clever than, more athletic or musical or “civilised” than others, that there is “us” and “them”, that there are many “others” who are “not like us”, that they have unrecognisably different “cultures”, “traditions” and “habits”; that there are vastly different “communities” based on their “ethnicities”, harking back to “tribal” affiliations and other such seemingly distinguishing characteristics. Entire communities have been painted with negative characteristics, stereotyped, and these ways of naming have become common even though they are wrong. 

These prejudices and false ideas – because that is what they are – have created deep and seemingly immutable differences between human beings. Yet, is it really so difficult to understand the origin and source of these untenable and incorrect ideas? Are we blind to how deep the social system of apartheid – built on the prior foundations of colonial segregation, slavery and conquest – remains rooted in all societies that experience racial prejudice and violence? And can we not see how little the post-apartheid government and leading political parties have understood the depth of this issue or chosen to avoid its complex nature, beyond bland and hypocritical pronouncements about their alleged “non-racialism”.

For Alexander, “We have to see to it that the entrenched inherited racial identities that disfigured the popular consciousness of colonial and apartheid South Africa are changed and eventually eradicated. This is not an easy task, and we will not succeed completely in the next few generations. However, it must be the goal of all creative and thinking people in this country to ensure that labels such as ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘coloured’ and ‘Indian’ become irrelevant as a means of identifying groups of people in the new South Africa.

“Most South Africans continue to believe in these racial categories, because they have been conditioned to accept them as real. They continue to see the world through glasses that are tinted by the outdated concept of ‘race’. More than 60 years ago, ‘race’ was called ‘man’s most dangerous myth’. After the transatlantic slave trade in an earlier period and in Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and in so many other places during the last century, nobody can doubt that ‘race’ is indeed one of the matches that can burn down all the most brilliant achievements of the human spirit.”

Respectful co-existence

We know – although we don’t teach this systematically, if at all, in our educational institutions – that human societies all over the world have been built on the ideas and practices of cooperation and community for thousands of years. Communities made up of a wide diversity of languages, religions, social habits, traditions and outward characteristics such as colour have come together to form cohesive nation states and lived in relative harmony for thousands of years. They have developed collective and binding cultures respecting each other’s difference, showing how difference is not a barrier to social solidarity and harmony. That is how nearly every nation-state that exists today was built as they did not always exist as such. Complex societies are built by focusing not on peoples’ differences but on co-existing respectfully and the common good. 

This is not to deny the reality of occasional conflict almost entirely attributable to greed and the accumulation of capital, and the manipulation of social interests to entrench privilege and its accompanying systems of power: patriarchy, slavery, colonial plunder, dispossession, violence and the destruction of the planet. The imperialist wars of the past century and those presently unleashed on the global impoverished and their communities are sterling examples of just such greed and power in which post-colonial elites and their regimes are complicit. In addition, support for Trump/Bolsonaro/Modi-like opportunistic politicians and movements, able to meld religious fundamentalism, “tribal” and “ethnic” chauvinism, xenophobia and homophobia is a real and dangerous possibility in South Africa. 

There is a long-awaited though deadly urgent task that has to be accomplished in this and other societies. It concerns a concerted effort to get rid of racial prejudice of all kinds and together with it patriarchal and gendered, status-bound and class-based prejudices. If that is not dealt with, the potential for continued social conflict will remain ever-present. 

Institutions of education – public and private – the media of every stripe, social movements and trade unions, and religio-cultural and community organisations must deal with these issues because the state is simply unable to do what it must to foster the real possibilities for building the ideas, practices and covenants of nationhood. It has no idea of how to draw on the deep reservoirs of collaboration, collective knowledge, integrative ideas, respectfulness and ethical precepts derived from the struggles against oppressive and exploitative systems to reflect on and create a society of genuine and lasting humanity. On this, too, can be built the foundations of a truly democratic, caring, responsive and accountable political and social system, here and elsewhere.

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