It's time we ditched our apartheid and tribal instincts
We need a symbolic politics that names and acclaims all people as citizens, not as races
From Westbury in Johannesburg to Mitchells Plain in Cape Town, something troubling has been unravelling in SA society. People mobilise themselves and articulate their grievances not as the poor, or even as blacks, but as “coloured people”.
In a mosque where I was about to speak, a well-organised group of citizens spoke brazenly about black Africans in Cape Town as outsiders coming from the Eastern Cape. “Not white enough then, not black enough now,” they complain.
To the protesters the grievance is real – the government of the day prioritises the needs of black Africans and, once again, coloured people are shunted aside, this time by dark-skinned nationalists.
It is not only poor or working-class communities that experience this sense of rejection by the government in power. At another function where I was speaking, a well-dressed professional woman gave the vote of thanks and, in a calm voice, said something to the effect that, “when I hear my president speak, I do not always feel that he is including people like me”.
It would be tempting to dismiss these concerns as that of “racist” coloureds who expect to be treated differently from their African brothers and sisters, but I believe the picture is a little more complex.
The feeling of being included or excluded is not, as Mandela understood, an empirical science. You do not need “data” to determine whether people feel part of a nation or not. It is something people sense, an emotional connection, a feeling of being recognised or not.
The truth is that people who were classified coloured feel alienated within the broader SA society. It is the signals that ordinary people in so-called coloured communities triangulate when they hear senior leaders of the ruling party speak about “Africans in particular” as the primary focus of the struggle and its benefits.
It is the complete absence in the new president’s first State of the Nation Address of anyone but Africans (Mandela would bring Ingrid Jonker into his speeches for good reason and Mbeki would at least momentarily include all of us in his “I am an African” speech).
It is the media headlines about nine coloured officers in the Department of Correctional Services being denied promotion because of “employment equity” and “demographic” considerations.
It is the perception that the national government deliberately withholds crimefighting resources on the Cape Flats to embarrass the DA, even as coloured youngsters are mowed down in the crossfire among rival gangsters.
I grew up under a different tradition. My political mentor as a teenager was my activist uncle Joey Marks and, later on, the intellectual Neville Alexander. I found myself feeling liberated as a young university student under the teachings of Steve Biko – we were black.
Later I found solace in non-racialism without slipping into the delusion of colour-blindness. I would evolve in my political consciousness towards thinking of solidarity as the organising principle for activism rather than race.
And ever since I gained political consciousness, I rejected then and now being labelled coloured. My identity and my commitment do not belong to any group, nor are they contained within borders. That was the case long before I became comfortably middle class.
That said, I recognise how the subjective experiences of people who were named as “coloured” led them to accept this identity as real. It took legislation, policy and politics over more than a century to create and sustain such a manufactured identity – laws such as the Coloured Labour Preference Act and, of course, race classification distinctions. We were indeed the only country in the world to create a legal category of people regarded as neither white nor black.
And throughout the 20th century Afrikaner nationalists of various stripes pulled coloured people towards them or pushed them away, depending on the political cause of the moment; that political dance with coloured people continues today as white Afrikaans speakers sense the loss of what they claim to be their language, Afrikaans, in public life and institutions.
Where I now live in Stellenbosch I hear often the Afrikaner elites last gasp at holding on to Afrikaans via the patronising question, Maar wat van die bruinemense? (But what about the coloured people?). And let’s be clear, the ruling party, as well as the main opposition, has played into the hands of this kind of ethnic politics by appealing to coloured people as a voting bloc.
Where do we go from here? We need to re-educate our people against their apartheid and tribal instincts. We need to organise people to recognise what is common in their struggles as the poor and the working classes. We need policies that deliver in relieving poverty and crime among those calling themselves African, coloured, Indian and white at the same time. We need a symbolic politics that names and acclaims all people as citizens, not as races. And we must act against those who, for sheer political advantage, will isolate and blame another group – such as Indian South Africans – for their self-inflicted dilemmas.