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BOOK REVIEW | Non-racialism is dead. Good riddance or a tragedy?

Ideas

BOOK REVIEW | Non-racialism is dead. Good riddance or a tragedy?

Ismail Lagardien argues that non-racialism is an ANC public relations stunt, but his view needs to be taken further

Contributor and analyst

Among the many interesting arguments Ismail Lagardien advances in his excellent book Too White to be Coloured, Too Coloured to be Black is one that supports the claim that non-racialism has failed. It is worth rehearsing and critiquing his argument, and building on it, because the yearning for the concept remains potent in some South African quarters.

He argues that non-racialism was used by some in the anti-apartheid movement, including ANC leaders, to make whites feel guilty and extract gains from that. He writes: “As it goes, the characters in ‘the movement’ seemed terribly expedient, exploitative and manipulative in the 1980s. The trick was to always make white people feel guilty for being white. Much later in life, at about the time I was writing this, I would consider ‘non-racialism’ as part of the ideological snake oil and expediency of (especially) the ANC to garner white support as a tactic. There is no doubt that there were white people committed to the anti-apartheid struggle — especially among the communists and socialists — but for the most part, the idea was to tap into the collective guilt of white ‘progressives’ or liberals to strengthen the presence of the movement. It seems to have worked — for the first decade of democracy. That’s when non-racialism was exposed as a transparent and terribly pathetic magician’s trick.”

Lagardien develops his view more fully in a later chapter, wistfully entitled So long, non-racialism — it’s been good knowing you. Notwithstanding the progressive intentions of the drafters of the constitution, who enshrined non-racialism as a foundational value, he argues that the constitution “did not, and could not foresee ... the rise in distinctly African ethno-nationalism, the spread of an acquisitive society that funnelled opportunity, entitlements and pecuniary gains along a sliding scale of race, embedded privilege and an arbitrary and expedient type of exclusion with a threat of erasure.” He offers some interesting and usefully uncomfortable anecdotal evidence from different provinces, including the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape, of coloured people reporting experiences of explicit economic exclusion in favour of hiring “real Africans”...

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