When the Democracy Works director, Olmo von Meijenfeldt, extended an invite to me to attend the ‘Passing on the Baton Dialogue’ I did not see the use of participating. I thought ‘I am not South African and what will I be doing at that meeting’. I failed to see where I fit in this jigsaw puzzle, especially coming from Zimbabwe with all the negative stories associated with my country.
To be honest, I thought this process was supposed to be for South Africans and not ‘foreigners’. The first and second day of the workshop really reinforced my pre-conceived notions about the dialogue process. I felt vindicated that the process was nothing more or less of the ‘usual, routine NGO talk shows’, a battle of semantics and who has the most verbose and radical rhetoric.
However, as we progressed into the second day, there was a shift of terrain as the engagements amongst participants got robust, calling a ‘spade a spade’. It is only then when I discovered that my initial disposition was somehow misplaced. I was in the right place after all! The debates ranged from the questions of nation building, poverty, injustice, land and the economy but with race central to all these issues.
This piece is a precursor to the many other pieces to come on socio-economic transformation in post-Apartheid/Colonial Africa (My emphasis) which will be based on my little notes scribbled during the dialogue process.
I use post-Apartheid/Colonial Africa fully knowing and appreciating well the arguments about South Africa having experienced colonialism of a special type, a position, suffice to say for now, I totally disagree with and is a discussion for another day.
This piece’s central focus is to contribute to the discussion on the question of race and nation building in post-Apartheid/Colonial Africa. The central thesis of this piece is that race has been mostly suppressed in our engagements regarding nation building or where it has been discussed, it has been selectively done so to suit hegemonic construction agendas or power games of the elites. In addition, this has given impetus to a monolithic liberation struggle history based on the white and black binaries.
A stubborn fact of history that Africans have to embrace is that colonialism/apartheid and the Berlin Conference cannot be easily wished away from our history. These are events, which happened. We have no power to deny the existence of this oppressive and inhuman period of history but have the power to change the present and the future. Similarly, we cannot remain trapped in history and fail to re-imagine a new future where formerly oppressor and oppressed co-exist in a harmonious and civil environment.
These are the thoughts that kept my brain busy during the Dialogue. Most of my fellow black colleagues argued that Black People can’t be racist. My black colleagues religiously quoted Biko, Fanon and Mngxitama like a Pentecostal pastor quoting the Holy Bible to advance their argument that black people can only be recipients of racism. In short, their position on race is that black people are mere victims and recipients and white people have not yet done good enough to right the historical injustices.
In addition, some argued that whites should not ask blacks what they should do to change and be better, constructive citizens correcting the injustices from the past, but they should just simply know or take it upon themselves to discover. Yet, in the process of closing discussion between black and white on a possible new society, the blacks are quick to point; “Not Good Enough Boer/Whitie”, whenever they feel it is a raw deal. Therefore, whites are expected not to ask what to do and at the same time not to make a mistake. Oops! Maybe only God can achieve this.
For my white counterparts (why not colleagues?), they felt hapless and could not respond to the claim that black people can’t be racists. Trying to do so, would have invited the wrath of their black counterparts who were armed with the history of apartheid and colonialism and how it had decimated the black humanity.
Certainly, the blows and accusations of amnestic white privilege, and ungratefulness of reconciliation would have descended upon them like a mighty hippopotamus. For instance, one of the white counterparts, through a diagram, challenged the forum to explain why is it when a white colleague does something there is always a black intellectual waiting to piss on them arguing they are not doing enough. Furthermore, if he does nothing then they are always reminded of white privilege and doing nothing to contribute to socio-economic transformation and therefore they are shitting on the hand of reconciliation. I found the nature of this engagement disempowering and to some extent an elisionistic interpretation of history.
It stymied honest engagement about critical discussions that may help post-apartheid/colonial Africa into a new era of Mandela’s rainbow nation. I found the approach to be informed by self-righteousness, vindictiveness and only meant to massage egoistic politics of a black elite and at the same time blackmail white people in a bid to extract rents on behalf of black people.
In this case, colonialism/apartheid discourse is appropriated through radical and fiery rhetoric ala Game of Thrones to disable whites from contributing to social change and transformation. The end game is not to change society but gain moral superiority in typical biblical Pharisee style. Yes, the ultimate price is the domination of society and accrue the rents that comes with such racially imbued revolutionary gustoes. The discourse of race can be manipulated and instrumentalised to privilege by the black elite, all in the name of a revolution of redistributive justice for the poor.
A visit across the Limpopo River to Zimbabwe highlights one case where the black elite appropriated the discourse of race and ultra-nativism in pursuit of a self-seeking and self-serving hegemonic construction project in the name of redistributive justice to the poor. The disasters were felt all over as Zimbabweans scurried to all parts of the globe in search of better lives. Zimbabweans soon became the only known Trillionaires in the history of mankind who could not even afford a lollipop.
At the height of the politics of race, land and economy; inflation rose to 89.7 Sextillion percent, empty store shelfs, persistent food shortages, a countrywide outbreak of cholera, massively potholed roads, breakdown of key infrastructure and service delivery. The list of the problems that beset Zimbabwe is endless, but suffice to mention that as Robert Gabriel Mugabe kept his Zimbabwe and Tony Blair kept his England, between 200 000-500 000 Zimbabweans ran away from Mugabe and sought refuge under Tony Blair’s England.
If more Zimbabweans had the financial means to go to England only God knows how many would have remained in Zimbabwe considering that the estimated population of Zimbabweans in South Africa is between 1.5-3 million.
Yet Fanon, whom my black colleagues have been religiously quoting, cautions on the pitfalls of national consciousness. The current U-turn on economic policies by Zimbabwe’s ruling elite and its adoption of neo-liberal policies, begging trips to Western capitals and acquiescing to the demands for land compensation point to the limitations of race based politics in the modern world.
Mahomed Bhabha’s contributions during the Dialogue on his role amongst the trade unions and as an African National Congress (ANC) underground activist raised an interesting dynamic on African and Indian/Asian relations. He worked with African domestic workers who would complain about harsh treatment by some of his own people. He further shared on how his family viewed him as a deviant/outcast for participating in the ANC. He was some kind of shame to his family.
This points to the multi-dimensional nature of the liberation struggles and the realities that certain groups of people had to operate within. Christi van der Westhuizen’s article “How Afrikaner Identity Can be Re-Imagined in a Post-Apartheid World”, invokes the concept of andersdenkendheid (Thinking differently )to extensively discuss the role of volkverraiers or ‘so called traitors’ in challenging British imperialism and Apartheid.
The histories of people like Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Dennis Goldberg, Ronnie Kasrils, Raymond Suttner and so many others in South Africa and Guy Clutton Brooks, Father Nigel Johnson, Judith Todd and Jeremy and Paul Brickhill in Zimbabwe tell a missing narrative of white people contributing to the liberation struggles of this country. From Bhabha’s example to Christi’s andersdenkendheid and the contribution of white people to the liberation movement, it is clear that decolonisation has never been only about black and white. The fight against colonialism/apartheid was not only a black man’s fight. It was multi-dimensional and had many variants.
Having reflected on the ‘Passing on the Baton Dialogue’ engagements, my Zimbabwe experiences and readings on decolonisation history, I have come to a conclusion that discussions on race and nation building have remained largely polarised and disingenuous.
There has been a tendency by the black elite to invoke self-righteousness only to disempower their white counterparts and as well oppress their black comrades for the purpose of hegemonic construction projects. In a post-apartheid/colonial Africa we need to construct a world where both black and white can co-exist harmoniously and with equal access to opportunities. We need to gaze into our history and find the nuggets upon which we may build amidst the seas of injustice.
It is an arduous and painful but necessary generational task for the born free generation. The Mandelas, Kaundas, Kenyattas, Machels and Nkrumahs played their role. The Big Question is what is it that we are doing at a practical level to build a new and racially free Africa.
One may bring a crane, another may bring a brick but it does not mean that she/he who has brought the crane is more important than who brought the brick.
My argument is, what is it that you are doing at a practical level to bring the change that you desire instead of blaming others that they are not doing enough and keep on reminding us what we already know about colonialism/apartheid? Einstein argues that you can never judge a monkey’s intelligence against that of a tortoise by climbing a tree and similarly we can’t judge others not doing enough outside their realities.
*To learn more about this dialogue project please go the project page by clicking here.
**The views of this project blog do not necessarily represent the views of Democracy Works Foundation.