Colour Confusions

by Jul 21, 2016All Articles

In Issue 45 of the Amandla! magazine we opened the pages to the important debate on race and class.  Publishing two articles one by Alex Hotz and another by Jeff Rudin. Hotz maintains that South Africa remains a white supremacist society and that hardly anything has changed since apartheid. Whilst Rudin argues that class explains and colour confuses. In continuing this debate, Jeff Rudin has responded to Alex Hotz’s article in Amandla! Issue 45. Read More:

My dear Alex

This open, though personal, letter to you is my response to your critique of my article (with both the critique and article appearing in the same issue of Amandla, in April 2016).

To refer to you as ‘Alex Hotz’, or ‘Hotz’, which would be the normal style in public exchanges, is not only to deny that we have known each other for a very long time, but have been important figures in each other’s lives. Without being unduly presumptuous, my hope is that the political differences between us on certain matters will not preclude the continuation of mutual affection and concern build up over more than 19 years.

In keeping with the spirit of this letter to you, I shall not respond to the details of what you’ve written, save to say that, without exception, your critique does not seem to connect with anything that I actually wrote.

Black pain is seared into every paragraph of your article. Believe it or not, this is not hard to understand. More importantly, I fully affirm your right to make your own choices, especially those life-shaping ones such as the sense you make of an often mad world and how you relate to the many challenges of our time.

Reading your article makes it is clear to me that I have singularly failed in my attempts to share with you why I go on about race and, more latterly, about blackness. I deeply regret this failure. Allow me, as part of what I still hope will be an open and continuing conversation between us, another chance to explain my two main concerns about colour coding. I do so, let me again emphasise, precisely because race continues to be the dominant reality in the consciousness of most South Africans.

Despite this undoubted reality, colour confuses an understanding of the realities of the political-economy that shape all our lives, regardless of our particular self-identities. To illustrate why I say this, which is the first and relatively minor of my two concerns, consider the following:

  • The cover of the April Amandla proclaims: ‘Black Lives Matter’. The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 does indeed symbolise the cheapness of black lives in the white South Africa of high apartheid. How, however, is one to understand the Marikana Massacre of 2013? The police who killed the 34 black miners, 17 of whom were shot in the back, were overwhelmingly black. So, too, was the Provincial Police Commissioner directly responsible for what happened at Marikana. The National Police Commissioner was also black; as was the Minister of Police. The Minister, in turn, was a member of an overwhelmingly black Government, accountable to an overwhelmingly black Parliament. The enormously wealthy business man who used his close political connections with black Cabinet Ministers to call for much more decisive action against the striking black miners was black. Indeed, this black business man has subsequently been promoted to no less a position than that of Deputy President of South Africa. Unlike Sharpeville, Marikana dramatically highlights how simplistic race can be in understanding post-1994 South Africa. Sharpeville resulted in the banning of the ANC & PAC, as well as a State of Emergency. Marikana resulted in…. To date, no legal action has been taken against anyone – other than some of the surviving miners.
  • Prior to 1994, black students were excluded from all the main universities, which were exclusively white (with only the most minor of exceptions). Today, many black students are excluded from these now racially open universities because of unaffordable fees. Regular government cuts to university grants have made these fees prohibitively high. Yet, the Minister of Education is black. He is accountable to the predominantly black Cabinet, which, in turn, is accountable to a predominantly black Parliament.
  • Black poverty and unemployment inside a highly unequal society were the hallmarks of Apartheid. Black poverty and even worse unemployment inside an even more starkly unequal society are the hallmarks of today, 22 years after the election of successive black governments.
  • Unless one attributes these multiple conditions to the mere fact of a black Cabinet accountable to a black Parliament elected by an overwhelmingly black population – which would be consistent with biologically determined races, some of which were inferior to others – these examples all point to a level of complexity in which colour-coding has little, if any, explanationary value.
  • Steve Biko had good reason to note (in words that form the title of your critique)

“Not only have they kicked the black but they have also told him how to react to the kick.”

However, the ‘they’ to whom he was referring were white liberals of the Progressive Party prepared to extend the vote only to a very small number of suitably educated or wealthy blacks. For this was 1971, 46 years ago, when apartheid was at its most self-confident, having survived all the political upheavals and trials of the 1960s and before the labour unrest that began in 1972. Torn out of its historically specific context, Biko’s cutting observation has meaning today only to the extent that – to continue the colour theme – blacks are still being kicked. However, this now begs the questions: By whom and who is enabling, promoting and protecting the people doing the kicking? Additionally, what analytic value – other than confusion – does the social construct of race contribute to the answers?

It is this colour-caused confusion that brings me to the second –and major – of my concerns.

Alex, I’m confident that, despite our current differences over matters of colour and blackness, we are broadly united in the sort of world in which we’d feel at home. Ours is therefore a shared struggle for what we’d both agree would be a far better – and unrecognisably different – world.

I wouldn’t be writing to you now and I would not have written the various others pieces on race and colour were it not for one overriding consideration: that a primary focus on colour, or, more broadly, on the conjoint twins of Identity and the Other, creates such a profusion of antagonistic fragments that we spend a huge amount of time and energy disagreeing amongst ourselves. I trust I have only to remind you of what, for you, must have been the most painful vandalisation of the RMF exhibition to commemorate its first anniversary by transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex students aggrieved by what they perceived to be their marginalisation [ ]

Not only does the fragmentation keep us apart but it does so in circumstances where unity is a precondition for us ever achieving any of our dreams.

‘Black’ is an inclusive term, for you. Unfortunately, this is not the case for most of the people you want to include. The self-identities of most South Africans is, powerfully, still those of ‘races’ invented by apartheid. Worse still, is the further sub-divisions within each of these antagonistic races. Compounding the tribal divisions amongst Africans is xenophobia. Coloureds still reflect the divisions of their ‘catch-all’ polyglot and heterogeneous ethnic, regional and religious origins. Some of those claiming direct Khoi-San ancestry are intent on asserting their exclusive rights as the authentic First People. Similar differences are found amongst the Indians and Whites.

All these differences manifest in workers. In my view, this is a major reason for the weakness of the South African working class. Even if you don’t attach the importance I do to this class, I’m sure you recognise the thus far unequalled power of their organised numbers.

As an example of how class is confused by colour, I offer you a recent statement by Duduzane Zuma, the very personification of a parasitic beneficiary of BEE, the vigorously state-driven policy, implemented with rare determination, of using political power to create black economic wealth, but without disrupting the class structure of capitalism upon which it feeds. Explaining why he has resigned from Oakbay, the Gupta family holding company, he stated:

My history and background is no different from that of all previously disadvantaged black people.

The economy is necessarily skewed against us, which is the very basis of the struggle for political and economic emancipation.

It is beyond dispute that our political miracle did not usher in an economic miracle for our people, hence the grinding poverty, unemployment and persisting inequality.

Poverty in South Africa carries a black face and I didn’t invent that” (I will continue to be part of my generation whose mission is the economic emancipation of our people. [News 24, 8 May 2016])

I am prepared to believe that he really believes in his ‘mission’ being the ‘economic emancipation’ of his ‘people’. His belief that ‘poverty carries a black face’ is his class confusion; a confusion that doubtlessly makes it easier for him to accumulate his personal wealth with a good conscience.

Working class receptivity to Zuma’s mission to liberate blacks from ‘grinding poverty, unemployment and persisting inequality’, by making himself filthy rich, is the other side of this colour-infused confusion. The permanence of the ‘black face of poverty’ allows endless scope for those who use their black face to legitimise black wealth. All that remains constant in this colour coded transfer of wealth is poverty.

Ultimately, we all have to decide how to respond to ubiquitous poverty. In this respect, South African Jewry is instructive. The lessons they offer provide an appropriate way to end this letter to you, dear Alex.

Have you ever wondered about the hugely disproportionate number of Jews amongst the small number of whites who really opposed apartheid? The same question can be asked of the over-representation of Jews amongst the even smaller number of whites within the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Jews can lay claim to being the oldest victims of racism worldwide. The Holocaust is merely the most horrific event of this centuries old racial oppression. Most Jews have responded to this racial victimhood with singular insularity. They’ve demanded equal rights for themselves, in a world still left unequal. They’ve demanded the end of Jewish oppression in a world still full of oppression. For them, the establishment of Jewish rights and protections is mission accomplished. The rest of the world is left unchanged.

A minority of Jews responded differently. They moved beyond the entirely understandable concerns of Jews about themselves as Jews.   Most of this small number, having rejected the particularities of a religious or cultural identity, universalised what Jews required for themselves. The mainstream Jewish call for the end of anti-semitism and national oppression thus became a call for the end of all forms of racism, exploitation and oppression.

An exclusive focus on the exclusive aspirations of a particular group – the ‘my people’ syndrome – explains the obscenity of South African Jews being happy with the privileges guaranteed them as a consequence of the racism, exploitation and oppression of all ‘non-whites’ during apartheid. The ‘my people’ syndrome similarly explains, I suggest, how it is possible for Israel, seen as the Jewish homeland, to do to Palestinians exactly what was done to Jews, since biblical days.

Black lives do most assuredly matter. But, if the concern is only or mainly about black lives, this is no different from the ancient Jewish cry that Jewish lives matter. This doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. It does however get in the way of changing the world that is so fertile in creating the ills you and I would like to abolish.

Much luv,


April 2016

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