There’s no question that the debate, in and around the media, ignited by the ANC’s response to Brett Murray’s painting has been voluminous and intense in equal measure. And there have been important insights and lessons learned amongst the sound and fury. But the way in which many of the protagonists in this debate have mobilised the idea of a tumultuous wave of threatening popular anger in support of their arguments hasn’t been borne out on the streets. The march of just 300 at the court in Johannesburg and then, later, 600 people in Durban were total flops. Any self-respecting grassroots organisation would, without anything like the resources or access to the media that the ANC enjoys, consider such limited responses to a call to protest to be an embarrassing failure. And a very small fraction of the 15 000 people that had been promised, just a few hundred – most of them looking distinctly unenthusiastic, listened to the party leaders give their speeches outside the Goodman Gallery. It is striking that the ANC is so hostile to popular mobilisation outside of its control but so keen to raise the spectre of popular mobilisation to force its own agenda through.
There is certainly an important debate to be had about the way in which Murray’s painting recklessly risks gross complicity with a central and enduring trope in anti-black racism. But the way in which ANC leaders have stoked and then seized on the controversy to recast both the party and its leader as the authentic representatives of the nation has been, to say the least dubious. Much of the furious discourse issuing from party leaders actively sought to create what Frantz Fanon called the “brutality of thought and mistrust of subtlety” that, he argues, comes to characterise anti-colonial thought when it mirrors rather than transcends what it opposes. Lining the nation up as a coherent bloc organised behind its leader and ready to face its enemies is always useful for politicians seeking the right to credibly represent a fractious people. But its always a fiction and one that can very easily feed into various forms of authoritarianism. There is, for instance, simply no space within the more crass rhetoric that we’ve heard from party leaders in recent days for the views of people like Pallo Jordan, Zakes Mda, Eusebius McKaiser or grassroots activists like Ayanda Kota and Mnikelo Ndabankulu who all have opinions that are, in different ways, strikingly different from those that party leaders attribute to the nation as a whole.
And, aside from the fact that its just incredibly lame, Paul Mashatile’s view that “The arts need to contribute to the process of nation-building and promoting social cohesion” doesn’t sound like it has much space for, say, a poet like Lesego Rampolokeng, whose vision of our condition is a world apart from these banalities. In fact this idea of art as some sort of cheery politician approved motivational wallpaper is, precisely, anti-art and has no place for any of the multitude of artistic innovations that first scandalised and then enriched societies across time and space. And Mashatile’s phrasing sounds downright ominous given that in 2009 Lulu Xingwana stormed out of Zanele Mholi’s photographic exhibition of lesbian intimacy on the grounds that it didn’t “promote social cohesion and nation building”.
But South Africa, as an idea and as a lived reality is, for good reason, inextricably intertwined with race and with racism. We are not the only people to have learnt, from the inside, from the way its corrosion crawls on our flesh, from the way it has contained and damaged lives, precisely how ugly, stupid and dangerous it is. But we have lived it with a particular intensity. And with that experience, with that bitter experience, comes a real responsibility take anti-racism as the foundation of our freedom.
The only way for us to be able to take full measure of the disaster of the past and to redeem the promise of the struggles that carried us through that disaster is to insist that anti-racism is a foundational principle that we should all agree to hold the line on. There must always be room to debate the meaning of anti-racism, and strategies for taking it forward, but the principle has to be inviolable.
This is not a question of political correctness exercising a stultifying hold over our lives. It is true that, in order to be effective, anti-racism has to take bureaucratic and legalistic forms at some points but it is ultimately an ethical project and the ethical always exceeds attempts at codification. And while the weight of history sits heavily on our society, and for that reason on all of our lives, and while certain forms of restitution do simply require that, as Fanon put it, “things, in the most materialistic meaning of the word, will have been restored to their proper places”, anti-racism is not ultimately a burden to be shouldered. On the contrary although taking it seriously does require conflict it is, ultimately, an opening into the joy of a more fully human world.
The lived realities of race are often way more nuanced and dynamic than our national conversation, conducted through the media, is usually able to understand. South Africa is as full of delightful surprises as it is of the leaden weight of racism. But the reality is that white racism is not going to disappear any time soon. Many of the material structures on which it sits remain intact, it remains in various forms, at the core of some white people’s identity, it is often reproduced through the white family and it is also reproduced through a set of international discourses to which we are all constantly exposed in everything from Walt Disney films to syndicated Daily Mail articles in our newspapers.
The question we have to face is how we deal with racism. Do we allow the ANC, a party in serious crisis, that is failing and failing badly in all kinds of ways, and that is led by a man who is not demonstrated any capacity to meet the challenges that we face but plainly, as the Richard Mdluli débâcle recently reminded us, dangerous, to cloak their increasingly authoritarian and predatory rule in anti-racism? Do we allow anti-racism to be used to legitimate long-standing attacks on the media and the right to vigorous critique? Do we allow anti-racism to open the door to censorship and self-censorship in the name of either the dignity of our leaders or threatening claims about a great tide of popular anger that turn out to have no real resonance on the streets? Or do we simultaneously oppose racism and the many failures of the ANC? Can we critique Murray’s painting and Zuma’s Presidency? Do we measure our collective dignity in the person of the president or do we measure his worth as a public figure, and the worth of his party, by the extent to which the dignity of all who live in South Africa – including gay people, migrants, women, the poor and critics of the ruling party – is respected?
Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.
Source: The South African Civil Society Information Service – A nonprofit news agency promoting social justice. Seeking answers to the question: How do we make democracy work for the poor? http://www.sacsis.org.za/site/article/1313