By Andile Zulu
We cannot have a conversation about rethinking political consciousness in South Africa without addressing the race and class parity in the country. A quote by Karl Marx demonstrates why reactionary thinking on gender, race or sexuality still reign mostly unchallenged in South Africa, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”. In attempting to renew people’s thinking, one must inspect the social environment in which such thinking is fostered and fortified.
Confronting race as a social construction
To borrow the words of Mohammed Jameel Abdulla , race and racism remain one of South Africa’s gaping wounds that we have yet to truly heal. The persistence of racial inequality is due to the largely untouched structure of the economy and the unproductive ways in which we talk about race.
There is popular race talk that rightfully speaks out against the various manifestations of racial inequality but incorrectly assumes merely putting black people in positions of power (whether at the commanding heights of the economy or in major media houses) will benefit the majority of the black population.
This view is flawed because it assumes that one’s political interests are solely determined by racial identity and not by other factors such as securing power for oneself, regardless of the outcome for others who share their identity.
Moreover, this race talk restricts the struggle against racial inequality into the pursuit of representation in historically white institutions or structures. Such a narrow ambition misses the question of whether those institutions or structures were ever just in the first instance.
The decay of the ANC is tragic proof that a few black faces in high places do not inherently improve the lived experiences of the black community at large.
Another pitfall of such race talk is its failure to articulate how racial inequality is rooted in economic injustice. In South Africa, race developed as an ideology to justify the exploitation of Africans, the establishment of a class hierarchy and the accumulation of stolen land and resources.
By the genesis of Apartheid, race functioned as a tool to organize society’s institutions around the need to exploit African labour and extract resources.
Failing to deal with the economic dimension of race, the battle against racism has collapsed into a moral crusade against the bigotry and prejudice of individuals. Of course, bigotry should not be tolerated. But assuming it only rises from how people think, and not their social conditions results in politics that can be ineffective.
Specifically in South Africa, one sees how such a point of view produces endless discussions that fetishize “whiteness” or demands that people confess privilege without mobilizing to challenge an economy still nourished by cheap black labour.
The second form of race talk is severely corrosive. It belongs to the naive, cowardly tradition of colour blindness. This kind of race talk correctly notes that race isn’t objectively real, like gravity or the sun, it is a social construction.
Where it is damaging is in how it avoids enquiry into how race was constructed and why racism remains a problem today. Here racism is treated as if it were an antiquated dilemma, only entertained by a hateful or ignorant minority of citizens.
Because honest and critical reflection on racism can be uncomfortable for those who have benefited from white supremacy, and because such reflection can lead to the conclusion that our economic order must be drastically overturned, some seek to force racism into non-existence. All this does is to thinly paint over an explosive issue.
Progressive political education needs to take seriously the pain and collective trauma all people of colour endure while seeking to expose why it is sustained in the present. It must advocate for an understanding of racism as an experience of class oppression.
This directs us to the core of racial inequality, displaying it’s the contingency of race on certain historic, social and material conditions, therefore exposing the possibility of a South Africa without racial inequality.
Honesty about class conflict
A significant feature of what KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng experienced was an outburst of class rage. The extent to which the crisis was orchestrated by a Jacob Zuma aligned faction within the ANC is unclear and this element should not be ignored.
However, we can’t overlook how the decades-long exclusion of millions from meaningfully enjoying the fruits of liberation fostered a space for last week’s crisis to ensue.
Inequality in South Africa is not accidental. It is a feature of an economy in which a few have private access to wealth, specifically the means of producing it, while most are coerced into arduous, unsatisfying and financially unrewarding labour. Compounding this fundamental inequity is a government unable and unwilling to redistribute wealth downwards.
Conscientizing people to the basis of inequality through the vocabulary of class provides clarity on why people are homeless, hungry and jobless.
It establishes a basis for solidarity because class talk reveals how most citizens suffer under the same economic hierarchy and share a reason to fight for its removal. It begs us to ask what we want our relationship to the economy to be?
A few practical considerations
The general dominance of English amongst liberals and leftists continues to restrain the reach of progressive and transformative thought. To overcome this barrier, work must be done to communicate ideas and facilitate discourse on socioeconomic issues in languages that allow for the clearest expression of people’s needs.
For too long subversive political education has been almost the exclusive property of the middle classes and rich, reflecting our narrow concerns and interests. To avoid this, the process of awakening a new consciousness must not be hostile to a democratic culture.
Therefore, theories and programs should not be imposed upon people by overly confident scholars and public intellectuals. Rather, knowledge has to grow and be dispensed in response to people’s differing experiences of oppression. Theory must be stretched, within reason, to adapt to specific challenges in and shifting conditions in South African communities.
Inequality on a grand scale and the privatization of knowledge has resulted in insightful theory and analysis being locked away in libraries that most South Africans do not have access to. Knowledge must reach people where they are, and so a political movement or party that does not extensively engage with the online space is limited in its potency for concertizing.
Beyond reading groups, panel discussions and lectures, social media and the internet, in general, must be strategically utilized for organization and education.
In the past decade, we witnessed how American conservatives have exploited platforms such as Facebook and YouTube to amplify the reach of their regressive ideas. I’m no fan of PragerU, Breitbart or Ben Shapiro. However, the prominence of their websites, Facebook pages and Youtube channels curated a political landscape that aided the ascendance of politicians like Donald Trump. Ideas can play a part in shifting the direction of power.
Left-leaning liberals and leftists need to construct online networks of political education. Such an effort would entail increasing support for and circulating the work of progressive media outlets such as Newframe, the Alternative Information & Development Centre, The Continent, Mail & Guardian, Africa is a Country, The Daily Vox, Politically Aweh, The Republic, and GroundUp.
These outlets, alongside movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo and organizations like the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education, have already played integral roles in trying to advance political consciousness. Their work must be compounded now more than ever.
It appears that we are entering a new moment in our recent history. One riddled with uncertainty and glaring signs of rapid deterioration. Vultures loom over the vulnerable, eager to exploit destitution for greedy gain as their colleagues appear foolishly content with keeping things as they are.
In congress with progressive political action, reshaping how we perceive the world around us, each other and our places in it must be undertaken if we seek to avoid disaster.
The writer is a politics commentator based in Durban, South Africa