WHEN still head of the library on the local university campus, I was required by the institution’s equity commissar to classify all my colleagues (over 50 of them) by race. As a lifelong advocate of non-racialism, and as a matter of principle, my response was short, sharp and very negative. A complaint was made about me to the university executive[1] and a couple of Zambians (so-called transformation appointees) were shipped in to do the necessary. It was the beginning of the end of my career as a librarian; but not as it happened as a university employee.

My case was not strong. The Population Registration Act was gone. But every one of my colleagues had been classified under apartheid and it was generally agreed that redress for those discriminatory years depended on knowing who was who. In that case a simple division along gender and black/white lines would have sufficed, but the apartheid categories prevailed. This looked ominous to me; but I was told not to worry, it was just temporary. I commented that as long as white males were the sole target, all would fine; but eventually others would fall into disfavour. And so, quite quickly, it came to pass.

Recently, and nearly thirty years later, Christine arrived home with a form from school. Its source is the provincial department of education and it contains all her personal and employment details as a teacher together with a box labelled ‘race’. She is down as ‘white’, so refused to sign the form unless this was removed. Apparently that is not possible as her whiteness is engraved indelibly on a government hard drive somewhere. The form remains unsigned.

No one of intelligence and integrity now accepts racial categorisation. There is one race and it is called human. Any break down is socially constructed. Two generations of South Africans have now been born with the freedom to describe themselves as they wish; reclamation of the individual dignity that Walter Sisulu believed was the main objective of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid. The artificiality of the apartheid system is illustrated by its coloured category. Genetic evidence shows that coloured people have deep African roots. So do many people regarded as white who have more of a mixed background than they realise; or want to acknowledge. In terms of ancestry probably 95% of South Africans are African, leaving self-identification as the only legitimate option.

The ANC deliberately decided to racialise redress, rather than use an objective measure of poverty and deprivation, in the interests of a black African elite and a black African middle class. There were two very early signs of this: abandonment of the promising Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and offshore listing of some of South Africa’s biggest companies. After the pretence of being a party leading the masses (look at the real influence over the years of the South African Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions in the tripartite alliance), the ANC reverted to its bourgeois origins and character. It was not until 1985 at the Kabwe conference that the ANC became a truly non-racial organisation[2] and the pretence began to unravel even while Nelson Mandela was still president just over ten years later. Under Thabo Mbeki it openly embraced racial nationalism and chauvinism. White males were indeed no longer alone, the reason why apartheid racial categorisation remained necessary.

The system called black economic empowerment has produced a black African elite of millionaires (and a few billionaires); and a growing black middle class, much of which is employed by the State in a ramshackle, inefficient and overstaffed public service  (entirely misnamed because it serves itself, not the public). As a core block of ANC voters it is extremely influential. And it is well-versed at corruption and working within extensive networks of patronage and criminality (the illicit tobacco trade for instance). As Moeletsi Mbeki has endlessly pointed out, its purpose is rent-seeking and consumption. It has no interest in investment unless it brings prestige; and even less in maintenance as the highly visible collapse of national infrastructure shows.

This situation would not be possible without racial categorisation. On the other side of the equation are the poverty-stricken, millions of them in peri-urban and rural areas in a daily struggle for survival. They still vote ANC, presumably in the forlorn hope that the liberation dividend might one day mean something; but also regularly destroy symbols of the State in protest at lack of service delivery. The issue of race does not often feature here for understandable reasons.

But it is re-emerging in a major way in general national political discourse. Some of the instances are bizarre. When a black African person behaves in an unacceptable way towards another black African person this is not individualised but blamed on a residual system of white racism. And accusations of racism are a handy way of keeping the pot boiling, creating constant crisis. At the moment the judiciary is under attack: Dali Mpofu behaved outrageously before Raymond Zondo’s commission of inquiry and was duly reprimanded; while Jacob Zuma has launched a bitter and lengthy diatribe at the courts. This is part of an Africanist assault on democracy in order to perpetuate criminal state capture and looting. Racialism is essential to it. But it is also racist, embodying historic antipathy to people regarded as coloured and Indian.

The primary aim of the anti-apartheid struggle was a non-racial society. There is a slim chance that if the principle of non-racialism were now vigorously applied, South Africa’s problems of corruption and incompetence might be addressed; but probably not as a system of patronage based on violence is deeply embedded. We are arguably further away from a non-racial society now than we were when the Population Registration Act was repealed. All those who have gone along at any level with racial categorisation since then have been complicit in South Africa’s current state of disaster (Covid-19 being just a small component).

We have a human right as individuals to determine our own identities. But the South African state continues to assign us to arbitrary, totally baseless categories for the purpose of blatant and discriminatory social engineering. There’s a word for that somewhere – ah yes, apartheid. Rather than repeat the cliché about the duck, all that needs saying is that it was quacking very loudly twenty-five years ago to a wilfully cloth-eared audience.

[1] Where, I was told via the grapevine, not everyone was unsympathetic. Whoever, you were – thanks a stack. 

[2] Four other political organisations had preceded it: the African Political Organisation (APO), the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), the South African Liberal Party and the United Democratic Front (UDF).