Colour does not explain today’s South Africa

Black lives are still cheap even though most political leaders and many wealthy business people are black

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Photo of people in front of shack in Marikana
This photo was included in the evidence leaders’ Marikana Commission’s Heads of Argument. It shows a shack occupied by a mine worker and his family. Jeff Rudin points out that although black lives remain cheap, Deputy-President Cyril Ramaphosa, a black man, had a leading role in the running of Lonmin, and was involved in company decisions before the Marikana massacre took place. Photo: A Benya

Race continues to be the dominant reality in the consciousness of most South Africans. But colour confuses an understanding of the political economy that shapes all our lives.

The Marikana massacre dramatically highlights how simplistic race can be in understanding post-1994 South Africa. The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 does indeed symbolise the cheapness of black lives in the white South Africa of high apartheid. But how is one to understand the Marikana Massacre?

The police who killed the 34 black miners, 17 of whom were shot in the back, were overwhelmingly black. So 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 businessman 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 businessman has subsequently been promoted to no less a position than that of Deputy President of South Africa.

Sharpeville resulted in the banning of the ANC and PAC, as well as a State of Emergency. Marikana resulted in…. what? To date, no legal action has been taken against anyone, other than some of the surviving miners.

Before 1994, black students were excluded from all the main universities, which were exclusively white (with minor 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.

These examples all point to a level of complexity in which colour-coding has little, if any, explanatory value.

Steve Biko had good reason to note: “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. Today, blacks are still being kicked, but why 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.

‘Black’ is not an inclusive term, for most people. Most South Africans still think in terms of the races invented by apartheid. Compounding the tribal divisions among 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 among 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.

An example of how class is confused by colour is a recent statement by Duduzane Zuma, the very personification of a parasitic beneficiary of black economic empowerment, 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 16]

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.

It is interesting to note the hugely disproportionate number of Jews among the small number of whites who really opposed apartheid - and among 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. For them, the establishment of Jewish rights and protections is mission accomplished. The rest of the world is left unchanged.

But a minority of Jews responded differently. They universalised what Jews required for themselves. They made the mainstream Jewish call for the end of anti-semitism and national oppression into a call for the end of all forms of racism, exploitation and oppression.

Black lives do 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. Such an attitude stands in the way of changing a world still full of oppression.

Rudin is with the AIDC (Alternative Information and Development Centre).

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

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TOPICS:  Human Rights Politics

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