Racism Lives. Why Have We Stopped Fighting?

While sitting in a queue at the Hillbrow police station yesterday morning, I started chatting to the woman next to me – a young African woman, there to lay a charge against her boss – he had slapped her that morning.  ‘For no good reason’, she said.  She had done nothing wrong.  And when she had asked him why he had hit her, his response was that he was ‘stressed out’ because his coffee shop (in an upmarket part of Braamfontein) was not busy enough.  She couldn’t see how his lack of customers related to her being slapped.  She thought that it was ‘unfair’.  What had made her decide to come to the police station was that this was not the first time it had happened to her.  He had hit her before, and she had ‘done nothing’.  And, she had seen him do ‘worse things’ to other workers who were ‘not brave enough’ to report him to the police.  He had once thrown hot porridge in the face of another woman worker.  But this woman was ‘too afraid to do anything’.  I was getting more and more upset as she spoke, shaking my head in disbelief.  I asked whether her boss was white.  ‘Yes,’ she said, adding, ‘but I decided to come because these people don’t know that the laws have changed and that white people cannot do whatever they like to Black people anymore.  The law is now on our side.’  I nodded and smiled approvingly, supporting her decision out loud.  Silently I hoped really hard that the police here would take her charge seriously, that her case wouldn’t be lost in a pile of forgotten papers, that she wouldn’t go back to further abuse from her boss for laying the charge, that she wouldn’t lose her job, and that the law would work in her favour (she did not have a contract of employment).

I was also silently seething at the fact that such things still happen today.  That white people can actually still abuse Black people and get away with it in post-apartheid South Africa.  I also felt a really deep sense of sadness that these young African women, dependent on a white man for their survival, are still forced to live and work in fear – measuring their behaviour according to the potential reactions of their white master.  I couldn’t help but ask myself whether this young woman would have accepted a hiding from her boss if there had been ‘good reason’.  And what would have constituted ‘good reason’?  I also wished that she was not so alone in her brave stand…

Well past our first decade into democracy and we still seem to operate by a ‘reason’ that protects the inherited ‘superiority’ of whites.  Everyday I’m confronted with another experience that leaves me asking, ‘What makes white people think they can act like this?’  From the young white girl who thinks it’s cool to call the old Black woman behind the bread counter at the Pick ‘n Pay in Killarney ‘my squeeza’, to the white kugel walking out of the CNA in Rosebank who screams at the young Black cashier when the alarm goes off as she passes through the security scanners at the exit (as if it’s his fault that the machine thinks that she could have stolen something), to the young white man in Brixton who thinks it’s hilarious to tell me (a complete stranger to him) that I have ‘Bin-Laden ore’ (ears), to the white neighbours who have only ever spoken to me to ask if I can make samoosas or whether ‘that lovely curry smell’ emanates from my flat, to the white farmer who still punishes his Black workers through torture and humiliation, and the far more brutal and savage acts by whites against Black people that the media picks up on every now and then – the list could go on – is an undeserving confidence and air of superiority held by most white South Africans (chips on their shoulders, I can hear my parents say) that they seem to have about themselves and everything they speak about no matter how inane or unacceptable they/their words might be.

While our laws and constitution speak so beautifully of commitments to non-racialism and equality, our everyday realities cannot help but remind us that apartheid’s legacy, etched deep in the minds, hearts and souls of Black and white South Africans, lives on as we each try to make our selves in communities still shaped by the ways in which apartheid made people think and behave.  (Now just tweaked a little to fit the new talk of individual success and entrepreneurialism.)

The young white girl in Killarney just does not conceive of the possibility that she could be being disrespectful, and the truth is she will probably never know that she is – because none of us will ever tell her; instead we’re more likely to smile and commend her for trying.  How I wished, on that day in Rosebank, that the cashier would demand to search the contents of the kugel’s bag.  Instead, he apologised humbly, not even thinking that the woman could have stolen something.  On that day in Brixton, my obvious irritation and anger at the guy only served to make him smirk some more.  And all I could do was wish that I was bigger, stronger…  While I bitch about my neighbours all the time, I’ve never given more than a sarcastic response (at best) to their annoying questions.  And how many times have we been shocked at how white criminals manage to escape punishment and censure for their acts against Black people?  What’s sad is how we’ve all just come to accept as ‘natural’ the racism that continues to define the ways in which we interact with each other everyday.  Somehow it’s become ‘easier’ not to openly challenge the everyday acts that mock the myth of the rainbow nation – the racist realities that we confront everyday airbrushed out of its preferred pictures of pretty people of all colours spending their money happily together on pleasures previously reserved for whites.  Shouldn’t we be stronger now to fight such fights?  But rainbow reconciliation has demanded that we give up some of our fighting spirit, to choose our fights carefully, to hold our tongues, to wait for appropriate moments that hardly ever come, to be understanding of ‘where white people are coming from’, and to ‘allow them to try’, in the hope that someday I too will be able to be part of this picture, this dream of individual success and wealth.  We forget that this was not our dream to begin with.  Yesterday morning at Hillbrow police station, I was both angered and inspired – by a young, Black sister with the guts to risk the little that she has to fight again.  Fighting, I can only hope that she is able to live again.  It is better than to die dreaming (and working for) their dream.

Discipline! Comrade Madlala-Routledge, Discipline!

In all the hype about the Minister of Health’s alleged alcoholism that is dominating reports and discussions about the President’s sacking of Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, an important issue seems to have been forgotten – party discipline. All three individuals are members of the Congress Alliance, in particular the ANC, with Madlala-Routledge also enjoying membership of the SACP. All three would then submit themselves to the discipline prescribed for them in their different political roles by the Alliance. A discipline understood from within the Alliance according to the logic of ‘democratic centralism’. By this logic, decisions are to be reached ‘democratically’ within Alliance structures first and then translated into practice in broader society through government, civil society, and community structures. Members of the Alliance are expected to be loyal to the positions reached sometimes through consensus, and sometimes through the decree of leadership structures, even if their own individual positions might differ from the official line.

As the ANC and the Alliance have developed in the context of electoral democracy post-1994, debates and differences have multiplied and grown stronger amongst and between member organisations and individual members. This has exposed differences within the Alliance with regard to the very understanding of ‘democratic centralism’, and created further divisions concerning how binding decisions are made and what powers different levels of its institutional hierarchies (and individuals positioned within them) should be able to exercise over others. While Madlala-Routledge has embraced her dismissal as a challenge to fight for ‘the real values and programmes of the ANC to be achieved’, Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang have tried to portray the Deputy Minister as ‘someone who cannot work in a collective’. While Madlala-Routledge seems to be accusing her bosses and senior comrades of working against the spirit of the Alliance, she stands accused of neglecting to abide by ‘protocol’, by party discipline. She has been ‘ill-disciplined’. She is a ‘loose cannon’. Terms I’ve heard many times to describe those who have subsequently been expelled from Alliance structures or who have chosen to leave, unable to find space within the Alliance to speak with effect. While there is always ultimately a blind loyalism to a set of institutional processes and structures in the way such differences get handled, there is, however, also almost always the questioning of the institutional culture that characterises the Alliance – a claim that processes and structures, and positions of power are being abused and manipulated against the interests of the Alliance.

It is this claim that I thought we’d be hearing more from Madlala-Routledge (and those within the Alliance who support her) about. In the fiery words that the former Deputy Minister spoke just after her dismissal, she exuded the confidence of one with many behind her, not just from TAC, but from within the Alliance. Jeff Radebe featured in the list of those who gave her support in her job. But Madlala-Routledge has grown silent since her dismissal, and the list of people refuting their support of her seems to be growing. In fact, there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of Alliance members to distance themselves from any efforts to portray some form of allegiance to Madlala-Routledge possibly growing. Even Zwelinzima Vavi today came out making ‘a qualified apology’ about his remarks about Mbeki choosing to dismiss hard-working executive members while other ministers were ‘dying on duty’. He apparently meant to show no disrespect to those who had died while in office but wished to place on record their poor levels of performance.

Madlala-Routledge is probably feeling very alone at the moment. This is sadly how democratic centralism has come to function in the Alliance, with discipline mobilising deeply ingrained feelings of subservience to processes, structures and hierarchies over commitment to people and principles, even amongst those who mount the most biting critiques of some of the policies and positions adopted by the ANC government and the ANC leadership. It would seem that Madlala-Routledge overestimated her ability to win the debate over what was right according to party discipline. No matter what her views on HIV-AIDS or the government’s macro-economic policy framework might be, according to the logic of this discipline, she has gone beyond what is considered acceptable for the institutional culture of the Alliance. It is sad to have to accept that the institutional culture you were raised in is designed to prevent your own voice from gaining resonance. But this is the way in which the Alliance works.

While the enormous inequalities and inadequacies in the public health sector have provided the context for Madlala-Routledge’s disciplining, others have faced dismissal from their government positions and expulsion from Alliance structures for speaking out against the ANC government’s policies with regard to service delivery. While the President, government, and the ANC leadership are spending much of their time and energies fighting the storm around this dismissal that has reopened questions about its approach to the issue of HIV-AIDS, another storm has erupted which is again calling into question the ANC government’s approach to the delivery of basic services – housing, water and sanitation, electricity, land, education, and health care. Since the late ’90s, ‘ill-disciplined’ Alliance members, together with other community members, have been coming together in struggles against evictions, water and electricity cut-offs, and so on, to demand that government deliver on its promises of ‘a better life for all’, resulting (sometimes) in the formation of new social and community movements. Over the years, while the Alliance and government have attempted to deny the claims and demands of these movements, portraying them as ‘ultra-left’ and marginal, struggles from within communities have not ceased. Just two days ago protesters from Sebokeng were shot at and injured, with 30 arrested for blocking a major highway and stopping rail traffic by damaging trains quite significantly. The levels of conflict at community level and the fact that these ‘service delivery riots’ have been going on for some time now and seem to be escalating at the moment, are proof enough that these struggles are not the work of a few ‘ultra-left’ individuals with power over poor communities or the result of particular organisations manipulating poor communities in order to bring the Alliance into disrepute. This is no longer a case of a few ‘ill-disciplined loose cannons’.

I guess what I’m getting at is that party discipline may have been called in to try to quiet the storm around Madlala-Routledge, but Alliance processes and structures cannot hide the glaring effects of the neoliberal policies being adopted by the Mbeki government. Nevertheless, it is interesting to observe how, in spite of the tremendous divisions within the Alliance that have been exposed in public by Alliance members (one would imagine, often in contravention of party discipline), the apparatus of discipline has time and again ensured that conflict is properly managed and channelled, always ‘in the interests of the collective’. I’m anxious to see what Madlala-Routledge does next. Will she submit to one of the ‘collectives’ fighting for the ability to speak as ‘the collective’ within the Alliance? Will she be allowed to submit to one of them? Or will she realise the sham that ‘the collective’ can become?  I have nothing against collectives. I belong to some myself. But there is a danger with undemocratic hierarchies being misnamed collectives. But this is a subject for another day.