Metji Makgoba is a Commonwealth Scholar. He writes in his ideological capacity
The public spat between the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and some sectors of the Indian community, as well as critics of the EFF’s polarised approach to race politics, represents the triumph of Eurocentric ideology of racism and the hegemonic power of white supremacists in dividing powerless groups in South Africa.
The way this discursive event is unfolding, and the ahistorical lenses which have been used to look at race relations between Indians and Africans, may contaminate our national psyche, further pushing the symbols of the rainbow to the brink of complete collapse. Other commentators even suggest that this is one cultural issue that may reverse the gains of our liberation movement and may critically cast our political landscape into turmoil.
How these groups, who both do not have power to set an economic agenda in the country, label each other racist is complex.
Dealing with this issue this way would not help the country address the issues of inequality and poverty and how white minorities have continued to use their cultural and capitalist technologies to frustrate the country’s transformation agenda. It also obscures the existing unequal power between blacks and whites who sit comfortably on the fringes of a strong cultural, economic and social capital, that was accumulated through the oppression of the largely African majority – those who continue to be treated like foreigners in their own land; those who remain landless; those who still live on the floors of the planet in poverty.
It is important to acknowledge that the EFF and their leader Julius Malema have set the tone for how the debate unfolded, determining the scope of the conversation, by hastily labelling Indians racist. As Malema noted, ‘We said [the] majority of Indians are racist. They were all screaming, but they are now coming back one by one, sobering up and confirming exactly what the EFF is saying – that indeed the majority of Indians are racist. We did not say all Indians.’
Although Malema’s populist tirade is curiously apolitical for this self-anointed prefect of our time, we should not lambast him without assessing the legitimacy, complexity or even the simplicity of his argument. Thus, to deal with this level of radical left-wing populism, we need to understand what makes it relevant and meaningful to ordinary people by explaining the underlying arguments of the EFF’s rhetoric. But this is something that has eluded the media, and our opinion leaders. Instead of using their discursive power to deconstruct the EFF’s weak rhetoric, many political commentators have fallen victim of the party’s political game of continually unsettling and discursively constructing its opponents to keep its brand visible in the public discourse. By oddly participating in the name calling rather than offering critical examinations – dismissing the EFF as a racist political party that shines on sowing political tensions – these commentators have legitimised the party’s controversial rhetoric. Trying to admonish the party without subjecting its political message to critical scrutiny remains problematic, helpless and self-destructive. In fact, it has not helped anyone to discuss whether the EFF is racist or not while they have explicitly said on their public platforms that they seek to address the oppressive nature of whiteness to empower blacks, particularly Africans.
How these commentators have sharply criticised the EFF’s rhetoric does not go deeper in critically dealing with how the party tries to score political points and how its message continues to penetrate our political discourses. They simply affirm the EFF’s political strategy which functions on breaking social decorum, and norms for their own sake, as well as pulling judo-political style and kung fu tricks of settling political conversations.
Although the bitter war of words between Indians and Africans is political in many ways, the way it has been constructed and framed has reduced complex historical and structural problems of racially-stamped inequality and ideological contestation over economic resources, as well as racism, into an absurd name-calling. Now the discourse of race relations between the two groups has been crudely confined to the following question: is the EFF racist in saying that the majority of Indians are racist?
This question is problematically ahistorical.
Although this dominates how the relationship between Indians and Africans is constructed and understood, this question depoliticises the country’s history of colonialism and apartheid that created and colonised the cultural identities of these groups. It also draws heavily upon liberal discourses of racism to masquerade the oppressive tendencies of white supremacy and racism, which dictated how these race and ethnic groups in South Africa shared their physical and discursive spaces.
In short, asking this question confines cultural and structural violence of racist ideologies to behaviourist social practices, characterised by name calling. It lulls us into forgetting that racism is politically connected to power, domination, and contestation over capital, social status, and privilege in the South African context. It operates on constructing white entitlement – the notion that white people are the only important humans who are entitled to enjoy the world’s privileges and resources. Before we label South African Indians racist or otherwise, we need to look at our history with intent to contextualise the current racial tensions, power structures and racial hierarchies that have produced their social memberships, relegating Africans as mainly the underclass.
Considering that Indians were not indigenous to South Africa, removing this historical context that shapes their cultural identity in the new dispensation by looking at their nature of the relationships with Africans in other parts of the world will decontextualise the current conflict and legitimise the idea of behaviourism in understanding racism. At another level, this decontextualisation functions to delegitimise those are concerned about South African Indians who are anti-black and who continue to see Africans as objects of exploitation. The danger of this construction is that we tend to overlook historical injustices and blame South African Indians as victims of racism. However, this does not mean that we should stop critiquing their actions, including how they were co-opted by both colonial and apartheid regimes in oppressing Africans.
Avoiding this critique would mean that we will continue to celebrate divisive historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement against British rule. Indeed, it is Gandhi, often championed as a figurehead on anti-colonialism who once said, ‘A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.’
Gandhi’s communicative bullshit explicitly constructs Indians as superior to their African counterparts. It also reflects how the Indian community in South Africa negotiated for the attainment of their freedom and better treatment at the hands of the oppressor at the expense of their African counterparts. Their decision to undermine and discredit their African counterparts this way only demonstrates how our colonial masters worked to legitimise their oppressive and tyrannical regimes by sowing division among the dominated and the powerless. As part of deepening these racial divisions as well as accentuating their racial hierarchies which constructed whites people as a superior group, both colonial-apartheid gave Indians and Coloureds preferential treatment as compared to their African counterparts. Because these racial groups structurally did not enjoy white privileges and standards, they were conditioned to admire whiteness.
Colonialism thrived on the strategy of divide and conquer which still haunts different ethnic and racial groups in the world. It also served as a power structure that legitimised and constructed capitalism and white supremacy which positioned white people high on the race hierarchy. This was a socially constructed process, which was enacted, institutionalised and maintained through laws, courts, banks schools, churches and media. Over time, these political institutions entrenched white supremacy and white entitlement creating larger historical and structural problems that excluded blacks from the mainstream economy while empowering white people with infinite cultural, social, and economic capital.
Those who claim that God has ordained their superiority will always have to find ways to maintain their flimsy relevance and credibility. One way for white people to legitimise their political power was to play ethnic and other race groups such as Indians and Africans against each other by emphasising their differences. In the process of attaining this legitimacy, colonialists employed their discursive and rhetorical strategies to construct South African Indians as better than their African counterparts as part of neutralising their political unity and activism.
For Indians to accept these differences meant accepting soft power that gave them an allusion that they were superior to Africans. Although this issue might have caused Indians to oppress their African counterparts and ultimately feel a sense of superiority, it was basically meant to sustain the idea of race hierarchies to normalise white entitlement and supremacy. But it created a fertile ground for future disagreements between Indians, Africans and Coloureds as they try to deal with oppression and contestation over economic resources.