Some rough notes on ‘racism’

Such as, why bigots are so opposed to prejudice.

There is always something deeply problematic about this country's periodic debates (if one call them that) about the ‘demon of racism'. The trouble stems partly from the disregard for the injunction that "whatever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." (Matthews 7:12) But there is also a lack of understanding about the nature of the beast.

The first point to note is that it is in the very nature of prejudice that it is easy to see in others, but very difficult to recognise in oneself. John Locke noted (1690) how everyone complains of the "the prejudices that mislead other men or parties, as if he were free and had none of his own." The cure, he argued, was that "every man should let alone others' prejudices and examine his own."

Certainly, when I was in residence at the University of Cape Town in the mid-1990s the cry of the white bigot was ‘I am a realist not a racist,' that of the black bigot, ‘blacks can't be racist.' The least race conscious individuals I knew were those who had become aware of their prejudices, subjected them to examination, and found them wanting.

If recent debates are any guide the worse a person's bigotry the greater their ability to spot a speck of dust in someone else's eye while simultaneously disregarding the beam in their own. The ‘land rights activist' Andile Mngxitama said to "nods and murmurs of agreement" at a recent SAHRC forum that "there could be no such thing as racism against white people, because the term originated in the violence white people perpetrated against black slaves. ‘If there is a new form of oppression where white people are oppressed, let's not call it racism, let's call it something else'."

Purely from an etymological point of view, this is nonsense. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first recorded use of the word ‘racism' was in 1936 and of ‘racist' in 1932 - so long after the end of slavery. These words were coined to describe the racial ideology and ideologists of Nazi Germany. It goes without saying that the victims of that regime were almost all ‘white.'

The second point is that one of the tactics historically used to justify collective discrimination or punishment is to take the aberrant actions of individuals from a particular group; and then ascribe their guilt, and that behaviour, to the group as a whole. The Gestapo used to scrupulously collect evidence of criminal acts by Jews and then pass it on to Julius Streicher's Der Stürmer for use as anti-Semitic propaganda.

There are two reasons for the effectiveness of this kind of attack. Firstly, as Franz Boas noted, it takes very little "to provoke the spirit that prevents us from recognizing individuals and compels us to see only representatives of a class endowed with imaginary qualities that we ascribe to the group as a whole." Secondly, the targeted group do not wish to become identified with, or seen to be defending, such aberrant behaviour - leaving the way clear for the propagandist to drive their message home.

The third point is that racism - or whatever you want to call it - is an ideology of the powerful. To oppose it, more often than not, means standing alone in the path of the mob - off to fight evil whatever the law may say. It is at its most dangerous when it becomes part of an unquestioned consensus, part of the very ‘nature of things'.

For example, at the time the Mixed Marriages Bill was introduced to parliament in 1949 by the National Party there was still a pervasive fear of miscegenation across the Western world. Jan Smuts led the United Party's opposition to the Bill, but he did so conceding: "if there is one thing on which all South Africans are agreed it is this, that racial blood mixture is an evil." In the parliamentary debate around the Bill it was only the Communist Party MP, Sam Kahn, who questioned this underlying consensus. "This Bill," he began his speech, "to my mind, is the immoral offspring of an illicit union between racial superstition and biological ignorance":

"I would like to say to those in South Africa who regard mixed marriages and their offspring as an evil: ‘Honi soit qui mal y pens'; it is an evil to those who think along evil lines. I cannot myself think of a marriage...nor can I think of a being something evil. What is evil in South Africa is not the progeny of mixed marriages, but the whole social pattern which dooms those who have non-European progeny to an inferior status and deprives them of the privileges which should be the inherent right of every citizen."

Although the rightness of what Kahn said is clear now, at the time he had to have the moral courage to stand alone against the dominant opinion. The racism one must really fear then is not that which everyone can see, and eagerly rushes to condemn, but that which slouches by unnoticed.

On Sunday (March 2) City Press - a newspaper with a million mostly black South African readers - published an article by (the same) Mngxitama in which he made the following claims:

"Almost every day we read in numbing monotony the uninterrupted story of the sorrow and agony of farm dwellers; the beatings, the torture, the evictions, the murders and the worst, the denial of burial rights; indignity even in death.... They live at the mercy of the whims of often cruel landowners who treat them as part of their property, hence they are regularly mistaken for baboons, dogs, birds and all sorts of animals.... Why can't the government simply announce that 30% of all farms now belong to farm dwellers? The heavens would surely not fall; after all, land owned by whites is stolen property." (My italics.)

As far as I am aware this article has attracted no comment. Mngxitima is an employee of the Foundation for Human Rights. The foundation's website has a little European Flag logo at the bottom of each page next to which is the statement: "The foundation is funded by The European Union under the European Programme for Reconstruction and development in South Africa." In reply to an inquiry as to whether they supported Mngxitima's views and work, a European Commission spokesman said the following:

"While the Delegation of the European Commission to South Africa has had a long and close working relationship with the FHR, and indeed has been its principle funder, the Foundation is an independent entity. Its views and those expressed by its staff, either privately or on behalf of the Foundation, are not necessarily those of the funder ... Allow me to add that the European Commission through its Delegation to South Africa prides itself on years of support to initiatives related to land reform and the development of emerging farmers."

Setting aside the initial claim to plausible deniability, this statement seems to lean towards condoning Mngxitama's comments. It certainly does not condemn or meaningfully distance the commission from them.

The intention of Mngitama's article was clearly to stir up hatred against white farmers by accusing them, as an undifferentiated class, of the most heinous crimes against black farm workers (including slavery). It proceeds to the claim that all white-owned farmland is ‘stolen', and therefore can be expropriated at the drop of a hat.

It was written in the context, firstly, of a continuing epidemic of brutal attacks on the farming community (resulting in 587 murders in the past six years); and, secondly, of an ANC programme to begin dispossessing white South African farmers of their land, as ZANU-PF did in Zimbabwe.

Why is it that the Europeans regard with such equanimity rhetoric which could well qualify as an offence in at least one of their own member states? It reflects, I think, a combination of un-examined prejudice and brutish self-interest - not to mention a certain forgetfulness as to what uses such rhetoric was once put in Europe, and by whom.

The predictable consequence of that ‘land reform' process, namely the destruction of the commercial farming sector in South Africa, would render this country dependent on agricultural imports. It would do the European Union no harm if we had to get our cheese and long-life milk from Luxemburg rather than Ladysmith.

There is also an enduring tendency in Western thought to regard it as reprehensible for any minority to occupy too high a percentage of any economic activity (whatever their contribution to the common good.) Thus, reducing the number of white-owned farms in South Africa is seen, in and of itself, as something of a ‘reform.'