The triumph of black racial communalism

RW Johnson says this tendency conquered the Mandela ANC, then the SACP and now the DA

The triumph of communalism

During the middle 1990s I used to see Helen Suzman more or less weekly. Buoyed by her friendship with Mandela, Helen was keen to give the new government the benefit of the doubt. This gradually became harder and harder and nothing upset her more than the ANC's insistent playing of the race card which often descended into open racism. When she expressed her outrage to me I said it was more or less what I had expected, having known the ANC in exile. "Well I didn't", she said. "I really believed Nelson when he told me the ANC was non-racial. I am deeply disappointed." Indeed, she often went off "to give Nelson a good piece of my mind". They always remained friends but over time he sank somewhat in her estimation. She regarded the ANC's increasing resort to racism as something he ought to have resisted: instead he had capitulated to it.

The persistence of discrimination by skin colour

That memory has been much in my mind this last month as the DA, having flip-flopped first for and then against the Equity Employment and BEE bills, then re-flopped back towards race. "We specifically support race-based redress to overcome centuries of race discrimination", the party said, apparently unbothered by the fact that, by definition, past centuries are not something that anyone can overcome. It is just as well that Helen Suzman is not here to see her own old party capitulate to "race-based" policies of any kind. That was, after all, precisely why she and the other Progs left the United Party in the first place. Helen would also not have been fooled by the party's declaration that it believes in "racial self-identification" because, of course, one cannot have race-based policies and racial self-identification. In practice all such policies depend on there being some official classification of who is white or Asian or whatever.

If, after all, it was open for any white to declare themselves African then doubtless many would do so in order to benefit from BEE and affirmative action - or simply because their ancestors have lived here for hundreds of years. But the fact that this is not allowed is because in South Africa communalism is racial. It is not like being British, for example. Pakistani or West Indians can emigrate to the UK and within a generation be counted as British - for Britain is not a community defined by race. In South Africa it is the opposite. South African universities are full of Kenyans, Ghanaians, Nigerians and so on - and they can all benefit from affirmative action, simply because they are black. They can gain "redress" for apartheid even though it was never part of their lives. Despite being foreigners they will be preferred to local whites simply because of skin colour. Thus in practice, and despite all the celebration of South Africa having left the colour bar behind, the colour bar is alive and well - and officially maintained.

So whatever one says, once you accept "race-based" policies you are back in the land of racial classification. The DA, like the ANC, continues to insist that it is non-racial so now both our main parties pretend to be non-racial while actually applying race-based policies. However, both of them are hypocritical about this and thus oppose the notion of a new Race Classification Act. Instead, the responsibility for sorting people into racial groups is sub-contracted. Thus while I may classify myself as mixed race (on the grounds that we are all mixed race and that anyway there is, biologically speaking, no such thing as race) if my employer, in his equity employment report, reports me to be Coloured he will no doubt quickly get into trouble with officialdom for mis-reporting the racial composition of his work force.

Similarly, the government has pressed the banks to extend more credit to black and mixed-race people. The banks have replied that they don't make any note of their customers' race. The government, which does not want the responsibility for re-enacting the Population Registration Act (1950), has then attempted to press the banks to keep such racial records of their customers under the counter, so to speak. So how do the ANC and DA carry out their race-based policies? They would be embarrassed to go all the way back to the pencil test so instead it's simply a matter of skin colour.

Liberal slideaways

At almost exactly the same time that the DA was capitulating to pressure to be "race-based", another liberal institution, UCT, was doing much the same. Earlier the university had announced that it wished to move away from using race as a critical factor in its admissions policies. Indeed, various university spokespersons gave lengthy accounts of how they would instead, use other factors indicative of social disadvantage in their admissions process. This was odd enough: as far as one can see university entrance in this country is now all about totting up various measures of disadvantage so that it can be sure to admit the most disadvantaged. That is, the notion of intellectual merit - that university places should simply go to those able enough to make best use of them - seems to have virtually disappeared.

This is a loss to the whole society and, indeed, it is a crime against the future of the country. Universities affirmatively admit students who are barely literate. After three years and a good deal of affirmative marking, they leave with a very poor degree - although still not fully literate. They then become schoolteachers, very bad ones, as a result of which the next generation is even more poorly educated than their parents. And so it goes on. What chance do township school pupils have if their teachers are semi-literates?

This is not to say that affirmative action cannot sometimes be justified - in marginal cases it is downright desirable. But as we all know in South Africa it operates on a mass, systematic scale, not just in marginal cases. The result, inevitably, is a steadily descending spiral of education and skills. In the parental generation of South Africans, black or white, who underwent surgery would be safe in assuming that the person who cut them open would be the top surgeon available, chosen on merit. In the next generation they will have the considerably less reassuring knowledge that the surgeon was affirmatively picked on the basis of his or her (racial) disadvantage and was far from being the best on merit. A society which systematically ignores merit in such a fashion is committing social suicide.

However, when UCT decided to move away from race-based admissions it quickly encountered strong resistance from Sasco, black faculty members, the campus trade unions and black students in general. Immediately it offered a guarantee that a changed admissions system would see no drop in the number of black students - which, of course, meant that whatever it said about abandoning race as a factor, the university intended to carry on classifying students by race, at least in an under-the-counter way. But Sasco and the rest maintained their pressure so the university has now capitulated and said it will keep race-based admissions at least for another year.

The power of black African communalism

How should one understand these capitulations? If the DA had found itself under pressure from, say, its Afrikaans supporters to adopt "race-based" policies, those supporters would doubtless have been expelled. An analogous fate would doubtless have faced whites who demanded that admission to UCT be "race-based". But because the pressure comes from the DA's black caucus or from black faculty and students, that is another matter entirely. In practice - and, again, whatever is said about being non-racial - demands emanating from that direction are treated as privileged.

It is as if these various institutions would like to escape from Verwoerd's South Africa but in practice they are all pulled back into the apartheid era because in reality most South Africans, of all colours, were - and still are - convinced by apartheid and feel insecure without clearly demarcated divisions between the various races. In all three cases - the ANC, the DA and UCT - what has defeated these attempts to escape has been the power of black African communalism. Politicians of all parties are frightened of this. Mandela, who began by trying to persuade whites not to emigrate, was soon accused of being too keen to appease the whites and quickly reversed himself, saying that if whites wanted to leave, well good riddance. Similarly, when he was told that speeches about Aids did not go down well in the black community, he stopped making such speeches - with the dire results that we know.

It is sensible to refer to this phenomenon as "black African communalism", even though one can often find Asians, those of mixed race and sometimes even whites riding along opportunistically, hoping to get something out of the deal. One of the clues to this is the uniformly strong opinions of the black commentariat about how the DA has offended the black vote by its uncertainties over BEE and affirmative action. The press published many such articles. They were all very poorly argued and dealt only in generalities: it was just seen as axiomatic that anything less than full-on support for BEE/affirmative action (AA) was anti-black. Not even one of these commentators dealt with any of the complex arguments which exist about these matters. This was a classically communal reaction.

Secondly, this attitude was shared by many who are either themselves unlikely to qualify for BEE/AA or who would strongly deny that they have benefited from AA in their own careers. It was enough for such people that BEE/AA might bring some benefits to some members of the "black community" for them to be in favour of it, a classically communal reaction.

The nature of communalism

One of the key features about communalism is the vertical identification of interests. In this it greatly resembles the notion of politics held in 18th century England when it was held that what was (and should be) represented in Parliament were not individuals or parties but interests - the landed interest, the trading interest, the ecclesiastic interest and so on. Thus the landed interest was taken to include all those who worked on the land. It mattered not that farm-workers and small farmers had no vote, they were all "virtually represented" by the presence in Parliament of great landowners who had "the landed interest" at heart. Integral to this notion was the thought that patronage would flow down from the great landowners all the way to the farm-workers - at least in the shape of jobs and perhaps in other types of patronage as well.

It will be seen that such an attitude fits rather well anyone acculturated to a system of traditional chieftaincy. Such a system is dominated by the great chiefs or other "big men" who then distribute patronage among their loyal followers, so that the whole community coheres as one - indeed, it is a key feature of such communalism that the community must all share the same opinions, the same political loyalties etc. One can see this displayed in any number of cases in South Africa, for example, in the large and fanatical following of John Block, the Northern Cape ANC leader. The fact that Block has been accused of all manner of corruption clearly doesn't matter to his followers. Block is their "big man" and will distribute patronage among them so that they are "virtually represented" in his successes or failures.

Ever since 1994 a great deal of South African life has been taking place in a sort of fairyland in which merit does not count and in which racial symbolism is just about everything. One of the less observed facts is the way in which South Africa's communists have also capitulated to black African communalism. Karl Marx, after all, showed that communities were divided along class lines and that workers around the world, whatever their racial differences, would enjoy a common interest in opposing the capitalist class. But in effect the SACP has now completely abandoned this in favour of communalism - they are among the most vehement in demanding BEE and affirmative action, even though such measures can only help the black haute bourgeoisie. Indeed, this has led to the notion that fighting for the strongest possible form of BEE/AA is somehow more progressive, more left-wing and so on.

This is, of course, nonsense. Communalism is neither left nor right wing. It is simply a primitive form of community organization. The birth of India and Pakistan was accompanied by bitter fighting between Hindus and Moslems which left millions dead and the country severed in two. This was communalism taken to its logical extreme: it mattered not which social class you came from, you were a target if you were in the "wrong" community. The same logic operated between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 or during the wars of religion in Europe. Communal conflict is far worse than class or national conflict because it is blind. Everyone with whom you share a tribal origin, a religion or skin colour - is your friend. Everyone with whom you don't share these things is to be discriminated against or, in the last analysis, fought. Communalism should be resisted not only by liberals but by Communists and, indeed, by anyone who is sane and rational.

None of this can be honestly owned up to because everyone wishes to subscribe to the myth that notions of there being a "right' and "wrong" skin colour disappeared after 1994 or even 1990. Yet the truth is that in contemporary South Africa skin colour trumps merit just as it did under apartheid. This dissociation of merit from achievement has catastrophic effects, of course. It is possible for a central command economy such as Stalin's USSR or Mao's China to continue for some time on such a basis because these countries were cut off from the world. But in a country that is part of an international world, which has to compete with multiple rivals, such a policy is virtually suicidal. It should really be the job of the Official Opposition to point this out but, guess what, they have just decided that putting merit first is "almost racist".

Communal ownership of history

Another key aspect of this communalism is that each community in turn is assumed to "own" its own history in a way that does or does not make it a candidate for "redress". This has effects which are beyond ridiculous as we have seen in the case of foreign black academics in our universities. Or, to take another example, my son is white but he is married to a black woman. She has an MBA, speaks several European languages, also has a degree in Mandarin and used to work for an American bank in Bejing. Her family background is modest but she is a perfect example of how education empowers. She owes her career entirely to merit. Now she and my son have in turn had a son, my grandson.

In terms of South Africa's communalist thinking he would therefore be classified as Coloured and he would be regarded as disadvantaged because he could lay claim to victimhood (and thus "redress") through the history he would then be imputed to own: the ill-treatment of the KhoiSan, their enslavement, the sins of apartheid, Group Areas removals from District Six and so forth. In fact this would be complete nonsense for none of these things happened to either of his parents or their families. In fact his parents are highly paid and he is quite privileged.

South Africa, praise the lord, has more and more such mixed couples. Clearly they are a problem for ANC/DA thinking. If they are going to commit ourselves to "race-based" policies they will need to have a clear straight line about who counts as what: the logic would be a return to the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act. Similarly, we could enact a Racial Preference/Job Reservation Act which confirms that because of their skin colour foreign blacks should be given preference over others in the upper levels of the country's labour market.

This applies only at the upper levels because there are not enough black South Africans to fill all the jobs at that level. At the labour market's lower levels there are plenty of black South African applicants so the government frowns on employers who prefer Zimbabweans and Malawians over local blacks. The principle at work here is thus a communal one: racial black communalism must rule throughout the labour market so that if there aren't enough black South African applicants a racial black preference must still be applied.

The evolution of the DA

What to make of the DA's evolution? It claims to be "non-racial" in order to keep the vote of the minorities and also promises "race-based policies" in order to woo the African middle class. This reminds one of the United Party's adoption of "Race Federation". I used to traipse around UP meetings in order to embarrass its MPs by asking exactly what the policy meant. None of them knew. The most honest answer that I got came from Radcliffe Cadman (later Administrator of Natal) who told me with some asperity that "We had to have a slogan to counterpose to apartheid. On the one hand we wanted to say bantustans were dangerous and wrong and on the other hand we needed to re-assure (white) voters that we would retain baaskap." "Race Federation" was, in other words, a slogan which could be decoded differently by different groups of people, according to taste.

It would probably be kindest to view the DA's current "non-racial but race-based" stance as a similar piece of coded messaging. There is no doubt that the party's new stance is a defeat for the liberal tradition but it is too soon to say whether it will mean the end of that tradition. But one senses that more such moments are ahead if the party succeeds in making itself an alternative career path for young black middle class politicians - surely the party's future. The problem is that only the party's old DP core is firmly rooted in the liberal tradition but that tradition is far weaker amongst the party's more recent recruits - ex-Nats and certain of its Asian, Coloured and African voters. The most important thing the party had to do was to work hard to convert these new recruits to a proper understanding of the tradition they had joined - and this work has not been done, not even at parliamentary level. A hundred and one lesser things were allowed to matter more than this one vital task.

This failure will have profound effects. Already, we have seen, racial black communalism conquered the Mandela ANC. It conquered the Communist Party, which has largely abandoned the championing of class conflict in favour of community conflict. And it is a force which the universities and other public institutions find it difficult to hold at bay. The great line of defence was the liberal tradition, which not only resisted in the name of individual rights but in the name of its refusal to countenance the allocation of resources on the basis of skin colour. Moreover and most encouragingly, the main carrier of that tradition, the DA, continued to grow. Now, however, a crucial concession has been made to racial communalism.

The sad result is bound to be that the party's liberal tradition will become increasingly submerged as, and if, the party grows. This in turn is likely to have dire results - we could see DA "big men" with their large Mercs, blue lights and bodyguards, perhaps even an Nkandla-in-Sandton. In other words, the DA, which has already progressed some way towards the ANC, could in the end become virtually indistinguishable from it. Long before that happens voters from the minorities will quietly detach themselves from the party, retreat into abstention and, like their counterparts in Kenya or Zimbabwe, will view politics as a spectator sport in which all sides are corrupt, incompetent and, probably, tribal. It is too soon to give in to such lurid imaginings but should they ever come to pass there is no doubt that historians will look back to November 2013 as a great turning point when the liberal tradition began to die.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter