How to kibosh race classification

William Saunderson-Meyer says we are backsliding towards a discredited and hated past


Here’s a shout-out to Oudtshoorn teacher Glen Snyman. At last, someone is exposing a nasty truth that has been politely skirted for too long — that the African National Congress is as race obsessed as was its loathed predecessor, the National Party.

A legislated system of race classification was the morally corrupt mechanism according to which the apartheid era’s National Party government shared state largesse and social privilege proportionally. Now, too, the nominally non-racial African National Congress government, operating within a nominally non-racial Constitution.

Snyman has caused consternation among the race-arbitration Gauleiters of Western Cape bureaucracy by self-identifying as an African. He now faces a disciplinary hearing ordered by the provincial education department for fraudulently’ passing himself off as an African male “whereas in truth your records indicate that you are a coloured male”.

Snyman’s “crime” was committed three years ago when he applied for a teaching post and in his curriculum vitae declared that he was African. In terms of the redress criteria that must be followed by all state institutions, he would have been automatically given preference over coloured applicants — there is, as the ANC’s Jimmy Manyi once pointed out “an oversupply” of coloureds in the Western Cape — and hence “fraudulently” secured the job.

The Snyman matter is one of those bizarre incidents emblematic of what a fucked up country we remain despite 26 years of supposedly dismantling race privilege and creating a just society. While South Africa was neither the first country nor the last, where the state chose race as the defining principle behind its every action, undoubtedly this has branded and tarnished us like none other.

There’s a rich vein of apartheid-era literature that explores the cruel dilemmas and personal tragedies of race classification. The emotional violence of families torn asunder, of careers blighted, of personal humiliations — the “pencil test” for hair, as well as the “nail test” and genital examinations — were all the result of a futile quest to find “scientific” certainty to human variation, in order to justify the political exploitation of genetic variation.

Aside from invariably being disastrous in every way, an obsession with race identity drops the nation into a rabbit hole of Lewis Carrol-levels of absurdity. In the apartheid years, it was the eternal dilemma for mixed-race people. 

One had to accept one’s second-class status and battle against the odds. Or, for the fortunate few, “to go for white” and immeasurably improve their lives and prospects for them and their descendants, but at the cost of cutting ties with any person or part of the past that could endanger that decision.

Those horrors didn’t end in 1994, with the establishment of a democratic state based on a non-racial Constitution. All that has happened is that the new Constitution — which is, as we are constantly reminded, the most enlightened in the world — has been interpreted by an ANC-loaded judiciary as allowing racial discrimination in order to achieve redress for past disadvantage.

To my mind, there is nothing wrong with that principle, except that it has to have a time expiry date. The ANC has governed SA more than half as long as did the Nats but aside from a politically connected black elite, the economic divide is growing, as is racial friction. 

As Politicsweb editor James Myburgh pointed out in an analysis earlier this year, “For a few precious years in the early to mid-1990s South Africa was, for the first and last time, a country without operative racial laws.” Cataloguing some of the ANC’s racial law and regulation aimed at realising through racially deployed cadres “the goal of pure racial proportionality, everywhere,” Myburgh catalogues some 80 significant bits of race-based regulation but stresses that the list is not complete.

“By one count the ANC has incorporated racial requirements into 90 acts of parliament, excluding the Constitution … relating to the application of the representivity principle to the boards of statutory bodies. In addition, there are a number of judgments issued by the Constitutional Court, bending the interpretation of the Constitution in favour of the national revolution,” Myburgh writes.

“One of the characteristics of the ANC is that it demands moral compliance with its racial project. Every institution in society has to formulate a little ‘race law’ of its own, setting out how it expects to achieve the racial goals the ANC has set for employment, and then submit an annual report in this regard to the Department of Labour. In 2019 the department received 58 of these reports from national government, 133 from provincial government, 184 from local government, 133 from State-owned enterprises, 298 from educational institutions, 566 from non-profit organisations, and 26 113 from the private sector.”

We’re backsliding towards a discredited and hated past. Empowerment, affirmative action and redress are all beginning to bear the same shabby connotations as apartheid-speak’s lexicon of infamous euphemisms which, at the end of the day, were just camouflage for racism. And the new dispensation’s fig-leaf of redress is increasingly beginning to reveal itself for what it is, the armour-plate of triumphal, racist retribution. 

Although race classification is theoretically outlawed, it continues to exist by sly proxy. The old regime’s legislatively enshrined categories of black, white, coloured and Indian/Asian remain in daily empowerment use, faintly eased by StatsSA introducing into its surveys an “other” category, to cater for those hopeless romantics who believe things could be different.

Blacks (whether called Bantu, Natives, Africans or whatever the nom du jour was) were readily identifiable and easy to categorise as the “other” in the apartheid years or, in the present day, as “most deserving of redress”. And, in the ANC’s incarnation of South Africa, Whites (whether you call them Europeans or settlers or historically privileged) are readily identifiable as “least deserving”. 

But it’s the coloureds who are always the meat in the sandwich. While many South Africans take offence at the appellation “coloured”, for a variety of obvious reasons, the naming convention persists because it is as useful and necessary to the ANC as it was for the Nats. 

This is the population category that has always threatened to dilute the riches and privilege of the dominant group, because it can and will — unless one resort’s to Race Classification Boards and genetic testing — choose the racial niche of maximum advantage. That’s not an escape clause that exists for that other disadvantaged minority, the Indian/Asian community.

Snyman’s actions, however, are calculating, not opportunistic. He is a long-time critic of race classification and founder of the lobby group, People Against Race Classification, and is no doubt feeling deservedly pleased that a strategy executed three years go is now bearing political fruit.

It’s a big embarrassment to the Democratic Alliance government of the Western Cape that an avowedly non-racial party is operating on punitively racial criteria. The disciplinary action by the Education Department’s quiet bureaucrats did not go ahead as scheduled this week, following the intervention of Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schäfer. 

Schäfer said in a statement that she was “understandably shocked” that her department was charging someone “because of how they choose to classify themselves”. “One of the many evils of apartheid was the classification of people by their so-called race … It is anathema to me. And we will not tolerate victimisation of people who do not conform to an artificial and arbitrary classification of who they are deemed to be.”

While Snyman’s ploy has left the DA red-faced, it should leave the ANC ashen. 

Repeated nationally on a massive scale, as an act of civil disobedience, it has the potential to cause chaos with the implementation of the government’s black empowerment policies which, until now, have been carried out with the voluntary compliance of the citizenry. In a world where self-identifying — whether it be sex, gender, ethnicity or race — is the new rallying of the woke, the ANC would be in a human rights pickle if this were to happen. 

For, if the post-1994 passivity over racial categorisation moved to defiance and confrontation, the only solution would be legal mechanisms to determine and rule on race. Something like the old Race Classification Boards would have to be established and pseudo-science applied by petty apparatchiks “just doing their job” to ferret out people’s correct slot in the racial hierarchy.

Oh, how the Nats will laugh when the first ANC bureaucrat applies apartheid's infamous “pencil test” to the first coloured, to check for give-away curliness of hair.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye