Racial Nativism Goes against Our Traditions

Cape Times (South Africa), February 12, 2008 | Go to article overview

Racial Nativism Goes against Our Traditions


BYLINE: Xolela Mangcu

ON JUNE 14, 2006 I visited the German embassy in Pretoria to apply for a visa so I could go to the soccer World Cup finals. As I had expected there was a long line of people waiting with the usual mix of anxiety and anticipation. I sat next to an Indian woman and seated next to her was her daughter. The girl could not have been more than five or six years old. The security guard on duty told the woman that the chairs in the embassy were reserved for visa applicants. The child needed to give up her seat for one of the people standing in line.

It occurred to me that this was patently unfair and unnecessary. Surely the able-bodied men and women in the line could stand on their feet?

As is often the case in these matters, the security guard got his way.

Feeling a little guilty he then put the girl on his lap. A white woman joined in my protestation. That is when all hell broke loose. A prominent African woman journalist told the white woman that it was "un-African" for a child to sit while adults stood. "It is our culture," she insisted. She then turned to the security guard and instructed him in isiZulu to put the child down: "Beka phantsi leyonto wena" (Put down that "thing").

Surely it was not in African culture to treat children with such lack of feeling? Why then would a fairly prominent, middle class African woman, probably herself a parent, act with such callousness?

It seemed to me that her desire to make a political statement to a captive audience trumped any other moral consideration.

I would not quibble with the idea that identity is central to the black struggle for freedom. But it seemed like the famous liberation credo "culture is the weapon" was being subverted for political point scoring. Also interesting is that she chose to explain this aspect of African culture only after the white woman had interjected. The message was unmistakable: white people have no right to speak about how Africans - be they black or Indian - treat their children.

And if you were black the message was that you would cross this woman's line at your own risk. Could she be an official of state, ordering people around and striking fear in their hearts? I knew better. This was the nationalist grandstanding that had come to typify our political culture.

It was a classic example of the racial insider/outsider dynamic at the heart of Thabo Mbeki's strategy of rule. This cultural dynamic goes under the rise of racial nativism. This is the idea that the true custodians of African culture are the natives. The natives are often defined as black Africans because they are indigenous to the country, and within that group the true natives are those who participated in the resistance struggle. And even among those who participated in the liberation, the truest natives are those who are on the side of the government. By dint of their authenticity these natives have the right to silence white interlopers or black sell-outs.

Racial nativism goes against the long traditions of racial syncretism that have always characterised South African political and intellectual history. In this syncretic approach natives are all the people born in the country, irrespective of their struggle history or where they stand in relation to government. In a democratic society no group of people has greater authenticity or licence than others. Instead, the defining ethos of a syncretic approach to national belonging is captured by the Freedom Charter's opening line: "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white."

Even the radical Pan Africanist and Black Consciousness movements upheld the ideal of a non-racial democratic society in which all citizens are regarded as equal and therefore entitled to express their views just like everyone else.

To reduce this theory to its most simple form, my argument is that the current, particularly political, trend of condemning anyone who is not black and who is not on the side of the government (what can be called racial nativism) is a negative and destructive one that has developed in the past eight years.

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