Strategies Needed to Break Vicious Cycle of Racism

Cape Times (South Africa), June 29, 2007 | Go to article overview

Strategies Needed to Break Vicious Cycle of Racism


BYLINE: Monareng Pitso

Ebrahim Harvey's opinion piece (June 19) promised to be an engaging analysis, but quickly slipped into an ahistorical anti-ANC polemic.

Racism, as Harvey points out, is not merely people behaving badly. It has its roots in European history and specifically its interaction with the rest of the world. Cape Town is one of the many places in Africa where the contours of those relationships are most sharply etched. Here, where Europe, Africa and Asia collided and the combustible mixture so produced in turn became a melting pot for the peculiar features of this region.

Before they had conquered enough indigenous peoples, the settlers relied mainly on slave labour to till their fields, tend their livestock and keep their homes clean.

The first slaves were from west Africa, and later from Madagascar, the Indonesian archipelago, Ceylon, Bengal and other Indian Ocean littoral states. The heterogeneity of what evolved into the Cape coloured people is well known.

Dr Wilmot James recently recalled that he was wearing a tight-fitting nightcap, that kept his otherwise crinkly hair straight, the night the Special Branch came for him in the 1980s. Straight hair was considered more attractive by the girls.

The embarrassing candour of this account, however, reveals a dimension of racism that Harvey ignores: its relative autonomy once it has been given life by historic and political-economic circumstances.

There was a clear line of fracture in the society created by the settlers - the free and the unfree.

A century and more after the abolition of slavery, the images of beauty that it generated live on.

No one disputes that these racist values were taught to the victims of slavery and racial oppression. But the oft-referred-to 300 years of colonialism is, strictly speaking, applicable to the Western Cape only, as the other provinces came under colonial rule much later.

The privileging of a light skin, straight hair and other European features are some of the pathologies colonialism inflicted on all peoples of the Third World. It is most deeply embedded here, among the black communities that have the longest experience of colonialism.

"In the past you were not white enough; today you are not black enough," mocked Tony Leon fishing for coloured votes in Port Elizabeth.

If the truth be told, many coloureds cursed the fact that they were not white enough. And, what's more, did their best to approximate to it. It is anybody's guess how many identify as black and want to be regarded as black. …

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