Tackle racism, not messenger

THE STAR February 26, 2009 Edition 1

Christine Qunta


Last week the new United States Attorney-General, Eric Holder, caused a stir when he called Americans "a nation of cowards" because in his words Americans simply do not talk enough about race." There was outrage in right-wing circles at what they saw as an unfair characterisation of Americans. At least part of this must have been a sense that Americans had just elected the first African American president instead of a white male, John McCain. The attorney-general himself was the first African American attorney-general in the history of the country.

The Washington Post in an editorial commented: "His provocative choice of words sparked a debate that has distracted from his main point which is important despite its familiarity: Americans need to engage in an ongoing and honest conversation about race". The paper then refers to Obama's seminal speech on race during his campaign as well as Bill Clinton's call in 1997 for a national conversation about race.

Even the most left-wing leaders within African American society were moved by Obama's election. It was both a tribute to his political skill in mounting a slick and effective election campaign, and evidence of a psychological shift within US society. It is clear that the economic meltdown in the country favoured him. The fact remains that white Americans were willing to put their future in his hands when they were very directly and personally affected.

The significance of his rise to power lies in this. Often in a lighthearted way, Africans take pride in the fact that they have rhythm and white people, especially white men, don't have. I have always thought this a bit misplaced because if it's a choice between having rhythm and ruling the world, I'll choose ruling the world any day. For Africans in the diaspora especially, Obama's election meant that not only can they be good on the sports field or in the entertaining world; they are fit to govern even the most powerful country (for now) in the world.

There are parallels with South Africa where race is one of those things that can only be spoken about in hushed tones behind closed doors or modulated in a manner that does not unsettle white people. Those black people who dare raise the issue in as frank a manner as Holder did, get punished. Name calling would be okay, but it goes further than that. The most vocal attacks often come from liberals who believe that they have to manage race relations in such a way that it does not cause any discomfort nor affect their control of institutions.

Judge John Hlophe, judge president of the Cape, a few years ago wrote a report to the then Minister of Justice, Bridgette Mabandla, about racism on the Cape bench and Bar. This set off a campaign against him which has not subsided. It is driven by liberals, appalled not so much by the alleged wrongdoings on his part, but by the audacity that he had in writing the report and demanding real transformation on the bench. It is the latter actions that earned him the most hatred. But for his insistence, there would be no Africans on the Cape Bench. After all, the Cape has a long, proud tradition of the gentle art of excluding the natives. Hence long after the rest of the country began to transform, Dumisa Ntsebeza in 2002 was the first African senior counsel at the Cape Bar.

All this does not mean that I agree with everything he has said or done. My point is simply that the outrage against him is magnified and sustained for reasons other than what he has allegedly done wrong.

Then there is Ronald Suresh Roberts, who has articulated the problem of race in this country in an analytical and often trenchant manner. His book No Cold Kitchen, about the life and writings of Nadine Gordimer, had liberals spluttering because he dared show an icon of theirs with all her warts. It was a serious and largely sympathetic study of her writings, but this was overlooked.

He followed this up with Fit To Govern which is a polemical tour de force centred on the intellectual life and discourse by and around former president Thabo Mbeki. He dealt with the liberal traditions in their historic and current manifestations and exposed their intellectual dishonesty in the way they responded to the former president perspectives. Very rarely have they been exposed in such a systematic and intelligent manner. In between he wrote articles and attacked them.

There was no typical South African black diffidence, no fear and most disturbing for them, he had a phenomenal intellect. Black people (except those he dismissively called "native assistants") cheered him and liberals hated him. They mounted a sustained campaign in the newspapers against him. Some even tried to stop the publishing of the second printing of Fit to Govern. They failed.

So the debate around race always gets stifled because of the vicious backlash against those who raise the issue. Ironically they pose as proponents of non-racialism. True non-racialism can only be realised when the humanity of those who have been for so long been diminished, is restored. Otherwise it becomes a slogan to silence those who truly seek the realisation of that aspiration.

We may have reached a historical moment now where the collective anxiety about where the country is headed transcends race and class. This may in part explain the phenomenal growth of membership across race of the Congress of the People and the excitement the organisation has generated among young people of all races. Whatever the outcome of the elections, that shared concern may give us our equivalent of an Obama moment.

  Christine Qunta is a lawyer and writer.