What is the status of non-racialism in South Africa today?

21/06/2018 The writing is seen on a wall of the Constitutional Court. The Constitution Hill is almost as old as the city of Johannesburg, and the story behind its historic museums is outlined in the pages on the Old Fort, the Women's Jail and Number Four. As the decades went by, the prisons at Constitution Hill became established sites of incarceration, along with the attendant issues of overcrowding, poor sanitation and disease. These problems were exacerbated with the advent of apartheid under the Nationalist government in 1948, and the burgeoning number of people arrested for both petty and severe apartheid laws. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/African News Agency/ANA

The supreme South African Constitution makes the status of non-racialism categorically clear by declaring in section 1, dealing with the fundamental values on which  our democratic sovereign state is based that non-racialism is one of these values with, inter alia, human dignity and the achievement of equality. Furthermore both the ANC own constitution and the legendary Freedom Charter endorse this vital principle by declaring categorically in the latter that ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white’.

The above is an explanation of the constitutional and legal position as well as the traditional and historical political position of the ANC. In the heroic liberation struggle the ANC’s leadership and prominent spokespersons and leaders reflected this principle of non-racialism, by virtue of the fact that, inter alia, the following persons were involved in this struggle: Bram Fisher, Ahmed Kathrada, Joe Slovo, Kader Asmal, Helen Joseph, Jay Naidoo, Dullah Omar, Trevor Manuel and Jay Naidoo.

In this regard, Theuns Eloff, Executive Director of the de Klerk foundation has penned a very interesting and perceptive article dated 1/11/2018, on the antithetical perspectives in relation to the seminal question of non-racialism in the acrimoniously divided ANC of the present time. He does this using significant information from a 30 page leaked document of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation(TMF), which has caused a furore on social media and particularly with the African National Congress (ANC) itself. It is manifestly clear from this controversy that the ANC as a political party and movement is acutely and apparently irreparably divided on the cardinal issue and status of non-racialism. 

Eloff in his insightful article makes some very pertinent and perceptive observations that it is submitted deserve careful consideration and political reflection. Firstly, he points out that the TMF believes that the contentious issue of Expropriation without Compensation (EWC) is indeed possible without a formal amendment of Section 25 of the Constitution. However what is of profound significance is that that the demand for such amendment is unfortunately race-based. Secondly, in this regard, he explains that the crucial issue is how this recent ANC decision to amend section 25 for the express purpose of EWC impacts in no uncertain manner on the national question and need to build a non-racial society as envisaged in both the South Africa Constitution and that of the ANC as a political party. 

His carefully considered opinion is a clear indication that the TMF has come to the inescapable conclusion that the extant ANC has departed from the traditional view and principle of non-racialism, as explained above, by taking its decision on EWC which requires an express amendment of section 25 of the Constitution. He opines that the inevitable result of this is that the ANC has effectively been transformed into an essentially ‘black or Africanist party’ in the narrow sense of the word. It therefore no longer is representative of all South Africans and as a result Indians, Coloureds and Whites are being effectively excluded or at least marginalised. This means that the ANC can no longer be a ‘parliament of the people’ as it has been historically.

Eloff observes that for some time now, starting with the Zuma presidency, matters have gone awry and that a process of re-racialising the state and its operation has been inexorably occurring. This is bringing about a system of racial nationalism, facilitated by aggressive affirmative action, in the form of cadre deployment, radical black empowerment, unqualified employment equity, all under the guise of ‘transformation’, resulting in the marginalisation of the minority communities of Indians, Coloureds and Whites, as explained above. Racial representation, based most frequently on the national demography of 80% African, 9% Coloured, 9% White and 2% Indian, gives rise to racial formula of 80:9:9:2 for these groups when it comes to employment in the civil service and elsewhere.   

The marginalisation of minorities has also been exacerbated by the vociferous rhetoric of decolonisation which has emerged out of the fees-must-fall movement which has engulfed the universities, starting at UCT. In certain policy documents dealing with the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), white South African were described derogatively as ‘colonialists of a special kind’. All of this must inevitably give rise to a manifest polarisation, rather than national reconciliation and nation building.

For some time these two streams of thought that have crystallised into antagonistic factions, which have been emerging within the ANC in relation to non-racialism, one cogently committed to it, the other diametrically opposed to it. This constitutes a fault line which together with the fact that the tripartite alliance is in inexorable decline or is indeed virtually moribund that has resulted in significant implications for our future political development and which could lead to a re-orientation of political parties in South Africa. 

The two streams or factions associated with Ramaphosa and Zuma respectively are probably incompatible and at some time in the future there must be a parting of the ways. Waiting in the metaphorical wings are the EFF and the DA who may become involved through the politics of coalition or merger, should the ANC under President Ramaphosa fail to secure more than 50% in the general election that must take place in about May next year.  

This could change face of South African politics fundamentally forever. Even if Ramaphosa does secure more than 50% in the election, in the long term change of this kind appears to be inevitable because of the basic incompatibility of the two factions and their long term continuation, which is likely. However, ultimately it may happen that a maturation occurs in our politics and political parties will begin to differ on economic issues as has occurred in Europe and the United Kingdom, rather than race as has been traditionally the position in South Africa.

George Devenish is Emeritus Professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.