The recent furore surrounding the removal of mostly black beach goers from Clifton Fourth beach in Cape Town by a security company, Professional Protection Alternatives (PPA), comes at a time when race issues have exploded like never before in post-apartheid South Africa.
It is evident from all the media reports of the past two weeks that PPA had no legal right to request those people to leave the beach. Furthermore, the attempts to downplay their action by arguing that they were merely assisting metro cops who wanted the beach closed due to security concerns, after the earlier alleged rape of two women, was quickly denied by the city council and the police.
This left the PPA with much to answer for and against whom action must be taken in the strongest possible terms. Besides, even if they were to claim that they removed those beach goers because their members, probably all of them of the white elite, pay them and wanted it, which is probably the case, municipal by-laws do not permit any racial or class discrimination. It later emerged that a leading white businessman in the area played a leading role in securing the services of the PPA.
However, there were developments last week which complicated matters much more than was originally entertained, introducing very controversial issues which has clearly created some tensions and differences between those aggrieved beach goers and later action taken reportedly by members of the Black People’s National Crisis Committee (BPNCC). The BPNCC, whose members staged a protest at the beach, went further to slaughter a sheep to purportedly “cleanse” it of “evil spirits” and put an end to racism. However, while racism can be seen as “evil” it is not a “spirit” but a real and powerful social force.
But the slaughtering ritual was unfortunate for several other reasons. By invoking the ancestral authority of Chief Makhanda, the Xhosa leader of the 19th century, and calling upon him to “cleanse” the beach of racism the BPNCC injected cultural and religious mysticism into a clear-cut case of race/class discrimination. This diverted attention from the issues at hand, which that initial group of beach goers had clearly articulated and which was best summed up by activist, Fatima Shabodien: “There is suddenly a security concern because we are on a white beach. This is not about safety…it is about apartheid laws restricting black people to the Cape Flats.”
The slaughtering was also misplaced for another reason, besides the fact that it is not permitted by municipal laws: It offended animal rights activists and many others. But making these points to those who partook in this cultural ritual was in vain. They angrily dismissed the protesters and at several points from video footage came very close to assaulting some of them, even though there were those who supported the fight against racism, including that action be taken against PPA, but were unhappy about the slaughtering in a public space and especially at a place like a beach.
This however is South Africa, a country where sheer population numbers often crudely drive and determine our politics and even the sociocultural fabric around much of it. This is the most unfortunate factor because it did seem that it was both the slaughter and the public space it occurred in which validly concerned those animal rights activists and many others.
But the key points are that even those rights were secondary to the main fight: the right to access any public beach at any time of the day or night. Animal rights was only invoked later, after protesters decided to slaughter a sheep at the beach.
However, there are possibly even more serious consequence if any racial or cultural chauvinism is arrogantly or aggressively perpetrated when people do not get their way and difficulties arise. On the one hand, it erodes the potential for collective non-racial solidarity which the violation of the rights of those beach goers demanded, especially in a city like Cape Town, given its history.
On the other hand, and probably more seriously, it could prevent or weaken organization and unity in action when in the purported struggle against racism it invokes one or other ethnic ancestral authority, especially in a country with such a diverse and complex cultural and religious history as ours, instead of focusing on the issues at hand as the best mobilising tool.
The fact, however, is that no amount of invocation of any ancestral or religious spirits, important as it might be to many, will help to combat a powerful system with which racism has largely cohabited for centuries, namely capitalism. The only thing that can “cleanse” this country of racism is a new socialist working-class party which wins power on an entirely non-racial and anti-racist basis and which does not succumb one iota to any form of racialism, racism, ethnic nationalism or cultural chauvinism, from whatever quarter.
Dr. Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and former Cosatu trade unionist.