Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

How racially divided South Africans can find their common humanity

South Africa is at a crossroads. As citizens of the country the questions that come to mind are: Who are we? What is our identity? And who among us are South Africans?

I raise these questions because the emergence last year of the “Rhodes must Fall Movement”, followed by the “Fees must Fall Movement”, brought to the fore the legacy of the country’s settler colonial past and the sharp inequality between black and white that persists today in spite of the great triumph of the country’s democratic struggle in 1994.

Why, 22 years into a democracy committed to non-racialism, has black consciousness re-emerged?

White people and black consciousness

Forty years ago whites were asking themselves the same questions with the emergence of the black consciousness movement under the charismatic leadership of Steve Biko. In 1973 I was asked by the national student organisation of white students to give a lecture on the origins of black consciousness and how whites should be responding to this challenge.

I argued that for whites to liberate themselves from racism will be a long and difficult intellectual and psychological process. It will involve, I said, a

critical self-examination to understand the forces that have shaped us – this process of de-socialisation and de-colonisation is a total process as it involves re-discovering the history of our country and the culture of its peoples.

Needless to say the apartheid regime reacted in a very hostile way to my lecture.

Two years later I was arrested and charged with, inter alia, promoting black consciousness. Re-reading this lecture 43 years later I would say much the same as I did then: as a community, whites have made little progress in speaking local languages, with little knowledge of African history, art and music.

Of course this is a broad generalisation and there are many whites who have begun to confront this challenge.

What turn to take at the crossroads

What turn are we to take at this historic crossroad? Let me share with you three propositions on how we could approach this challenge.

Firstly, as the leader of the Pan Africanist Congress Robert Sobukwe used to say, there is only one race and that is the human race.

Secondly, our identities are socially constructed and they can be reconstructed to build a joint national culture. As Steve Biko remarked:

Sure a joint culture will have European experiences because we have whites here who are descended from Europe. We don’t dispute that. But for God’s sake it must have African experiences as well.

The Cuban anthropologist, Fernando Ortiz, referred to this process of integration as transculturation, where in tomorrow’s phase

cultures fuse and conflict ceases … where mere racial factors have lost their discriminating power.

This leads to my third observation: there are two different ways of building greater social cohesion and collective solidarity. The first is value based, defining solidarity as a “moral imperative that … is a fundamental value in all the major religions of the world: Do to the other what you would like her to do to you. Love your neighbour as yourself.”

This is, of course, a fine goal but not always attainable.

I want to propose a more pragmatic approach, one that sees solidarity as a constitutive element of mutual self-interest. It is best captured in the age-old trade union slogan, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Solidarity in this context means moving from an individual self-interest, or the self-interest of a smaller group, to a broader self-interest. As Luli Callinicos shows in her book, “The World that Made Mandela”, Nelson Mandela broadened his idea of solidarity from the AbaThembu group, to the Xhosa people, then to black Africans in general and, as he interacted with the cosmopolitan peoples of Johannesburg in the 1940s and 1950s, to solidarity between all those who live in South Africa.

This is the challenge we face: we need to realise that our long-term interest lies in our common humanity as South Africans, rather than in short-term individual gain or in racial populism. This can only be achieved if we remember our past. If we don’t remember how we got here, we won’t know how to fix it.

But the question, surely, is how do we remember this past? On the one hand, we have a past of conquest and violent dispossession of land. Indeed, the city of Grahamstown, named after Lieutenant-Colonel Graham, led the British forces in the violent expulsion of the Xhosa from the Zuurveld in January 1812. It was to become the first successful dispossession of the land of the Xhosa people.

On the other hand, in the words of Jacob Dlamini in his award-winning book “Askari

how different would our history sound if told not as a story of a racial war, but of what we might call, after Njabulo Ndebele, a “fatal intimacy” between black and white South Africans.

Dlamini continues:

To say that apartheid generated an unwanted intimacy between individuals, and to challenge the false claim that the struggle against apartheid was simply a race war, is not to say that race did not matter or that race thinking has no salience. Race obviously mattered a great deal. But it would be wrong to think that race determined the allegiances and loyalties of individuals in any simplistic way.

Is naming Grahamstown after the victor in a war not a constant reminder of a painful past? Is it not inconsistent with our commitment to reconciliation? But, and here is where Dlamini’s approach is relevant, many of the British troops in the expulsion of the Xhosa from the Zuurveld were of Khoi origins. After all the Khoi had been made vulnerable by prior dispossession. They became collaborators in the war of dispossession.

How to reconcile conflicting narratives

How do we reconcile these conflicting narratives – the master narrative of racial dispossession and redemption that lies at the heart of South Africa’s struggle history and the story of collaboration and betrayal as the Khoisan fought “old acquaintances and in some cases relatives”.

Reconciliation of these two narratives, I suggest, is possible; paradoxically, out of the subjugation of the Xhosa, the roots of South Africa’s democracy emerged through the non-racial franchise introduced to the Cape colony in 1854.

By the end of the 19th century the Eastern Cape had nurtured generations of African voters, among whom were the founders of 20th-century African nationalism and eventually the successful struggle for democracy against white minority rule.

As Mandela observed is his autobiography on his education at the Methodist mission schools of Clarkebury and Healdtown,

These schools have often been criticised for being colonialist in their attitudes and practices. Yet, even with such attitudes, I believe their benefits outweighed their disadvantages.

If South Africans are to make the radical changes they must to become truly great, the new generation will have to find a way of understanding the country’s past in its profound complexity – not only the pain of racialised dispossession – but also the ongoing struggle to discover their common humanity as South Africans.

It is a complex and difficult challenge but I know from my interaction with the students of 2015 that you will not fail us. In the memorable words of Frantz Fanon: “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.”

This is an edited version of Professor Webster’s speech given at the Rhodes University ceremony to award him an Honorary Doctorate on April 2 2016 in Grahamstown.

Professor Edward Webster is an internationally recognised sociologist. He has had a life-long interest in worker education. In the wake of the 1973 Durban strikes he and his colleagues at the University of Natal established the South African Labour Bulletin and the first workers’ college in South Africa. In 1976 he was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and promoting “worker unrest”. He launched a pioneering two-week course on labour studies at Wits University in 1980. He has retained an interest in trade union education, and shop stewards in particular.