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Could It Be That We Are Betraying Our Children?

Across South African townships, young people are grappling with what might loosely be termed their own struggle for freedom.

18/09/2017 09:27 SAST | Updated 18/09/2017 09:27 SAST
Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters

As we pass through another cycle of remembering our heritage, it would appear as if now is as good a time as any, to lance a few pus-filled cysts that continue to hinder the emergence of a discourse or discourses, which could help to heal the ailing body which we today call South Africa.

Race, and the ever elusive national question, the ebullient idea of the rainbow nation, appear to be slowly receding into the back alleys of history, to lurk there in the shadows, and to haunt us, like the unfulfilled promise of a lover.

In its place, growing stronger by the day and being fed with more and more urgency, stands a familiar shape of a dark history we had thought was forever banished... "never and never again", echo Madiba's words. Like a mirror image, whose reflection we cannot escape, the deep and pervasive logic of race has and continues to deeply imbue our lived realities in ways that mimic the logic, reactions and ideology of the past.

This is not to say that all those who seek to find solace in logics of race are necessarily avaricious opportunists who have historically sort to use race as a ticket to the members-only banquet. On the contrary. There is a growing generation of young people who have neither lived through the apartheid era and who have despairingly not tasted the fruits of the promise of a post-apartheid South Africa.

In the absence of both the promise and the social, educational and experiential grounding required to emerge from the dark debilitating shadows of what can be colloquially called the non-VIP section, the young people of our townships are creating their own cultures and claiming their own spaces against the creeping perceptions of marginalisation and its concomitant, hopelessness.

Some are fighting back by engaging in crime and other peripheral economic activities, others through education and yet others through civic and popular actions. But these livelihood and survival strategies are also deeply impacted by social discourses including economic, ideological and philosophical views, as well as traditional and cultural norms and standards.

Have we regressed in terms of putting in place the long term building blocks for a future non-racial South Africa?

Across South African townships, young people are grappling with what might loosely be termed their own struggle for freedom. Encased in old and stagnant notions of the present, nurtured on often ill-informed versions of the past, the young people of the township ghettos are rebelling in a myriad of ways in order to redefine their futures.

In the midst of our silence, our young people have only heard the growing murmur, nay, raucous cacophony, of chauvinistic ethno-tribal embraces and the fetishistic and pious clinging to race as the definer of our future.

Never and never again, we said, we wrote nonracialism into our Constitution, and yet we remained silent when, step by step, inch by inch, we reaffirmed and recemented the place of race in our society. So it should be no surprise to us when our young people return to race as the touchstone of their lived reality.

This visceral return of race has become increasingly apparent in society at large, but has become increasingly tense among the previously colonised. A deep echo is rumbling along the faultlines of ethnoracial categorisation in South Africa. This can be felt in every corner of the country, from the deep rural areas of Venda to the lush green lands of KwaZulu-Natal, the windy hills of the Eastern Cape and even to the Western Cape, where 350 years of colonialism has "perfected" racial domination.

So the question begs. Have we regressed in terms of putting in place the long-term building blocks for a future nonracial South Africa?

It is perfectly rational to accept that we cannot expect to have moved much considering that the time passed since the change of government amounts to only a fraction of the time spent setting up the multilayered and systemic structures that formed the foundation for racial logic and subjectivity.

If we ever hope to escape the duplicity of mirror images and familiar dark shadows, then we must ensure that we stop feeding our body politic and society with race at every turn and in every alleyway.

Indeed, as individuals and as communities, we are never static, but develop over time. We are not born racist, but we are taught to be racist. Race is fed to us from early on in our development, and the relenting machinery which reinforces race never seems to stop turning.

If we ever hope to escape the duplicity of mirror images and familiar dark shadows, then we must ensure that we stop feeding our body politic and society with race at every turn and in every alleyway. Race in its final definition rests on the same ideological foundations as those of the AWB and the National Party. It is about enclosure and separation.

During the early years of the post-apartheid buzz, among the previously colonised, there was in my experience, and in hindsight, a much more relaxed and accepting culture that seemed to be on the ascendancy. The hope of a nonracial future appeared, through the misty haze of relief and euphoria, as a distinct possibility in the future.

Today, I sense a concern, if not glaringly lucid realisations, among some colleagues and friends who are all suddenly noticing the increasing marginalisation, of particularly "coloureds", in particularly government circles, but also in workplaces in general, including among civil society sectors and especially among the youth, the generation that would be the pioneers of a nonracial society.

My point in this article is not to unpack whether this growing perception is justifiable or not, but rather to point to the fact, that with unerring consistency, most people who cohere to some form of racial or tribal identity did not suggest that the problem of marginalisation they perceived or lived is most likely the same for all young people who live marginal lives on the outskirts of middle-class utopia.

Their first port of call in finding answers to their predicament was race. I have also found that this is true for most people who cohere to some form of racial identity. The tendency towards blaming race for all our problems or as the central pivot around which the world revolves is common among those who cohere to a racial or ethnic identity.

The personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

Yet, to acknowledge that race impacts on us, whether we like it or not, is a critical part of realising that, in the absence of a collective mea culpa among those who were previously colonised, the growing reality of marginalised communities retreating into racial laagers in which the "other" is more often than not an enemy and not a friend, and where group identity becomes a survival imperative, is slowly emerging as our unchanged reality.

It is only when we collectively accept that the obsessive and systemic manner in which we have been building ethnoracial structures of governance through the legislative efforts of our Parliament, while promoting ethnoracial affirmations in our regulations that are all underpinned by an exclusionary, chauvinistic and hierarchical notion of "blacks in general and Africans in particular", is of our collective making and of our collective silence in the face a slow creep return to the apartheid logic of difference separation and conflict. Only then could we finally hope to realign our Titanic towards a nonracial future.

It is perhaps Audrey Lorde who best sums up our challenge:

"For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices."

Christopher Rutledge is the natural resources manager for ActionAid South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.