Conservative American activist Randall Terry said, “He who frames the question wins the debate.” Unintentionally absorb your opponent’s terms, and you argue on the defensive with half your battle lost.
The definition of racism is an example of how this works. In A Bantu in My Bathroom (Bookstorm, 2012), Eusebius McKaiser says “the idea that blacks can’t be racist is an insult to black people.” He makes an ontological case for the definition of racism as a stable biological concept to say black people can be racist.
But Ntokozo Qwabe argues that racism cannot be defined apart from history and power structures: “Once ‘black people can be racist too,’ racism in all its viciousness becomes a frivolity — something that is anything and everything. We are then, as a result, clouded from seeing how actual racism as a system of oppression continues unabated in social, political, economic and other institutions of power.”
Both definitions are useful, but if you allow your opponent to decontextualize the meaning of your words he’ll take your argument and beat you over the head with it.
I’ve been saying something that’s provoked many people’s ire: “[The DA’s] mostly-white network of government officials, service providers and constituency yields better results on measurables like clean audits because its individuals never returned what they gained under apartheid. Many of its people’s temptation to corruption is lessened because that corruption was never rectified.” Or as Sisonke Msimang observed in a Daily Maverick piece in which she described white people as “the strongest victims in the world”:
“The failure to prioritize justice has left poor black people trapped in a cycle of poverty at the very same time that it has given white South Africans the freedom to reinvent themselves. At some point in the last two decades whites became the strongest victims in the world, and blacks — still poor, still under-represented in every area of human endeavour that marks progress — have become the oppressors.”
The DA would limit the definition of corruption to everything the ANC is more likely to be found guilty of. This is to underplay that their parties’ respective members began life as the human results of unrectified historical corruptions. This insidiously “corrupts” the discussion on corruption.
After Mmusi Maimane’s speech on racism, Lindiwe Mazibuko wrote in BD Live that the official opposition should interrogate “the almost exclusive dominance of white males within the party’s ‘brains trust’,” asking, “As Maimane sets targets for the recruitment of diverse candidates for public office, will he do the same for the management of the party?” This corresponds with perceptions that post-#Nenegate -#ZumaMustFall marchers were whiter, #MarchForJobs marchers were darker and the DA’s parliamentary caucuses are black-led but white-benched.
If you point out behaviour patterns that fit hypotheses that apartheid’s intended beneficiaries are working to retain what they gained, you’re accused of repetitively harping on about the past, “making everything about race” or even “being a racist” because in 1996 we let the terms get set apart from historical considerations. We thought changing South Africa’s vocabulary would change its soul; we thought holding our debates and discussions in English would keep them “accessible” and racially “neutral.” Ha!
Consider how the DA takes credit for being the only party that attends LGBTI Pride Marches and “lives the Constitution” without acknowledging that more of its gay and lesbian members face less financial risk for coming out because their capacity to make a living is less likely reliant on others’ opinions.
Would I condense the DA’s good governance to its being the result of racism or invoke apartheid to explain all excellence? These reductionist straw-man tropes arise from the same synthetic vocabulary and stifle the discussion on black excellence/white mediocrity.
Very broadly, the gist of that sensitive topic is that by and large, black people who achieve excellence do so not because, but in spite of, facing more socio-historical obstacles. The structural-historical definition of racism forces us to question merit as a yardstick. White supremacy will decontextualize and dehistoricise that, minimise the past and cut through every associated discussion along a similar divide. Oh, and white people who do let themselves fall to mediocrity do so not only in spite of white privilege’s advantages, but because white privilege consists of being less exposed to the consequences of trifling with ordinariness. Very broadly.
If the DA governs better than the ANC, we need not deny that. But we need look no further afield for explanations as to why than its parliamentary caucus. Mute the historical definition of racism, and the remaining unspoken explanation is that whites are naturally superior to blacks.
If we simply displace the ruling party with this opposition in 2019, we’ll again embrace ahistorical terms of engagement and postpone honest discussions on apartheid’s effects. Future generations will pick up the tab even as we age among their unstable circumstances.
Ironically, it’s dishonesty now that will bring black people’s disillusionment with the DA to a fruition deadlier than their current disappointment with the ANC.
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