Thinking beyond apartheid race categories

Following a recent research colloquium, ZIMITRI ERASMUS finds that South Africans can move beyond surrendering to the use of apartheid race categories.

Wits University recently hosted a colloquium titled ‘Revisiting Apartheid Race Categories’. The event gathered together scholars from various disciplines, practitioners and researchers, and university executives from a range of higher-education institutions across the country. Several participants straddled these three roles, making for rich presentations. Given recent debates on whether or not to continue using apartheid race categories in university admissions, this colloquium was timely. The IJR’s ongoing work on critical social indicators was among the thoughtful contributions to this gathering.

Its proceedings resonate with Mark Gevisser’s idea that ‘The only way one could represent “South Africanness” today would be through juxtapositions’, more precisely, juxtapositions that produce seemingly irresolvable tensions. Presentations and conversations at the colloquium revealed one among many tensions with which we live daily: on the one hand, a desire to build a non-racial South Africa; and on the other, a fear – conscious and unconscious – of letting go of apartheid’s race categories.

Tensions can be productive. The outcome of these deliberations is an example. Presentations revealed that questioning the continued use of apartheid race categories for administrative purposes is not (as yet) outlawed. The challenge, however, is to maintain the conditions that allow this freedom to question and to insist on innovative alternatives which do not lose sight of the continued significance of ‘race’. At the same time, participants brought home just how deeply entrenched common sense uses of ‘race’ are in South Africa. The firm grip apartheid’s race categories continues to hold was reflected in the constant conflation in conversations, on the one hand, of the analytical and political necessity, given our history, of an understanding of ‘race’ as a social construct with material effects (a construct that can be unmade) with, on the other hand, apartheid race categories as fixed administrative tools.

Laypeople are not the only ones in this grip. Participants showed how the law, and knowledge about the law and social issues more generally, relies as much on this conflation. In other words, the law and scholarship rely on common sense notions of ‘race’. This begs the question: Is the law legitimate if premised on undefined and shifting conceptions of ‘race’? This might suggest a space for struggle between this particular weakness of the law, and the more critical conceptions of ‘race’. Given that the courts are one among several institutions of power that can enable social change, it might be important to think of ways in which to use this space to stretch the law. But are legal practitioners trained to do this? Cases related to corrective measures and tried in labour courts suggest not. What does this, in turn, tell us about the role of higher education in furthering projects of social justice?

Deliberations also brought to the surface that most South Africans view equity targets and goals primarily as agovernment- imposed compliance exercises. Here, the challenge is to cultivate a perspective which sees these goals as part of one’s role as a democratic citizen, marked by histories of racial privilege and oppression. It seems most South Africans are quite happy to wear the yoke of democratic citizens in times of manic euphoria – the 1994 elections and the 2010 World Cup are good examples. But when it comes to facing the difficult realities of everyday life – times when the performance of democratic citizenship is arguably most needed – most South Africans are content with discarding this yoke. What can we do to change this pattern?

Among the highlights of this event were the reports from small groups that used existing knowledge to create possible new indicators that account for both ‘race’ and class without surrendering to apartheid race categories. These reports suggest we can do much better than to capitulate to customary practice. We can access what lies beneath and behind ‘White’, ‘Black’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’ in the present. We can access what might lie beyond life with these categories. While indicators would need to be tailored to specific institutional contexts and social purposes, among those suggested included questions on: which languages you speak, read, write; whether you/your parents had the right to vote before 1994; what kind of setbacks, if any, you had during high school, for example, violence at school, political action, pregnancy; how many generations of your family had access to tertiary education; whether you have access to the internet; whether you have access to clean water; how you get to school each day – by bus, by car, on foot; if on foot, how long it takes you to get to school.

I came away from this gathering re-assured that doing away with apartheid race categories in the short to medium term does not imply not naming ‘race’ and its effects. In closing the gathering a colleague soberly reminded us that this is a process, not a moment. How do we keep it alive?

In her capacity as a Carnegie Resident Equity Scholar at Wits University, Zimitri Erasmus was among the key  organisers of this colloquium. It was jointly hosted by the School of Human and Community Development, the Transformation Office and the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University, and by the Centre for Critical Research on Race and Identity at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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