Old left’s rainbow nation project offers no way forward

A response to Jeff Rudin

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Photo of student protester from November 2015
The student protests that started in 2015 have opened a moment of possibility that must not be squandered, write the authors. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Jeff Rudin is concerned that “race continues to be the dominant reality in the consciousness of most South Africans”, but the left rainbow nation project he implicitly proposes provides no way forward for emancipatory politics in South Africa.

Rudin’s main argument can be summed up as follows: Race is no longer a useful category of analysis in South Africa because we have a predominantly black government and black economic elites that have cooperated to implement policies that are bad for the majority of black people.

We want to deal with this before moving toward the more urgent question: What political and theoretical formations may provide the basis for a serious struggle toward emancipation in SA?

Rudin’s dismissal of the usefulness of race as a lens through which to understand society truly does appear to be based purely on the fact that South Africa has a black government under which a black capitalist class has emerged. Insights of this quality and depth tend only to provide enough words to fill #ZumaMustFall placards and bitter News24 comments. That an entire article on race and class has been produced on this basis is remarkable, but Rudin’s approach is unconvincing and symptomatic of the lack of seriousness with which many white left intellectuals still engage the topic.

History shows race is crucial to understanding political economy

A serious engagement around the relevance of race in today’s South Africa requires first an honest reading of its historical trajectory, i.e. an understanding of how race has related to the various forms and stages of exploitation that have existed here. From there we can make a clear assessment of the extent to which this relation between race and exploitation remains relevant for understanding the reality of what South Africa is today.

To do this, it isn’t necessary to lay out and analyse our history from the first interaction between “settler” and “native” until the present day. We need only make explicit two of the major functions that race as a construct has fulfilled consistently in South Africa and all over the world. From the point of that first interaction and through every subsequent stage of our history:

  1. Race and racial hierarchies have provided the basis for the imposition and continuous reproduction of social logics - encompassing culture, language, religion, knowledge production, notions of gender and sexuality, etc. – in which the white European subject and his world, by definition, occupied the normative position and apex of human capacity;

  2. Race and racial hierarchies have provided in various ways the mechanism through which the very identities of entire populations of human beings were reconstructed and their lives instrumentalised for the purpose of exploitation for the material benefit of a minority.

The capacity of a small settler minority, and an even smaller ruling class among them, to implement and reproduce this perverse set of relations over generations of resistance has always been rooted in: A. the use and threat of violence; and B. control of the production and distribution of wealth, i.e. the economic situation (with control of the land as a key component of this). The state in South Africa – the military, the police, the judiciary, the education, health and social support systems, etc. - has been the primary means through which these two functions have been exercised in the interests of white capital (local and international) and the white settler minority.

This historical relation between state violence, political economic context and race suggests to us that they can only truly be understood together:

  • Understanding why and how racial identities could be imposed on different populations at different times cannot be fully achieved without an understanding of the very specific requirements of capital In South Africa and the role of the state in balancing those with the needs of the white minority.

  • Understanding how an industrial capitalist economy, oppressive in so many senses, could be imposed upon a majority population through incredible and sustained violence by a tiny minority, is simply incomprehensible without a sense of how the construct of race and racial hierarchy had divided, dehumanised and disempowered black people to the extent that formal apartheid was able to survive internal resistance and external pressure until the 1990s.

There are countless further examples. What they show is that, contrary to Rudin’s delusion, race as an analytic category and the study of forms of racism is absolutely crucial to understanding the political economy that has shaped the country we find ourselves in. Rather it is the dogma of rainbow nation politics – including left rainbow nation politics – that cloud this understanding by insisting that the politics of race is just “colour-caused confusion.”

Weaknesses of rainbowism

An example of the analytical and strategic weaknesses of the type of rainbowism Rudin represents is found in these extracts from his article:

“‘Black’ is not an inclusive term, for most people. Most South Africans still think in terms of the races invented by apartheid.

All these differences manifest in workers. In my view, this is a major reason for the weakness of the South African working class.”

It is more than likely correct to assume that most South Africans think of themselves as fitting within a particular apartheid-era racial category. Again, it is likely true that division along apartheid racial lines accounts for some of the political divisions among the working class.

However, to make these points in aid of an argument against using race in political work and analysis is disingenuous and lazy – particularly when Rudin’s critique is read in the context of resurgent black consciousness (BC)-inspired movements on campuses nationwide.

To make this argument, Rudin conflates the apartheid racial project (and the failure of post-1994 governments to pursue a coherent anti-racist strategy to undo the divisions sown among racially oppressed groups) with the BC project, intended to unite black people against white racism and exploitation. He is thus able to blame “colour-coding” as a whole for division in the working class. In so doing, he also neatly avoids the more urgent and useful discussion of the shortcomings and prospects of the Left, locally and internationally, in formulating a coherent response to neoliberalism. Neither position is sustainable.

He also fails to explain how left rainbow nation politics may come to be politically influential in the South African context. Having diagnosed the current political moment in South Africa as one of “colour-caused confusion”, what type of approach does Rudin prescribe as a productive way forward? If the plan is simply to try and convince the South African working class that their blackness is irrelevant and that identifying as black is counter-revolutionary, we have some doubts as to its prospects for success. After all, even during the great resurgence of labour movements in the early 70s, were African nationalism and black working class consciousness not deeply intertwined?

Rudin cannot seem to grasp the crucial political role of racial and cultural identities in the struggles of those whose fight against capitalist exploitation is simultaneously a fight against white supremacy. Recourse to these identities provides fuel for the subversion of the coloniser’s (and capital’s) thesis of humanity/sub-humanity - hence their failure to fully alienate the colonised from themselves.

In the midst of a surge of BC-inspired youth politics in the country, why are old-school leftists like Rudin unable to appreciate that unity between so-called African black, so-called coloured and so-called Indian workers on the basis of a BC-inspired notion of racially oppressed people may be an important part of the solution to an increasingly politically fractured working class?

Similar questions come to mind when one sees supposedly revolutionary left activists’ and intellectuals’ dismissive attitudes toward radical black feminism, transgender movements and anything else outside the bounds of orthodox class-only applications of Marxist theory. Left politics may not have much of a future in South Africa if leaving one’s various identities at the door is a requirement for valued participation.

Both left economic analysis and intersectionality are important

The new student-worker movements have opened up a moment of possibility that must not be squandered. In just over a year they have revived mass interest and participation in BC, put the final nails in the coffin of the rainbow nation myth, rolled back outsourcing on multiple campuses, forced radical black feminist and trans politics onto the national stage, exposed the political bankruptcy and organising weakness of the ANC’s youth structures, and put serious pressure on the government to make moves toward free higher education.

The extent to which radical demands can be won in the context of a genuine economic crisis remains to be seen. But there can be no doubt that the crystallisation of a strong learner-student-worker alliance on a national basis will constitute a huge step forward for struggles on, but also far beyond, university campuses.

Hard organising, political and intellectual work will be required to synthesise the ideas and traditions of class struggle with those of Black consciousness, black feminism, and other critical traditions. But there’s no reason it can’t be done - intersectionality and left economic analysis can co-exist. These efforts will not hinder the potential impact of the new movements and alliances, but strengthen them considerably.

Kamanzi is a writer and masters student (electrical engineering) at UCT. Robb is a former UCT economic history student currently working as an organiser in Cape Town.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Human Rights Politics

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