Rendering race irrelevant

September 8, 2009

Featured, Heritage, history, Non Racialism

The Times – 8 September 2009

Yusuf Dadoo’s legacy is our tradition of non-racialism, writes Yunus Momoniat

AT A conference last week, delegates mulled over the legacy of Yusuf Dadoo, a leader of the Transvaal Indian Congress, a communist leader and respected activist. The key theme of the conference was the question of non-racialism and Dadoo’s contribution to the birth of a non-racial tradition in South Africa.

Today we tend to take for granted the non-racialism of the policies of the ANC and other political organisations that struggled against segregation and apartheid, but speakers at the conference set out the history of the concept and pointed to the difficulties of its birth in the late 1950s and 1960s. The ANC did not admit non-Africans into its ranks until its Morogoro Conference in 1969, and until then it effectively practised a policy of multiracialism. In this scenario, whites were tasked with organising other whites, Indians other Indians and coloureds other coloureds in their respective Congress organisations, which fell under the umbrella of the Congress Alliance.

But even today, not everyone in the ANC is convinced that non-racialism is the way forward. African nationalists, especially, question the policy, and noises have been made about the deployment of non-Africans in government positions.

According to professor David Everatt, South Africa’s inability to resolve the question of non- racialism is partly due to the fact that the concept is undefined, and that this was the case even when the liberation movements were struggling with the issue in the 1950s and 1960s.

The debates of the 1950s addressed the difference between multiracialism and non-racialism, the place of class struggle in relation to the struggle for national liberation, and the place of whites in the struggle. Africanists argued that multiracialism was “designed by white communists in the Congress of Democrats to secure a disproportionate influence over the ANC”.

It was the Communist Party, both before and after it was banned in 1950 (after which the CPSA became the SACP), that became one of the first organisations to practise non-racialism: by the 1940s people of all races could belong to the party. White communists who belonged to the Congress of Democrats were uncomfortable with the ANC’s multiracial policy, and they felt that “the struggle for equal rights for all races was obscuring the ‘real’ struggle, which was class based”.

Trotskyites, Africanists and liberals all lamented that white communists, perceived as being over-represented in the Congress Alliance, were able to “lead the organisation by the nose”. Ultra-left critics scorned the Alliance’s focus on national liberation rather than class struggle. Africanists argued that non-Africans had expelled Africans from their true home, the ANC. Attempts in 1958 by the ANC leadership to resolve the disputes failed and led to the birth of the PAC.

Much of the debate is being echoed today, when questions are raised about whether non-Africans can represent the interests of Africans, or whether Africans are able to represent other Africans merely because they belong to the same race — many have argued that Africans in government have failed to use their positions to improve the lives of African people.

Turning to the political scene after 1994, Everatt notes that the predictions of the far-left critics of nationalism seem to have come true, where “[former] ANC leaders defend instant wealth because ‘we did not struggle to remain poor’”. The left critics had warned that “class struggle would be postponed indefinitely by a national bourgeoisie anxious to maximise personal wealth and advancement at the expense of the urban and rural poor”.

Everatt argues that non- racialism is a more or less empty concept, without any proactive moral content, and has “retreated into the realm of the private” rather than being societal and public. He argues that there is no obvious way of being non-racial. The challenge, he says, is to “find the courage to decisively break with the past, to dispense with racial pigeon-holing and create a new discourse free of the defects of the old, racial mind-set”.

He sees nationalism and non-racialism as mutually exclusive, but other delegates at the conference disagreed, and debate was vigorous as well as rigorous. Dadoo was acknowledged as one of the earliest proponents of non-racialism, as someone who worked all his life to render race unimportant.

Blade Nzimande, at the conference in his capacity as general secretary of the SACP, lauded Dadoo, saying he was “an Indian, but he was part of the political majority, a man who fought in the trenches for the liberation of South Africa”.

# The conference was organised by the website South African History Online, as part of a new series on liberation heroes, in conjunction with the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Sociological Research.

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