Enduring Racism in Small Town South Africa
The road from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown winds past one luxury game farm after another. John Graham, a British soldier, drove the Xhosa people off this land, the Zuurveld, between 1811 and 1812. His soldiers burnt their homes, destroyed their crops and killed any man that resisted.
It was John Cradock, the governor of the Cape Colony, who had given Graham his orders. Cradock had some experience in these matters. He had crushed anti-colonial rebellions in Ireland and India before being posted to Cape Town. In 1812 he reported to the British cabinet that the inhabitants of the Zuurveld had been forced across the Fish River with ‘a proper degree of terror’. Just over two hundred years later, and twenty years after the end of apartheid, neither the degree of inequality in Grahamstown, nor the manner in which it is racialised, can be denied.
Racism is rooted in the deep structure of our society. It is also rooted in the ways in which our own country is connected to social and economic forces with a planetary reach. It is deeply etched into everything from the distribution of land, to how our press understands the idea of the ‘international community’ or what counts as academic sophistication in our universities. It is not undone by the simple act of people treating each other with respect. It will not be undone until political and economic power are no longer racialised.
But none of this means that the way in which the flow of day to day bourgeois life in a town like Grahamstown is constantly poisoned by racism is trivial. The assault from everyday racism is relentless. Last week a young white woman working at a sushi restaurant casually and publicly observed to a customer that her electric fly swatter was useful for street children as well as flies. The week before that a student, a young white woman, mentioned to her white doctor that she was moving to Durban. He immediately assured her that he would find her a white doctor in Durban so that she didn’t end up in what his sick mind imagines to be the inherently lecherous hands of an Indian doctor.
Before that an estate agent, bringing a potential buyer to see a rented flat, asked the black woman who answered the door if she could speak to her boss. It didn’t occur to the estate agent that the white man she could see inside the flat was the women’s husband. Buying a second-hand desk at a local shop to furnish the same flat meant that an old white man arrived with two younger black men who he openly racially abused as they struggled to carry the desk up the stairs. In Grahamstown even an act as ordinary as buying a loaf of bread can require an encounter with the sort of moronic view of the world that reads Zuma’s flaws in racial rather than personal and political terms.
The town’s university, Rhodes, has a principled and progressive black leadership but this has not inoculated the institution against everyday racism. A young black woman in her thirties, in the first days of a new job, went to the library for the first time. The librarian flatly refused to believe that she was a staff member, suggesting that she was lying. White colleagues, imagining themselves to be enlightened feminists, often assumed that her father was a domineering man and that the university was a site of new freedom for her. In fact her father, born into poverty, worked very hard to be able to send his daughter to university and, when she got her first degree, advised her against marriage on the grounds that it oppresses women.
Some of her colleagues assumed that she, from a family with two professors on her mother’s side, was new to the university environment and offered their support in the manner that one would speak to a child about adult matters. While taking her scheduled break during the invigilation of an exam a white woman rushed over and berated her in the overbearing and contemptuous manner that white people adopt when they assume the right to police the behaviour of black people. The constant experience of racism has led to her having panic attacks every time she has to return to Grahamstown after the holidays. After the long years of unpaid commitment required to make an academic life she has started looking for jobs, any job that can get her out of a space in which day to day life requires either constant rage or constant mutilation of the self.
Off the record it is not unusual for academics and administrative staff at the university to say the most vile things dressed up in what they imagine to be a weary cosmopolitanism. There was, for instance, the white woman who began a conversation with a white colleague recently arrived from Durban by saying that he must have been so happy to get out of Durban. Stunned that anyone could imagine that life in a provincial backwater like Grahamstown was preferable to Durban he asked her why she held this view. ‘It must have been such a relief to get away from the Indians’ she replied. When he protested she tried to back down and, as what she imagined to be compensation, offered the view that ‘Indians have such a colourful culture’.
Then there was the white man, who thinks he’s a Marxist, who, in a private conversation after a seminar, ascribed corruption in the ANC to Indian people simultaneously reinforcing two colonial stereotypes – one about the cunning Indian, the other about the child like African.
Racism is also written into the public discourse at the university although of course here it is always implicit. It is not unusual for academics to have no sense at all of being intellectuals in Africa or the global South and for Africans to only appear in their research and teaching as a problem, a problem to be investigated with intellectual resources drawn from the white North.
Sometimes it is the people that identify as activists who say or do the most outrageous things on the assumption that identifying as an activist gives them a pass on having to take racism seriously. Human Rights, the Constitution, feminism and socialism are all misused to reinscribe white power and to place it in a relationship to Africa and Africans that is framed in terms of an enlightening pedagogy rather than enduring domination.
Yet despite the ubiquity of everyday racism the biggest controversy on campus in recent years has centred around a grotesque and consistently dishonest attempt to misuse the struggles for the full equality of women and gay people to legitimate the colonial occupation of Palestine. In some cases it is clear that the desire to ally with a central thrust in the ideology of contemporary American imperialism, an often murderous project that continues where Graham and Craddock left off, is rooted in a commitment to asserting the authority and legitimacy of the white West over the rest of the world. Israel, like Zimbabwe, becomes a proxy for debates about South Africa that cannot be openly prosecuted here.
Almost 20 years after apartheid it is clear that neither the Constitution nor lofty political rhetoric are going to excise racism from our society. Racism is being reproduced through the white family where it often has an explicit formulation. It is also being reproduced through some institutions, including those funded by the state, where, although it cannot openly speak its name, it still finds a convivial home. We can’t carry on like this. Racism is going to have to be confronted a lot more directly than it has over the last 20 years.
Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.