I have listened
closely to debates around the statues in our country on various media platforms. In many of
these is very little mention of racism. There is talk of statues being ‘offensive’.
A great deal is said about ‘history and heritage’. There is also reference to notions
such as ‘inclusion’ and ‘social cohesion’.
But if we want just
and sustainable solutions to this issue, we need to discuss racism and call it
by name. From there, we can jointly find the road to a more through-going transformation.
At UCT, even though a full discussion of racism was not held, it was easier to
find a workable resolution because the UCT vice-chancellor openly acknowledged
that racism (both past and current) afflicts the institution. Max Price
realises that listening to the students and dealing with exponents and heroes
of white superiority is the least that UCT can do.
But for wider
society, and the broader issue of these landmarks, it is difficult to get wide
agreement (including larger numbers of white people) because many do not see
that removing the busts of these past champions of white superiority is the
least that society can do. It is therefore imperative to make racism a focal
point of current discussions.
In the rest of
this article, I will discuss racism as well as issues of racist oppression
memory work. Thereafter I return to the debate around the removal of statues in
the context of the need to oppose and root out racism.
It is true that
‘racism’ is sometimes used to refer to discrimination by one person against
another based on colour or ethnic origin.
article, it is used in the sense used by Ashok Ohri, Margaret Legum and Basil
Manning, renowned anti-racist workers in South Africa and Britain. Racism in
this sense is an ideology of group supremacy, is practiced over generations and
enters the culture of both the oppressed and oppressor. It entails denial on a
massive scale of resources, opportunities, dignity.
In our case,
white racism has led to systematic human rights abuses and denial of rights
that will affect us for generations to come. Black people suffered immense loss
– including the loss of lives.
In relation to
racism and memory work, a critical step in transformation is acknowledgment by
perpetrators and those who benefitted. Verne Harris and Chandre Gold, in an
official paper for the Nelson Mandela Foundation state that dealing with
oppressive past requires “people to take responsibility for violations
done in their name”.
They also take
a tough line on perpetrators. In this regard they say that “a blanket amnesty
for the perpetrators of violation can never be justified” and could lead to “resilient
cultures of impunity, lack of accountability, and societal rage.”
debates, some like Steve Hofmeyr and Sunette Bridges, would not like to foreground
racism. Such people want to chain themselves to their heritage – but what are
they saying about racism and allegiance to a system declared a crime against
calling for “negotiations” on the issue of statues. Some, including a spokesperson
for the Freedom Front Plus, have called for keeping all the old statues and
simply adding ones that depict liberation heroes. Can you imagine the scenario:
five old-guard statues and five statues of anti-apartheid activists in every
town, and double that in each city? Can you imagine if such an approach were
used in Germany after the end of Nazism? This is exactly what we get if we try
to sidestep the racism issue.
A few white
people have called on those demanding the removal of the statues concerned to
consider the biographies of the particular “hero”. “How many people did Rhodes
kill,” one caller to a radio station asked this week, demanding that the
offending statue be left alone. This caller fails to realise that the campaign
to dethrone “old guard” statues is actually a drive to end “denial”; to bring
home to South Africans the hypocrisy of claiming to be free of racism and yet
glorifying those who crafted, propagated and entrenched the system of
in the white community believe that removing the offending statues is a sign to
white people that they have no place in South Africa. But the opposite is true.
People like Max Price and other progressive white people know that this is not
about some kind of reversal of white-black racial discrimination. Many of those
who support the idea of bringing down the stone figure of Rhodes would welcome
statues of, for example, Beyers Naude, Helen Suzman and Liberal Party stalwart
Peter Brown. In this regard, as statues go, the dividing line is the distinction
between champions of an evil system and those who fought against it.
fights, white and black people can face the future together. But a basic
requirement is acknowledgement of racism and taking responsibility for what
happened in the past.
The dismissal of Zwelinzima Vavi foreshadows
another huge dip in the decline of COSATU – a federation that has split into
two camps, become a feeble voice in national affairs and recently parted ways
with one of its most powerful industrial unions.
Many ardent progressives, democrats and
supporters of the trade union movement are saddened by the turn of events.
In commentary, one cannot help but repeat certain
points made in the past. At the same time, new perspectives about the consequences
come to the fore.
It is best to see
the COSATU split at this stage through several connected observations – and to let
readers draw a picture of where things might be headed based on their needs and
Firstly, we need to note that the split is
between those who see COSATU as an equal partner in the alliance and those who
want COSATU to be obedient to the ANC on political matters. In terms of the
latter view, Cosatu is free to express its views, but once the father body
takes a decision, the federation must fall into line.
But a sober view would realise that an
alliance between a political party and a trade union federation will always
involve tension and robust debate. There will never be agreement on everything,
especially as (in this case) the ANC is a broad church and federation embraces
On joining the alliance, COSATU managed internal
critics to the marriage by insisting on the right to differ and space for
continual discussion of socialist imperatives. On both sides, skilful and
astute leadership facilitated the building of a strong alliance, tensions
But in recent years, some influential in both
the ANC and COSATU have displayed a desire for all-out ANC control of COSATU.
They have become greedy for control. This group includes those in COSATU who
see trade unions as a stepping stone to positions in the ANC and political
Leaders like ANC general secretary Gwede
Mantashe opposed this total control agenda; he challenged moves by his comrades
to crush troublesome voices in Cosatu and equally opposed threats by
anti-alliance unions to withdraw from COSATU. Mantashe appealed for balance,
but was in the end left on the sidelines by an influential few who were champed
at the bit to bounce NUMSA and Vavi out of the federation.
From Mantashe’s reaction, it is clear that
some union leaders – in a bid to ingratiate themselves with the ruling party – want
to be more ANC than the ANC itself. These role-players would do well to listen
to Mantashe's comments about COSATU, issued last week: “In their rush to hurt each
other, these leaders in Cosatu may find there will be nothing left of it”.
The split in COSATU will weaken the other alliance
partners and the alliance itself. The Communist Party stands to lose massive
ground. The party sees itself as influencing the mass of workers to support the
ANC in elections. In this regard, it sees itself as working politically –
especially near elections – to persuade the worker bodies in society to formally
support the ANC.
A split in COSATU will thus have an adverse
affect on the party’s influence in the ANC. In addition, the Alliance will be
weakened, especially if Vavi throws his weight behind another political party,
or if large numbers of workers change their political allegiances in response
to Vavi’s dismissal.
Emerging political formations – those hoping
to build an additional political voice to the left of the ANC – appear to
be happy about Vavi’s dismissal. Almost all of them have tried to recruit him
to their cause. These formations need Vavi not just to strengthen their popular
appeal, but also to help in strategy formation. Left groups are often afflicted
by narrowness and simplistic understandings of the link between national
liberation and class issues. Vavi would help them build a broad base and
identify campaigns that will have broad societal appeal.
But, for now, none of them know which way
Vavi will go. Sources claim that Vavi will shun the role of alternative
political leader – that he is more likely to lead a move to build a new
federation, one that unites Numsa, the seven pro-Vavi COSATU unions and various
other labour bodies.
Even if Vavi does not join any of their
initiatives, leaders of the new left-leaning forces welcome the developments. They
feel it signals a new phase in their bid to exert a leftward pull on the
political system. As they see it, untold thousands of workers, angered by
Vavi’s dismissal may look for new political homes and may turn to these new role players.
And Cosatu? The days ahead look cheerless
for COSATU. If the federation continues in the mode it has up to now – inward
looking, largely silent on national affairs, struggling to raise subs from
member unions and limited policy impact – its decline will accelerate. In the light of
such challenges, taking a decision to dismiss Vavi is akin to a non-decision –
to fiddling while Rome burns.
For workers, meantime, there is still no
let up to the pressures they face. In the last few years, workers share of
national income has declined and, as Dennis George of Fedusa has pointed out,
this has decreased workers’ spending power and led to greater inequality. As
Stats South Africa reported in 2010, half of all workers earn less than R2500 a
month. At the same time, we have seen the rise of informal and vulnerable
workers – an estimated one third of the workforce are employed as casual
workers. Such workers earn low wages, are denied basic benefits, have no trade
union representation and are deprived of the chance of advancement in their
lives. In this context, the latest shenanigans in Cosatu constitute a further
setback to workers.
No-one knows exactly what will happen – for example mass-level
responses, new alignments and other breakaways – as a result of Vavi’s dismissal
from Cosatu. But we can be sure of this: more flux and change in the
political landscape which in turn will fuel shifts in voting patterns in future