issue 216 - February 1991
Knowing the enemy
I was so struck by this phrase 'non-racialism' - clumsy and hard to unravel as it is - that I decided to start interviewing people to find out what it really meant to them.
I was a founder member of a group based in Zimbabwe called the Popular History Trust, so we decided to create a big database of all the interviews - a sort of 'people's history'.
I approached organizations and people involved on the ground to talk about the idea. People were very keen to talk about non-racialism and suggest interviews. So they became part of shaping the project.
When interviewing, a neat handle at getting at the concept of non-racialism was to ask: 'Who is the enemy?' People would often say to me: 'We first thought that the enemy was the white man. Then we discovered that in fact it was a system. Even high-school kids would say: 'We have seen the rest of Africa. We know that the solution isn't just putting blacks in where whites were before. We want to restructure our society.'
People in the rural areas would say things like: 'The Siskei or the Transkei is run by blacks. We call them puppets but they are black.' Or they would say: 'Maybe the order to arrest me came from a white but the person who abused me in detention was black.'
I often asked: 'How can you support non-racialism when you have been victims of a system like apartheid?' The replies would be: 'But I've been victimized by blacks', or 'But there were whites who worked with us'.
I will never forget a black guy in Natal who said that he had never conceived that Indians could work hand in hand with Africans. He'd heard about whites: that was part of African National Congress (ANC) history. But the thing that really convinced him was when he found a comrade who would put himself on the line for him and that person happened to be Indian. So non-racialism isn't just black and white. It's people from all backgrounds finding there are ways that they can work together in resistance politics towards a common goal which has to do with restructuring a society no longer based on race.
The roots of non-racialism were partly in the trade-union movement of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and the Communist Party. But you can also trace it back to the fact that early African society wasn't race-based and that when the settlers came they didn't arrive armed with racism. A lot of different frontier relations were forged. Of course there was exploitation - but it wasn't based on race.
The race-based society came about with the discovery of minerals and the introduction of the compound and migrant labour systems. These were the beginnings of what in 1948 was called 'apartheid'. You had a new mode of production that linked race to class. But non-racialism, I would say, had been there from the beginning.
There were some influences from abroad, of course. The black consciousness movement in the US. for example. If you asked people in Southern Africa 'Who influenced you?' they would say Malcolm X or Eldridge Cleaver or George Jackson. There was a great tradition of literature being passed around. But it didn't empower ultimately. It was rhetoric; it was hairstyles. It was a good thing but, as people said, 'consciousness-raising isn't going to take power'. Black consciousness helped inject power and pride into the movement. But the politics happened after that when people started looking to the ANC and joining up.
What was happening in other African countries was important too. The best example of a truly non-racial African country was Mozambique. Samora Machel said 'We know who our enemy is and it's not the Portuguese. It's the system.' People in South Africa were impressed by that sophisticated politics.
I've thought a lot about whether non-racialism could succeed in, say, the US. When I go back there for visits, the racism hits me so strongly. People say: 'You've just come from South Africa, how can you say that!' Actually an ANC friend was over in Washington for the Mandela visit and she said: 'Gosh, if these black Americans knew that some of my politics comes from Albie Sachs and he is white they would probably chuck me out'. She was astounded that again and again black Americans would say: 'We can't be working with the whites' and she would say: 'That's my history, that's my future, I'm different'. I think the difference can be explained with one basic point: the blacks are in a majority in Africa while in the US they are in such a minority. That whole sub-culture in the US is understandable given that your chances of unemployment are increased and your chances of simply staying alive reduced if you are black.
At the end of the day there is a confidence in South Africa that the trend really is irreversible; that there will be a settlement. There has been a long struggle but blacks are in a majority - and they are not threatened by the idea of whites being involved.
Julie Frederikse's book The Unbreakable Thread has just been published by Zed Books (UK) and Indiana University Press (US)