Are Coloured people marginalised?

Residents of Westbury in Johannesburg were in a standoff with police, though their protest was about crime and lack of policing in the area. Photo: Zoe Postman/GroundUp

The author argues that class consciousness is the only way to defeat capitalism.

Since the publication of “Are the Coloured marginalised” in Izwi La Basebenzi 18 months ago, the basic analysis of the article has been confirmed both negatively and positively.

On the one hand, the deepening political crisis in SA has expressed itself in the inflammation of racial and ethnic tensions. A White woman has been jailed for crimen injuria after uttering the “k-word” no less than 47 times as she rejected the intervention of Black police officers performing their duties after she suffered a smash-and-grab attack. The Freedom Front has embarked on an international campaign making the false claim of “White genocide” in their offensive against the policy of expropriation of land without compensation that the ANC government has now adopted under pressure from the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The EFF itself has engaged in vitriolic attacks against Indians declaring the majority of them racist. These inflamed passions have also spilled over into xenophobia which has now entered the mainstream of politics through, among others, the DA and a political party created explicitly on a programme of mass expulsion of foreigners.

The Coloured community has not been exempt. There have been African/Coloured clashes in the Western Cape with reports of an exodus of Coloureds from Blikkiesdorp. A new formation, Gatvol, has shamelessly embarked on an anti-African campaign that amounts to a call, echoing those of the Zulu chauvinists in KwaZulu-Natal, for secession. The notion of a Coloured Western Cape is a yearning for the fleshpots of Egypt – a return to and going beyond the “Coloured labour preference policy” of the apartheid regime. It is supported in this, ironically, by the White Cape Party.

Former Western Cape Cosatu provincial secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, has also weighed in on the debate about Coloured identity. Whilst his approach to the question is completely different to the opposing angle of the racist message of the likes of Gatvol, unfortunately his position is not anchored in the class foundations of Cosatu’s policy of non-racialism. Apart from the fact that his proposal that the term “Coloured” should be abolished in favour of “Camissa” will find very little echo. It completely misses the point that Coloured marginalisation has the same roots as that of the African, Indian and increasingly even White working class – poverty, unemployment, inequality and all the social ills they spawn. Under the democratic dispensation, it is the working class as a whole – in each racial, ethnic or tribal grouping – that is marginalised. The pre-occupation with Coloured identity is the preserve of the middle class and aspirant elite within each racial grouping.

The cry of the “White monopoly capital” brigade arises not so much from the inequality between the capitalist class and the working class but the bitter frustration of the Black, Coloured and Indian aspirant elite that they have not been able ascend the summits of the capitalist economy. Nothing makes this clearer than the call by Chris Malikane, in the name of “radical economic transformation” for an alliance between the Black working class and the Black capitalist class against “White monopoly capital”. It amounts to a call for the Black working class to lead a struggle to be exploited by Black instead of White capital.

The working class of all races can overcome their marginalisation only by recognising that they have much more in common with their class brothers and sisters across racial boundaries into which they were herded by apartheid, than with the aspirant capitalist elite with whom they may share a common racial, ethnic or tribal identity.

More positively the summit convened by the new SA Federation of Trade Unions in July, bringing together under one roof for the first time in the post-apartheid era, 1000 delegates from organised labour, students and 147 community organisations, was historic despite being subjected to a complete media black-out. Its declaration to establish a mass workers party on a socialist programme has the potential to cut across the disastrous centrifugal forces unleashed by post-apartheid capitalism, and unite the working class of all races towards the abolition of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.

Coloured marginalisation?

What is the situation facing the Black majority today? According to Stats SA’s 2017 Poverty Trends Report (covering the period 2011-2015) “the proportions of Black Africans and Coloureds living below the Lower Bound Poverty Line (LBPL) … increased from 43,4% to 47,1% for Black Africans and from 20,2% to 23,3% for Coloureds”. The LBPL for 2015 is R441 per month. Below this level, people have to cut down on food to be able to buy non-food items like electricity. In 2015, out of 100 Black people, 47 lived in extreme poverty compared to 23 Coloureds per 100. In both absolute numbers and per head of population, Blacks make up a significantly greater proportion of the poorest of the poor compared to Coloureds.

If these statistics tell us anything it is that of the working class, it is “Africans in particular” that have felt the sharp edge of marginalisation. What then is fuelling the sense of Coloured marginalisation? The reasons are rooted both in the post-apartheid experience as well as colonial and apartheid history.

Fadiel Adams is a member of the anti-black group, Gatvol Cape Town. Photo by Mzi Velapi

The greatest indictment against the champions of Coloured nationalism is their indifference to the plight of the Black majority today. To challenge social deprivation on the basis that it is Coloureds that are marginalised, not only is it factually incorrect but it is politically reactionary as well. Engaging in this bizarre “Oppression Olympics” blinds the followers of these ideas to the suffering of the majority of all population groups, inflaming racial suspicions and animosity.

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Class divisions clearer post-apartheid

The most striking fact of post-apartheid inequalities is that superimposed upon the continuing disparities between Whites on the one hand and all other population groups on the other, is the massive increase of inequalities within the Black, Coloured and Indian populations themselves. According to a report produced by the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics, by 2010, the Gini Co-efficient (a measure of inequality) had declined within the White population, but it had increased significantly amongst all other groups. The highest level of inequality is now within the Black population with the top 10% owning 98% of the wealth.

Almost half of South Africa’s dollar millionaires  – those with a net value of R14.5-million or more – are from previously disadvantaged groups, according to the latest report by New World Wealth (Fin24 27/04/16). The report found that 45% of SA’s dollar millionaires are Black, Coloured, Indian or Chinese.

The 2015 SA Wealth Report says of SA’s 48,000 millionaires, that “The number of Indian millionaires in SA has increased by over 400 per cent since 2000 to reach approximately 6,500 at the end of 2014, whilst the number of African millionaires in SA has gone up by a lower 280 per cent over the same period to reach only 4,900 millionaires at the end of 2014.”

“This discrepancy is alarming when one considers that the Indian community now makes up 14 per cent of local SA millionaires, but only three per cent of the national population. Africans, on the other hand, make up 80 per cent of the national population, but only 10 per cent of local SA millionaires.”

But most important of all, such a mistaken approach, instead of creating strength through unity among the working class in struggle against their common oppression, erects barriers among them. It also provides an alibi for the elites of all racial groups, diverting attention from what really lies behind the strident accusations of racism emanating from them: competition for state resource and opportunities for self-enrichment. They use the legitimate grievances of the working class of the racial groups with which they identify to pursue their own separate class interests.

Land restitution and affirmative action

Both the setting of 1913 as the cut-off date for land restitution, as well as the ANC’s approach to the Employment Equity Act exposes the narrow, exclusionary, and reactionary character of its nationalism. The 1913 date confirms that the only land dispossession that matters to the ANC is that suffered by Africans of Bantu descent.

ANC KZN leader Sihle Zikalala’s call for the exclusion of Indians and Coloureds from the ambit of BEE confirms this. Anecdotes among Coloureds that they are told they are not “Black Black” when applying for jobs, promotions or tenders are common. The ANC has inverted the pyramid of apartheid oppression into a historical hierarchy of privilege. Accordingly, Coloureds should take their place in the affirmative action queue for jobs and promotions that corresponds with the “privileges” they enjoyed under Apartheid.

The discussion in the ANC that has now been reopened on the dispossession cut-off date has blown open the entire basis for restitution, undermining the original aims of the ANC’s African nationalism as the rallying cry of united resistance of all ethnic groups. Instead, it has cleared the way for claims based not on the dispossession of the African people as a united whole but of the different pre-capitalist tribal groups. On the basis of this approach, if the boundaries of African nationalism can be redrawn to exclude those of non-Bantu ancestry, why can’t they be redrawn to recognise the different Bantu tribes as they were originally constituted? The tribal claims such as those put forward, for example, by King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu “nation” for land restitution from the Queen of England are the logical result.

Against this background the champions of Khoi-San marginalisation are now putting forward their own claims. They cite these developments as proof of the marginalisation of the Khoi-San by the ANC just as the Dutch and British colonial powers did before. They accuse the ANC, not without merit, of writing them out of history, not recognising their culture and languages and not celebrating the Khoi-San leaders for their role and contribution to resistance against dispossession and colonial subjugation.

But the advocates of Khoi-Sanism are engaged in the same revision of history as the ANC’s “African” nationalists. There was historically no Khoi-San “nation”. These were separate peoples with their own language and culture who fought separate wars of resistance against colonialism. When they first encountered colonialists, they were at different levels of cultural development: the Khoi, pastoralists and the San, hunter gatherers  – stages of development separated by hundreds of years. The claims of today’s Khoi-San champions is an affirmation that race is a social construct.

Different class interests

Both the “African” nationalists and their “Khoi-San” counterparts represent the frustrated ambitions of the elites of the communities whose cause they claim to champion. Without the social weight to fight their own class battles in the quest to climb to the summits of the economy, they are attempting to mobilise the poor and the working class in their service.

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Whereas the ANC’s nationalists required the construction of the House of Traditional Leaders out of the same system of tribal rule fashioned by the apartheid regime as instruments of control, the Khoi-San elite has found it necessary to champion the cause of a non-existent nation. As hypocritical as each other, the African and Khoi-San nationalists have distorted history for the same purpose – to deceive and exploit the working class politically to realise their unrealisable aims – to become the new capitalist ruling class.

Khoi-San leaders outside the venue where the land expropriation hearing took place in Cape Town. Photo by Mzi Velapi

It is impossible for the Coloured working class to emancipate themselves from marginalisation on their own. The working class struggle, which is for equality of wealth under socialism, not equality of poverty, can be achieved only on the basis of the unity of the working class and the poor of all population groups. The Coloureds, moreover, are a minority. Unity with the Black working class majority is not an optional extra. To argue that Coloureds can end their own poverty separately from the Black majority is to blind the working class to the source of their marginalisation – capitalism – and to sow illusions in its capacity to meet Coloured and poor, working class needs.

The greedy ambitions for self-enrichment of the elites of the “previously disadvantaged” groups is propelled not by the searing poverty of the working class, but by the desire for assimilation into the wealthy White-dominated ruling elite. Out of fear that mobilising the working class to displace “White monopoly capital” would threaten the very existence of the capitalist system their wealth would derive from, they have resigned themselves to the cowardly ambition of assimilation.

The heightened racial tensions in society are inflamed far less by the working class than by the competition among the Coloured, Indian and Black elites, alongside the White middle and upper classes. Lacking the social muscle to challenge White capitalist domination, and shrinking from any action that could threaten the capitalist system itself, they exploit the frustrations and fears within their “own” communities.

Working class unity – the only way forward

The working class in all population groups has much more in common with their class brothers and sisters across racial barriers, than with their “own” elites. In pointing an accusing finger at the Coloureds, the ANC leadership not only confirms the shallowness of their political analysis of the inter-play between race and class in SA; they are also displaying an arrogant presumption about the allegiance of the Black working and even middle class towards it. The reality is that the capital of the ANC’s liberation credentials has diminished to the point where it enjoys the active electoral support of only 35% of the eligible voting population. The ANC is being deserted by its “own” people.

The combination of all these factors has created an ideological vacuum on the left that has rendered sections of the Coloured, Indian and White working class susceptible to the racist appeal of the nationalists in their communities and for their class discontent to take on a racial colouration. This is not unexpected in a country where racism was from the onset historically intertwined with the development of capitalism, fashioning it as a weapon of divide-and-rule firstly and foremost over the working class. The national oppression of the Black middle class was in that sense but collateral damage necessary to conceal the class essence of colonialism and apartheid. After nearly a quarter of a century of democracy, it is mainly the middle class that remains blinded by race, confusing the substance of today’s manifestation of class exploitation with its racial form.

However, these views are still in the minority. The capitalist economic policies of a government elected by the Black majority, have ensured that the main thrust of working class consciousness remains class consciousness. Working class affinity for socialism, far from evaporating, has been entrenched by the betrayal of the ANC, Cosatu and SACP leadership and their class collaboration in upholding a capitalist system unable to meet even the most basic needs of the working class.

The delay in the establishment of a mass workers party has led to a vacuum into which the competing African and Khoi-San nationalisms have stepped. These ideas offer no way forward for the working class. The launch of the SA Federation of Trade Unions offers a new opportunity to mobilise the forces of the organised working class for the establishment of such a party. On the basis of a socialist programme it would be possible to provide workers of all races a political home, uniting them in all the three theatres of struggle – the workplace, the education sector and communities – in a common, united struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.

Weizmann Hamilton is on the Executive Committee for both the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) and Greater Eldorado Park United Civic.

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