Black, white and coloured

Reason to be proud?

While apartheid is long gone, writes Peter Manson, what do we say about the ‘rainbow nation’ that has replaced it?

As I write, thousands of South Africans are pouring onto the streets of the major cities to welcome home the Springboks rugby union World Cup winners, who are taking part in a bus tour across the country. And, as no doubt many readers will be aware, joining the celebrations are South Africans of all ethnicities.

Following the November 2 victory over England in the World Cup final in Japan, there has been much talk of the ‘rainbow nation’ finally coming together - irrespective of race, tribe, skin colour, etc. After all, this victory showed that the days of whites-only teams are now a thing of the past. Until just a couple of years before the final demise of apartheid in 1994, only white players were chosen to represent South Africa at rugby, as in every other sport. However, last weekend, not only was half the team non-white, but so were the two try-scorers in the 32-12 victory, while the captain, Siya Kolisi, hailed from an impoverished black township. In fact one of those who scored a try was Cheslin Kolbe, who is ‘coloured’ (mixed race) - which meant that coloureds as well as blacks were celebrating this sporting event as a symbol of the ‘new, united future’. The era of apartheid, when blacks and coloureds were confined to particular residential areas and jobs, has ended at last.

In South Africa there are no fewer than 11 official languages - Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and English being the main four - which represent not just the various ethnicities, but the different tribes. While English is now accepted as the main means of common communication and is usually taught as a second language, the fact that there are so many first languages helps us to understand the myriad tribal, as well as racial, divisions.

Following the rugby result, president Cyril Ramaphosa proclaimed: “Saturday was a triumphant day, as it confirmed that we are as a nation, firm in its resolve to find unity in its diversity, as exemplified in our national rugby team.” That was a sentiment echoed by every major party and every bourgeois commentator, while, for its part, the South African Communist Party noted that “many young, particularly black, South Africans have gained confidence in the belief that they as well can achieve their dreams if they work hard, along with others, based on common goals and mutual support.” No bourgeois politician could have expressed it better! The SACP hoped that the victory would “speed up the development” of a common culture “in line with our constitutional vision of a non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa, in which prosperity is not reserved for a few, but is worked hard for and shared by the people as a whole.”1 You can almost hear the ruling class applauding.

However, the SACP-led Congress of South African Trade Unions, while joining in with the celebrations and congratulations, added a word of caution:

While this victory represents a positive message about the country, we will not be drinking champagne from a firehose in celebrations. This victory cannot be used to camouflage the problems of disunity and inequality that still cripple this country ... These celebrations should be rooted and be tempered and moderated by the experience and the knowledge that mechanical and artificial unity does not work and does not last.


So what kind of “disunity and inequality” is Cosatu referring to? The statement explains: “This country has had racism as an acceptable ideology for centuries and it is still racist today; and no sport victory and window-dressing will change that - and that is why it’s incumbent on all of us to change it.”2

While it would be surprising if, considering the country’s history, there were not a large number of individuals who remain racist, in what way can racism be described as “an acceptable ideology” in 2019? This is just nonsense, but there are many in the workers’ movement - as well as in the ruling African National Congress and oppositional groups, such as the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters - who still harp on about it. For the ANC in particular, it is used as an excuse for, and a diversion from, its own dismal failure to substantially improve the lives of the impoverished majority.

In economic terms things have actually got worse for huge numbers of South Africans, compared to the days of apartheid. No fewer than 12 million people, out of a population of 58 million, today live in shacks, and South Africa is now officially the most unequal country in the world. Unemployment stands at 29% (6.7 million people), according to government statistics, but that only includes those who are officially recognised as ‘looking for work’. The actual figure is thought to be more like 10 million, or 38.5% of the possible workforce.

So is all this a sign of racism? While it is true that the overwhelming majority of the impoverished masses are black, the reality is that the huge levels of inequality are based primarily on class, not race. When it comes to the wealthy exploiters, more and more blacks are joining them: Ramaphosa himself - once a trade union leader, but now, thanks to his contacts as a senior figure in the ANC, an unashamed capitalist - is one of the country’s richest men.

Of course, Marxists too must applaud the overcoming of the old racial and tribal divisions in South Africa, but we are totally opposed to the ideology that has now taken the place of apartheid-style racism: ie, blatant nationalism. You may think that the support and adulation extended to a national sports team is harmless enough, but in reality it symbolises something equally divisive, as far as the unity of the working class is concerned.

What we are now seeing is an ever increasing rise in not just nationalistic pride, but outright xenophobia: this is more and more taking the form of violent, if not murderous, attacks on foreign residents - particularly, but not exclusively, shop-owners - in the townships. These people are migrants from elsewhere on the continent, who have been drawn to South Africa because many of the other countries are in an even worse state. At least in South Africa the large number and variety of developed industries offers the possibility of employment, or of selling goods to their workers. Since 2010 the number of immigrants has more than doubled - up from around two million to more than four million today.

A poll conducted in 2018 showed that 62% of South Africans viewed migrants as a “burden on society”, because they “take the jobs and social benefits” that should be going to the native inhabitants: 61% believed that migrants were more responsible for crime than others. During this year’s general election campaign Ramaphosa committed the ANC to cracking down on undocumented foreigners, who he said were often involved in criminal activities. This sparked another wave of xenophobic assaults - in September, 640 Nigerians rushed to take up the free flights back to Lagos offered by a private airline with the support of the Nigerian government, following the increased attacks on foreigners.

In other words, there are two sides to the ‘unity of the rainbow nation’. Yes, it is positive that the old, legally enforced, internal divisions, based on race and tribe, are a thing of the past. But what about the new, ‘unifying’ ideology of (increasingly extreme) nationalism? It says something about the failings of the working class movement - the mass SACP in particular - that the genuinely liberating potential of working class unity across borders is not on offer as a replacement for those old divisions.

  1. www.sacp.org.za/content/sacp-congratulates-south-african-national-rugby-team-springboks-historic-victory-2019-rugby.↩︎

  2. http://mediadon.co.za/2019/11/02/cosatu-statement-on-the-springboks-victory.↩︎