Dawn of environmentalism – eco-activism during apartheid

DURING the struggle I was active on campus. Following the campus unrest at UCT, similar in many respects to the current youth revolt against the system, I enrolled in a course in environmental geoscience whilst also studying politics. It became clear the way forward was to ‘politicise ecology and ecologise politics’, in fact this was the slogan of a small reading circle and green group back then, by the innocuous sounding name of Cape Town Ecology Group (CTEG).

CTEG went on to co-host the very first National Conference on Environment and Development, held at UWC in 1991, in conjunction with Ebrahim Rasool’s World Council on Religion and Peace.

Following the tumultuous year of 1988, and the terrible month of August in which the End Conscription Campaign, along with its campaigns against the war on the border, and alternative community service in the township, was banned, there arose, another green group by the name of Earthlife Africa. Initially a club from Wits had met the very same month in Yeoville, following the debacle, with the key person being Peter Lukey. At the invitation of fellow CTEG member Alfrieda Strauss, I attended a hastily convened meeting of several lefties and war resisters in a commune in Observatory, where Peter was in attendance. He had come down to Cape Town hoping to launch the movement nationally, and though aware of the activities of CTEG, wanted to take the whole movement to a different level.

It was thus that I found myself travelling in my volksie to Dal Josaphat to attend the inaugural congress of ELA the very next year, and the birth of an environmental justice movement, drawn from conservation groups, botanical societies and the ragtag remnants of the ECC, and whose members were predominantly white bearded males, all well-educated, middle class and armed with degrees, mostly from the natural and social sciences. ELA provided an outlet for banned individuals, and a cover for NUSAS affiliates and persons struggling under the whip of the security branch.

I had just launched the first edition of Kagenna Magazine, which was to become an eco-anarchist zine and was still then a bit of a campus rag, and had embarked on a furious letter writing campaign around the globe, calling for an end to apartheid, imploring publishers for assistance in my publishing project and networking on a variety of pressing issues. The artsy cover of our first issue designed by Nat Tardrew would inspire the ELA logo, I still remember the brief: We want to create the ‘Coca Cola of Environmentalism’, something which will catch the public eye and thrive! Needless to say we ended up with a sixties inspired brand which as I write this, has gone through at least one revision.

During a break in one of the Dal Jasophat sessions, we set about drafting the constitution of the Earthlife movement and formerly adopting the name.

Henk Coetzee and myself sat outdoors under the trees with a rather bemused Peter, pondering where to begin the epic. I opened a copy of the magazine I was plugging, and showed them both a page outlining the principles of the German Green Party. We used the document as a template, and arrived at a few key phrases. One, included the unleashing of human potential, which I thought would prevent the movement from turning into a mere political talkshop or pressure group. I am still proud of my small contribution, but saddened that despite the auspicious origins of the ELA constitution, the movement seems to have become exactly what I had predicted and feared.

It was then simply a bright, abundantly virtuous post-ECC green moment. The first time that the academic theories being discussed at CTEG, on campus and in other circles were actually being implemented. Lukey and I had initially wanted to start a branch of Greenpeace, and having written to both groups, one in the UK and another in Europe, we had both received word back: Don’t join us, start your own movement.

Although I had thus issued forth in the collective birth of Lukey’s child, and a grouping which would soon spread like wild fungi and fynbos, I retreated back home, to my commune squat in the relatively luxury of Tamboerskloof, to continue writing for South Press and Grassroots, and Kagenna.

The Cape Town Ecology Group, not to be outdone, proceeded with its political agenda. I guess having Karen Rolfes, author Michael Cope and Julia Martin as a conduit for funding meant that CTEG took the initiative in what would soon become a launchpad for the later series of environmental conferences based on justice.

Kagenna on the other hand, was the recipient of bootleg copies of tapes and books, and assorted literature which made their way into the country, despite the special branch, via Sheila Fugard and Samten de Wet. We feasted on Whole Earth Review, Buddhist magazines, Pagan faire, and the occasional New York Times. The postbox overflowing as Jay Scott delivered and played postman. He would also help me to write a letter from London excusing my inability to attend the draft and my seat on the troop train which had already been booked by the apartheid military command.

Kagenna itself was a pastiche, a bricolage of photocopied, appropriated, copyleft samizdat. The first issues were produced at all night publication parties, followed by underground music and theatre art events, exhibitions, live performances where crowds of hippies, students, anarchists, freaks, politicos, rebels, queers, lefties from across the colour line, mixed despite the Group Areas Act and security legislation.

So alongside an eclectic line up of black township jazz and white rock, there would be an environmentally themed art exhibition, people dressing up, raging against the system in the best possible way and thus ‘politicise ecology and ecologise politics’ became “socialise ecology and ecologise society”. The aim here was to mix and blend the youth culture, provoke the political culture and emerging environmental justice movement in order to create sustainability of a broader and wider environmental narrative.

During this frenetic period I found myself writing essays and articles for what turned into a series of environmental supplements for South Press. Not to be outdone by the surge in output, the Weekly Mail, whose Eddie Koch was also writing on environmental justice and Bev Geach issued forth its Green Pages, and despite John Yeld’s often meek contributions to the Argus, a veritable catalogue of eco-organisations, across the spectrum found themselves under the spotlight,as South Africa experienced a green uprising of sorts.

Every conservation group was turned inside out. The wildlife society became the wildlife and environment society. Environment was no longer simply about saving trees, but included humans. My critique of irritating white conservationists and the save the rhinos and penguins brigade, and thus also by implication, Earthlife Africa, was having mixed results. On the one hand, it brought a new political frisson into play, the earlier phases of environmentalism,  in other words conservationism,  acted as bedrock for new offshoots under the rubric of the Greens. At the same time, the resulting politics, provided cover for radical political activism.

It certainly made the anti-apartheid movement seem less threatening and more agreeable, as common ground was found from left to right. The farmers and boers, could now talk to the comrades about agrarian reform, without having an anti-Marxist cadenza. The commies could pave the way to ecosocialism, not with bulldozers and barricades, but by saving water, growing organic food and recycling campaigns.

A recurring theme of all of my writing from this period, was the introduction of the concept of ‘ecological sustainable development’, which followed from the Brundtland Commission. I had ordered a book called ‘Our Common Future’ from a catalogue put out by David Philip Publishers. I proceeded to publish a review. This was soon followed by essays and articles and an entire supplement geared towards the concept. Calling the late Barney Desai of the PAC for comment I received word that policy would soon be forthcoming, likewise Trevor Manual of the ANC issued forth as South carried the general theme alongside the release of political prisoners and unbanning of organisations.

Later I would become critical of the manner in which all of this environmentalism equated with business as usual and a reiteration of race and class privilege. Yet, looking back at this period, it is without any doubt a broad campaign for environmental justice which clearly resulted in the inclusion of Earth rights in our Constitution. A document which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

Authority fiddles while Law libraries burn

THE AGE of Enlightenment eroded the power of kings, birthed modern democracy and produced a political model known as the social contract. Typically the theory in moral and political philosophy addresses ‘questions of the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual’.

Social contract arguments  ‘posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.’

It is during times of unrest and social turmoil that the issue of the social contract is most visible, and especially on the question of the relationship between natural and legal rights.

The burning of two law libraries, at Howard College and UKZN coming after similar incidents on campuses at Wits and elsewhere, has shone the light on the legitimacy of such institutions. It is no coincidence that while students are demanding #FeesMustFall, there are several post-Marikana challenges, each one stemming from the narrative of state capture and closure of the democratic ideals of freedom and civil liberties.

As I write this, I find myself in the invidious position of being embroiled for the past 18 months, and a decade long respectively, in post-TRC litigation against the Minister of Justice and a well-known apartheid media company. Despite statutes guaranteeing access to legal representation at state expense in appropriate cases, I am still battling to gain the right to an attorney. The reason for this is because our Minister Michael Masutha in his sageness, has failed to promulgate the regulations referred to in several acts.

It is not for lack of rights that we have ended up with a breakdown of the democratic narrative. It is because of the stark failure of authority to uphold the very ideals which gave birth to our democracy.

Openness, transparency, fairness and accountability. It was only a short while ago, at least in geological time, that the ruling party was hailing emancipation and the birth of the nation’s democratic institutions. Now in the very same year of the twentieth anniversary of the signing into law of our constitution and Bill of Rights, (founder Nelson Mandela put his pen to the final paper on 18 December 1996) there is very little to be said about this formation document, except to plead that it is ring-fenced by legal professionals, in an arrangement which is clearly out of the reach of ordinary citizens, a noble document pended as if merely an elegant afterthought, bolted haphazardly onto the colonial legacy and legal canon, inherited from the past regime.

Thus whilst commentators such as Franny Rabkin of Business Day were bemoaning the loss of our sacred law libraries and battling to understand the motivations behind the several acts of campus arson, I found myself unable to condemn these essentially cowardly acts.

If the legal profession could not find the wherewithal to defend the TRC Final Report, nor to protect Constitutional values such as secularism, then it was surely asking a lot for the public to defend the law libraries of the self-same legal profession — one that was painfully ignoring all the evidence and trashing the findings presented by the commission into gross violations under apartheid — presumably in order to maintain race and class privilege?

“Since the incident,” Rabkin says, “I have read both justifications and condemnations. I accept that the burning of the library was, in a way, a rational step. In the weeks of struggle leading up to the incident, the demands of the students were all but ignored by the public.”

“And this was not just about fees. What seemed to have triggered the burning was a report that a student had been raped by a policeman — the very people the Constitution entrusts to protect us. It certainly warranted our immediate and urgent attention. But, we mostly did not pay attention, until the library was burned.”

Scholasticism is “the system of theology and philosophy taught in medieval European universities, based on Aristotelian logic and the writings of the early Christian Fathers and emphasizing tradition and dogma”. It resulted in  a ‘narrow-minded insistence on traditional doctrine’.

The very same logical fault is at the heart of our legal system. Take the cab rule, in which junior attorneys are expected to defer to their more esteemed senior colleagues in the advocates profession, (a modern version of  droit du seigneur, right of the lord)and ask yourself, is it fair to expect a layperson to defend the TRC Final Report without formal legal assistance?

Until South Africa truly has a legal system that admits the human rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and upholds this foundation document as the alpha and omega, there will be those who reject the “Western values” of the imported Roman Dutch system and who wish to burn law libraries. Until a greater role is given to lay assessors —  giving affect to citizen’s rights as jurors, and especially findings on questions of fact — for instance the problem of apartheid denial, did apartheid really happen? — one cannot help but sympathise with the arsonists and insurrectionists.

Such persons assuredly follow in the footsteps of the student revolt of the 1980s, and 1970s — the tumultuous struggle of which activists such as myself and many others, were very much a part.

Providing South Africans with an option of a jury trial in TRC-related cases, or where appropriate in capital crimes and defamation cases,  is one way of assuaging the central charge leveled against the current legal system, that it is out of touch and elitist. Now is the time for urgent reform and progress on the democratic project, and this means greater inclusion of citizens in the law.

It is not the time for defending the traditions inherited from apartheid.

Reforms for South Africa’s future

RECENTLY the Wall Street Journal ran a series of articles, celebrating the country’s 250th birthday and dedicated to shaping the future . What would the America of 2026 be and how would the nation arrive there? Suggestions ranged from infrastructure investment, gender equality, taking charge of climate change, respect for nature, the rise of the millennials, rekindling the revolutionary spirit of 1776, deregulating the Internet, breaking government gridlock, and more competition.

We think South Africa could do a lot better than simply following America’s example. As our country reaches the 20th anniversary of the signing into law of our Bill of Rights in December by founder, Nelson Mandela, we invite readers to submit their proposals for a better future to Medialternatives. What will the next 20 years be like, what will it take to get there?

Below are a few suggestions with regard to reform.

Justice Reform

Providing greater access to justice for ordinary citizens by capping legal expenses. Creating a more inclusive justice system by placing the Constitution as well as citizens interests as paramount — extending the role and practice of lay assessors –providing the option of a jury in capital crimes and defamation cases. Greater accommodation of the public interest through broader media access and reporting. Greater independence by ending the abuse by law firms of proxy judges i.e the acting judgeship system, and giving greater independence to civil institutions such as the public protector.

Economic Reform

Putting a stop once and for all to the legacy of apartheid economics, monopolies and spatial development. This would entail chopping SOE behemoths into smaller, manageable units able to compete with each other. Creating an energy commons that allows for independent energy producers as well as smart grids. Ending Telkom’s home cable monopoly –allowing landline operators to compete, especially in the broadband sector. Allowing innovative commuter services and competition in rail transport. Selling ailing SAA and ending the annual bail-outs of the apartheid era airline.

Political Reform

Correcting the mistakes introduced by our proportional representation system, by making MPS more accountable to their constituency. This may entail a combined ward and roll system whereby MPs without sufficient local ballots are prevented from succeeding purely by the roll system. Tightening the rules around campaign funding, making MPs more accountable when it comes to disclosure of assets and implementing rules on state capture. It should be impossible for large corporates to exercise undue influence over the nation’s political representatives.

Education Reform

A nation which focuses on improving itself through free education, lifelong learning, youth empowerment, access to learning materials, language labs, computers and other tools, correspondence courses, video materials and study aids — all  forming part of guaranteed access to education . Broadening education to include life skills, home economics and equivalent assistance for all households and citizens. Introducing civics classes to provide a sense of national belonging for all citizens, whilst promoting understanding, continuity and access to civil structures and institutions.

Social Reform

Placing distributionism at the centre of our social welfare system. The country should be run like a benevolent corporation responsible to its shareholders. The president is merely the chairman or cheerleader. Profits should be disbursed to all citizens on an annual or biannual basis. This could form part of an unconditional basic income (UBI) paid to each and every adult irrespective of race, class, colour or creed.  Supported by a market economy that coexists alongside social welfare.

Health Reform

Improving public health provision. Raising the number of doctors per person to first-world levels. Providing benefits or incentives for citizens to access private healthcare, in a duel system. Taking a preventative and complementary medicine approach to solving some of South Africa’s health problems. Promoting sports, nutrition and access to recreational  facilities. Providing open air gyms, holistic care that includes therapy such as yoga, martial arts and art.

Environmental Reform

Retrieving our earth rights, those groundbreaking environmental rights guaranteed in our constitution but diminished under successive ANC administrations. Returning the values of NEMA and other environmental legislation.Treating nature as infrastructure for future generations. Creating green urban zones, parks, nature facilities.  Placing ecology at the heart of ecological sustainable development. Lowering climate footprint. Reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle, repair.  Providing bicycle share schemes, boosting EVs and lowering impact of industry on nature.



End of the road for Zuma’s ANC?

THE LOSS of the Johannesburg, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay metros, means all major South African centres with the exception of Durban, Bloemfontein and Kimberley are now controlled by the opposition Democratic Alliance. It is a major upset for the ANC, a political movement which has ruled South Africa for the past two decades. Having once stood on the shoulders of giants such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, the party is squandering its struggle legacy under Jacob Zuma.

It is no secret that the country’s proportional political system has delivered a stinging defeat for Zuma. Metro government, alongside provincial government, compete with national government and thus allow a semblance of regional autonomy. The situation is akin to a trilateral democratic order —  or having a Republican Senate and a Democratic House of Representatives, and also a conflicted executive President —  except here we see the metro system paving the way for future DA control of the provinces, and an overdue national renewal, come the national elections.

South Africa’s National Assembly and National Council of Provinces, although both ANC strongholds, could very well succumb to the strange situation today, in which the blue machine of the DA, has an erstwhile voting partner in the red EFF at municipal level. The DA has entered a number of coalitions with smaller parties such as COPE, IFP and UDM.

Increasingly under siege, from the party’s own ranks, and traditional partners such as the SACP, the beleaguered Zuma administration has chosen to deflect criticism following the election, with another Nenegate, followed by more trade deals. Thus in the awkward Janus masked double-step of JZ, the administration is selling trade to appease the middle class, whilst paradoxically attacking the party’s own finance minister, apparently to show the masses that Number 1 has a grip over the democratic ‘revolution’.

One could not make up this kind of formulaic Marxist illogic, even if one were a beret wearing, champagne drinking activist in birkenstocks . The result is an ideological vacuum which is also reflected in the liberal opposition’s dependence on the far-left, and surely the demise of the very modus operandi which created the ANC?

That the latest moves against finance minister Pravin Gordhan emanate from within the ANC top brass is clear. Although Zuma has repeatedly stated that he is powerless in the face of the Hawks investigation, it is the ANC which needs to account for the manner in which the investigative entity, once known as the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO) or Scorpions, was turned from an independent investigative unit into a mere political lapdog.

The DSO  was once a unit of the National Prosecuting Authority of South Africa, a multidisciplinary agency that investigated and prosecuted organised crime and corruption. In order to protect Zuma from the Shaik investigation, and various related scandals, it was the ANC which decided to merge the Scorpions with the SA Police Service. The Khampepe Commission, thus drastically reduced its power, and effectively placed the unit under the national executive, Quo Vadis Zuma?

Although many ANC veterans are extremely vocal over the antics of the President, who is embroiled in a number of serious controversies, including allegations of graft and sexual impropriety which refuse to go away, none appear to see the irony.  Even with Sipho Pityana launching a stinging attack on the President, at the funeral of Eastern Cape ANC stalwart Makhenkesi Stofile, one can only wonder how it is possible that the president who is increasingly seen as a liability, is still in charge. This despite efforts at damage limitation, which have sent Zuma on a host of trade missions, the latest being his attendance at TICAD, followed by a trip to China.

Nepad in Nairobi 2016 gives hope for African Renaissance 2.0

NEPAD together with Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) are hosting a continental get-together. With the backing of Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, and heads of the AU via the continents very own NEPAD agency, the African Union is finally  producing a “brilliant blue-print for African development in conjunction with Japan.

Since I am barely, what one could even consider a Japanophile, and thus only speak a smattering of Nihonji, and read absolutely no Kanji, lest I end up rewriting history, I  will instead post an official message below from Abe, addressing our “African Dream” ,  TICAD IV, (and thus NEPAD, and AU) to be held in Nairobi, later this month.

THE TICAD VI in Nairobi will have historical significance, as it will be the first-ever TICAD to be held on the African soil. TICAD, the most traditional forum with African countries, was launched after the end of the Cold War under the initiative of the government of Japan to promote development in Africa.

TICAD is a process in which Africa draws up a brilliant blueprint for its own development. The African Continent is the biggest frontier of the 21st Century. Having the highest economic growth rate among the major regions of the world, it needs the vitality of the private sector first and foremost to develop even further. Under the principle of “From Aid to Trade and from Debt to Investment,” the Japanese private and public sectors will support the development of Africa, led by Africans themselves.

Currently the “African Dream” is being crystallized in the form of Agenda 2063″. To realise this dream, Japan will contribute to two of the key pillars of the Agenda in particular, which will be addressed in depth at TICAD V1.

First, development of quality infrastructure is imperative. Infrastructure is essential for growth and therefore, it is necessary to have high quality and longevity of infrastructure. Japan will provide the African continent with quality infrastructure according to the needs of each country.

At the same time, Japan will work on establishing healthcare systems to protect people’s lives. Japan played a central role in incorporating the realisation of universal health coverage (UHC) into the SDGs, which was one of the main agenda items at the G7 Ise-Shima Summit in July this year. Japan will promote the realisation of UHC in Africa as well.

TICAD is an opportunity for Africa to present its own “African Dream” and work hand-in-hand with Japan to realise it. I sincerely look forward to meeting you in Nairobi on August 27 and 28 to discuss what Africa aims to become in 20 to 30 years from now.

Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan

Blasphemy making a comeback?

SOUTH AFRICA like most Western countries has a shameful history of blasphemy legislation associated with Judeo-Christian strictures on ‘invoking the lord’s name in vain’, prohibitions on satirising of the crucifixion and the retelling of biblical stories in any manner not condoned by the Church. Blasphemy laws came to an end when the country adopted a secular, “We the People”, constitution.

For at least two decades following the signing into law of the constitution by Nelson Mandela on 10 December 1996, South African institutions (bar one or two exceptions) have been reluctant to push anything resembling a theological point of view, and there are a number of key legal precedents in this regard.

The emergence of a powerful (and often violent), religious lobby group on the nation’s campuses has however, seen secularists and those accused of blasphemy on the backfoot. In a statement released to the press, over the weekend, the University of Cape Town’s Vice Chancellor, Max Price revoked an invitation issued by the Academic Freedom Committee to Flemming Rose last year. Rose apparently had been set to deliver the annual TB Davie lecture on Academic Freedom.

Rose is the cultural editor of the Danish magazine, Jyllands Posten. In 2005, he solicited and published a series of cartoons apparently “depicting the Prophet Mohammed”. The publication of the cartoons “generated extensive debate and controversy globally, regarding freedom of speech, blasphemy, and Islamophobia”, and was “also accompanied by public protests, riots and even loss of life. Most print media around the world refused to re-publish them.”

It is not the purpose of this piece to examine the Rose controversy, other than to state the case below, against blasphemy.

Previously under apartheid, a despotic regime banned sex across the colour line, placed stars on women’s nipples and forced anti-apartheid activists into hiding, theocrats were in power and religion was used to justify a war on the border. Clerics, theologians and especially the dominees of the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK), preached what was then known as the ‘heresy of apartheid’ involving racism of a special type, the battle of blood river and the ideology of separate but equal.

Thus in 1988 the Botha government, at the behest of the NGK, banned ‘The last temptation of Christ‘, a film directed by Martin Scorsese. The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The film depicts Jesus as a mere mortal as opposed to the divine rendition of him found in the Bible.

It is worth mentioning a similar incident in the United Kingdom, namely Whitehouse v Lemon, involving a poem by James Kirkup published by Gay News,  entitled: The Love that Dare’s to Speak its Name and for which the publishers received jail sentences.”The indictment described the offending publication as “a blasphemous libel concerning the Christian religion, namely an obscene poem and illustration vilifying Christ in his life and in his crucifixion”.

In 1989 the South African censorship authorities banned Kalahari Surfer’s album Bigger Than Jesus, due to concerns about the title and a song “Gutted With The Glory”‘s use of the Lord’s Prayer, which they deemed “abhorrent and hurtful”.

Later after the collapse of apartheid,  and under a democratic government, the music was unbanned and Scorsese film, along with all its homo-erotic and profane overtones, was permitted to be broadcast in 2008.

Likewise, in 1988 Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses was banned by an apartheid government, but later in 2002 under the government of Thabo Mbeki, the novel was unbanned. The Broadcast Complaints Commission of South Africa had earlier heard a complaint (in the same year) against MNET after the screening of the film Reservoir Dogs. “The Complainant, who is the moderator of the South Hills Evangelical Church, lodged a complaint with [the Commission]. The complaint was, in the main, directed at the taking in vain of the Lord’s Name by the characters in this film in the form of “Jesus Christ” and other forms.”

The complaint was not upheld.

Which leads us to the present moment in which SABC censors are once again censoring news stories in a manner reminiscent of the apartheid state, and where ICASA has issued a firm directive against SABC policy. Can one expect to see similar directives issued perhaps by the Minister of Education, countermanding the latest actions by the Vice-Chancellor of UCT? It all depends upon whose definition of secularism one uses, whether the previous claims by the apartheid regime hold any stock, and whether or not our current democratic government is serious about the rights vested in our Constitution.

SEE: How Free is UCT?

No, UCT was wrong by Jeff Rudin

​Racialising society is not the antidote to racism

IN A FANCIFUL piece on the supposed ‘new science of race’ published by Business Day, political commentator David Mathews resorts to long discredited theories of scientific racism, in particular social darwinism, in order to rail against non-racialists, who he says are nothing more than delusional pundits of political correctness.

“The politically correct mantra that race is nothing more than a social construct, and that “there is only one race, the human race” says Mathews “is not only not true, but is deliberately misleading. And not only misleading, but also inimical to any understanding of, or solution to, the major social problem of racism.” Admittedly, Mathews’ scurrilous fudge piece ends by redefining racism, but in order to unpack a pet theory, Mathews must first resort to a strange racist solipsism, a semantic self-induced coma, if you will.

Hurtling off to the dark-side of Darwinism and the survival of the fittest, Mathews says: “There is, as we know, only one human species, but contrary to the politically correct obfuscation above, there are indeed also many human races, when “race” is understood to be what the Oxford dictionary defines as, and Charles Darwin understood to be, “one of the major divisions of mankind having distinct and readily visible physical characteristics, with each group adhering to its own culture, history, language, etcetera”.

That a person such as Mathews so readily resorts to the company of Oxford dons, those like RW Johnson, whose self-referential piece equating ‘black persons and baboons‘ in the London Review of Books, and a controversy predating the Penny Sparrow incident, is really indicative of the general problem with the Oxford dictionary project as a whole, and especially its hegemony over language and meaning. The dictionary itself, is less a provider of hard science than a grab-bag of popular linguistics, off-the-cuff definitions, and semantic quibbles, that have resulted in the inclusion of words such as “conniption” (a fit of rage or hysterics) and “fankle” (to tangle or entangle something).

That Mathews is equally guilty of farnarkling the issues at stake here, can be seen in a popular Newsweek article: “There is no such thing as race” by one Robert Sussman. “The notion of race may be real, but the science is not,” says Sussman, “We are all the same, with no exceptions.”

According to Sussman, who unlike Mathews is not a self-published Amazon author (I admit, to also being one), but rather, the author of a reputable imprint published by Harvard Press, ‘The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea‘, “What many people do not realize is that … racial structure is not based on reality. Anthropologists have shown for many years now that there is no biological reality to human race. There are no major complex behaviors that directly correlate with what might be considered human “racial” characteristics.

Instead of grappling with the science, Mathews offers some ponderous merken of his own: “Why do the apostles of political correctness go out of their way deliberately and pseudo-scientifically to confuse the term “race” with the term “species” in the public mind? Because if people can be deluded into acknowledging that there are no such things as different races, then the concept of race cannot legitimately be introduced when the subject of racism is raised.”

In a review of RACE?: Debunking a Scientific Myth by an anthropologist and a geneticist, Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, Jan Sapp  a professor in biology at York University, Toronto says:In biology, a grouping has biological meaning based on principles of common descent—the Darwinian idea that all members of the group share a common ancestry. On this basis, and on the ability to interbreed, all humans are grouped into one species as Homo sapiens, the only surviving member of the various species that the genus comprised. Species are arranged within the “tree of life,” a hierarchical classification that situates each species in only one genus, that genus only in one family and so on.”

“Nothing confuses that classification more than the exchange of genes between groups. In the bacterial world, for example, gene sharing can occur throughout the most evolutionarily divergent groups. The result is a reticulate evolution—a global net or web of related organisms, and no species. Among humans, reticulation occurs when there is interbreeding within the species—mating among individuals from different geographical populations. The result of such genetic mixing of previously isolated groups—due to migrations, invasions and colonization—is that no clear boundaries can be drawn around the variety of humans, no “races” of us.”

In raising the debate about species, Mathews  is certainly putting the linguistic cart before the proverbial horse. Just as the term Anti-Semitism, a polite academic phrase used to describe Judenhaas (Jew hatred), is all too often confused, (no it is most certainly not the opposite of Semitism), racism, the popular word for one of humanity’s most persistent bugbears, does not require that a science of race exist.

“There is no inherent relationship between intelligence, law-abidingness, or economic practices and race, just as there is no relationship between nose size, height, blood group, or skin color and any set of complex human behaviors,” says Sussman.

“However, over the past 500 years, we have been taught by an informal, mutually reinforcing consortium of intellectuals, politicians, statesmen, business and economic leaders and their books that human racial biology is real and that certain races are biologically better than others.”

“These teachings have led to major injustices to Jews and non-Christians during the Spanish Inquisition; to blacks, Native Americans, and others during colonial times; to African Americans during slavery and reconstruction; to Jews and other Europeans during the reign of the Nazis in Germany; and to groups from Latin America and the Middle East, among others, during modern political times.”

As a recent scientific paper published by the US National Institute of Health cautions:”Races may exist in humans in a cultural sense… Adaptive traits, such as skin color, have frequently been used to define races in humans, but such adaptive traits reflect the underlying environmental factor to which they are adaptive and not overall genetic differentiation, and different adaptive traits define discordant groups. There are no objective criteria for choosing one adaptive trait over another to define race. As a consequence, adaptive traits do not define races in humans.”

If race is merely an “informal taxonomy” and not science at all, then race is a fiction, and a bad fiction at that. Best not to racialise society by invoking discredited ideas of Social Darwinism and thus the theories of scientific racism, consistent with earlier epochs of colonialism and genocide, which carried ideas of inferiority and superiority, survival of the fittest and natural selection. Such ideas may once have been prevalent within the field of biology and evolution, but when it comes to politics and human society, they have proven to be nothing more than horrendous justifications for the system known as apartheid.