If Biko and Plaatjie were alive today, debating non-racialism (response to Majavu)

THERE is a special place in hell reserved for those who wish to forge and revise history. A bizarre fabrication of the facts surrounding the origin of non-racialism was published in the Sunday Independent, written no less by a ‘senior lecturer in the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University’.

Dr Mandisi Majavu’s fraudulent propaganda piece apparently for a stream of political thought adjacent to or associated with the ‘black consciousness’ movement, argues that the black intelligentsia ‘have consistently misread, misunderstood, and mistook white racism for something it was not – a white benefactor.”

He then descends into an unsupported and counterfeit conspiracy claim that ‘non-racialism was introduced by whites in the ANC in the 1950s leading to a further blunting of ‘the organisation’s race analysis toolbox’.

In this asinine and acerbic view, persons such as JT Jabavu, publisher of the first black newspaper Imvo ZabaNtsundu, and even critic Sol Plaatjie, were simply ‘racial accommodationists’. In the process both Jabavu and Plaatjie are stripped of human agency, mere foils for the colonial authorities.

Majavu postulates “Jabavu’s political project was aligned to the agenda of his political “masters” – the South African Party” before upbraiding his chief critic, Sol Plaatjie, written off as unashamedly contaminated by the “white liberal spell of Cape liberalism”, which Plaatjie himself described as representing “British ideas of fair play and justice”.

“Not only was Plaatjie short-sighted” alleges Majavu “when it came to the history of white racism in South Africa, he failed to appreciate what was coming next.”

Well, hang me high for suggesting that hindsight is 20/20 vision and this type of phoney syncretism begs the question — what would Plaatjie or Biko say for that matter, if they were alive today?

“Plaatjie is not the only 20th century black leader ill-equipped to understand the full meaning of the white supremacist project being advocated for by whites in early 20th century” declares Majavu who then goes on to propose:

“John Dube, first president of the ANC, subscribed to Booker T Washington’s racial accommodationist and black self-help politics.” In the process unfairly writing off both Pixley Seme and Alfred B Xuma, ‘part of the black intelligentsia who though fighting valiantly against the Native Land Act nevertheless elicited a ‘disappointing response to race segregation’.

This sets the stage for the unfounded assertion that whites were solely ‘responsible for the introduction of nonracialism’ and that persons of colour, all subjugated servants to a tee, timidly took up the baton, bearing the cudgels of universalism and monogenesis (the theory of human origins which posits a common descent for all human races). This under the egregious whip of the Church, influenced or brainwashed by missionaries and that it was the ANC which invariably became non-racialism’s foremost champion and proponent from the very start.

Majavu’s piece painfully ignores the historical tragedy of the singular fact of the struggle that it was Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) who first articulated race agnosticism in any coherent fashion.

Although universal ideas such as equality and respect for human rights, alongside the paleoanthropological evidence of our common origin, may have been advocated in private by ‘white persons’ such as communist party leader Joe Slovo, the ANC of the 1950s was very much defined by the Freedom Charter, itself a document bound up with the multiracial language of the period.

Sobukwe famously stated in his United African States inaugural 1959 address, “The Africanists take the view that there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race. “

“To us the term “multi-racialism” implies that there are such basic insuperable differences between the various national groups here that the best course is to keep them permanently distinctive in a kind of democratic apartheid. That to us is racialism multiplied, which probably is what the term truly connotes.”

History demonstrates it was thus the ANC an avowedly ‘multiracial’ party which went on to adopt non-racialism at the behest of the Unity Movement and other critics of colour.

In particular my mentor and comrade, the late Dr Neville Alexander used to relate the story of how he and Mandela were prone to engage in dialogue on the issue of the race question, whilst breaking lime stone in the quarry and incarcerated on Robben Island .

Speaking on the position of the ‘Unity Movement,’ Alexander’s view was that there was a ‘common stream of humanity, not separate and distinct streams as the racists would have it’.

The journey of both the ANC and the Rainbow Nation is thus an epic one from the multiracialism of the 1950s to the non-racialism of the new South African Constitution, a document whose preamble enshrines an elegant and powerful idea alongside recognition of the injustices of the past.

Would Steve Biko be a non-racialist if he were alive today? I think he would most definitely support non-racialism in its far-reaching appeal to end race discrimination, at the same time that he pointed out that ‘blackness is not the result of skin pigmentation but rather a reflection of a mental attitude’.

If Jabavu, Dube, and Pixley Seme were alive, perhaps they would be upbraiding the ANC for neglect of its allies in the freedom struggle, its avoidance of the universal imperatives of the Preamble to our nation’s Constitution and its abject failure to chart a coherent vision, free from corruption.

Given the adverse conditions under which those opposed to the apartheid state found ourselves, I find Majavu’s fraudulent attempt to malign non-racialism as an ‘all-white affair’ morally reprehensible and beneath contempt, since the facts certainly do not support the above conjecture.

[David Robert Lewis is an anti-apartheid activist and graduate of the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town]

[Published in a radacted form by Sunday Independent, 14/2/21]

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