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  • Affirmative action and the perpetuation of racial identities in post-apartheid South Africa*
  • Neville Alexander (bio)

Introductory remarks

Building a nation or promoting national unity, which is one of the historic objectives of post-apartheid South Africa as we set out to give shape to the new historical community that is evolving here, raises a whole range of issues such as the class leadership and class content of such a national(ist) movement, the nature and feasibility of social cohesion, our understanding of a multicultural polity, intercultural communication, among other things. In post-apartheid South Africa, all of these themes are at issue but because of the continued salience of the racial faultline in this social formation, I shall concentrate on the vitally important question of racial identities and what we have to do about them.

Minister Mosiuoa Lekota's comments some two years ago on the question of non-racialism1 spotlighted the troubling relationship between the policy of affirmative action and the perpetuation of racial identities in post-apartheid South Africa. The latter is one of the unintended consequences of the former, if we give the architects of the policy the benefit of the doubt, which I believe we should.

Because of the vital importance of the subject for the consolidation and deepening of the democratic polity in which we live today, I believe that the Minister's comments should spark a national debate on the question of what we mean by a non-racial, democratic South Africa. For, it is a fact that racialised identities, as we know from situations such as Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and many others, have genocidal potential. [End Page 92]

It is common cause in the social sciences today that social as well as individual identities are constructed, not 'given'. The state, or more generally, the ruling classes, in any society have the paradigmatic prerogative of setting the template on which social identities, including racial identities, are based. Subaltern groups and layers of such societies necessarily contest or accept these identities over time. In our own case, recent examples of such contestation are the categories of 'Bantu' and 'Coloured'. We must remember, however, that even though they are constructed, social identities seem to have a primordial validity for most individuals, precisely because they are not aware of the historical, social and political ways in which their identities have been constructed. This is, ultimately, the psychological explanation for the well-known tenacity of such identities. That they can be deconstructed and reshaped is manifest in the unravelling of the supposedly immutable 'Afrikaner' identity which is taking place before our eyes right now.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is also common cause that 'race' is not a valid biological entity. It is, however, equally taken for granted that race is a social reality. Segregationist and apartheid South Africa was, as we all know, a byword among the nations as a racist society in the twentieth century. This was, and remains, the reason for the sense of hope that was engendered world-wide by the demise of the apartheid regime. There are still many people who hope that the post-apartheid dispensation will show the world that it is possible to open the way towards the realisation of the dream of a raceless, perhaps even a classless, society.

Affirmative action policy

The policy of affirmative action, levelling the playing fields, representiveness or whatever other suitable name we care to use, is in my view one of the most sensitive issues in the new South Africa, not because it is wrong in any sense but because of its unintended consequences. It evolved in a most elaborate process of public consultation that culminated in the core legislation of the Public Services Act, the Employment Equity Act, the Skills Development Act and the Skills Development Levy Act. All of these are, laudably, geared towards the imperative of the redistribution of economic, social, cultural and political power and resources that constituted the fundamental reason for the struggle against racial capitalism in general and apartheid in particular. Only reactionaries and hide-bound conservatives are opposed to these objectives of the post-apartheid government. The vast majority of...


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pp. 92-108
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