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  • Race classifications, indicators and praxis: a response to Ruggunan and Maré, Lefko-Everett, and Erwin
  • Harry Garuba (bio)

The three articles by Shaun Ruggunan and Gerhard Maré, Kate Lefko-Everett, and Kira Erwin all focus in different ways on the irresolvable paradox at the heart of the South African constitution and, by extension, the moral order it seeks to bring into being. The Bill of Rights enshrined in the South Africa Constitution promotes non-racialism and prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, etc, while simultaneously sanctioning legislative and other ‘discriminatory’ measures taken to redress the legacies of apartheid and the injustices suffered by those disadvantaged by unfair discrimination in the past. This is a typical instance of an internal contradiction that breaks down the logic of certainty.

Philosophers and literary scholars are familiar with this kind of intellectual perplexity usually designated by the term ‘aporia’. In the book Aporetics: rational deliberation in the face of inconsistency, the philosopher Nicholas Rescher describes the aporetic situation as ‘any cognitive situation in which the threat of inconsistency confronts us’ (2009:1); inconsistency that tends to lead to an impasse. The three articles that I comment on below focus on the continued use of race classifications in a supposedly non-racial, post-apartheid South Africa. Though they do not explicitly explore it as an aporia sanctioned by the Constitution, they attempt to explore its consequences by examining the manner in which it plays out in a specific institutional site, in theory and in the practice of social life, and in academic research, respectively.

The article by Shaun Ruggunan and Gerhard Maré focuses on race [End Page 114] classification as practised at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Using semi-structured interviews and a sample of documents and forms which require people to classify themselves along racial lines, the authors examine, first, the purpose and, then, the processes followed in identifying and classifying people in this manner, the challenges involved, and the effects on both classifier and classified. They identify legislation and the need for redress for historical wrongs as the reasons why classification according to apartheid racial categories has continued in the post-apartheid moment, and distinguish between the ‘benign’ use of racial categories in this instance and their more malevolent use in the apartheid era. All the same, they find that the processes adopted are uncannily close to those followed in the past – from the racial categories used to the lower level bureaucrats who operate the system – and note this as an instance of what Gerhard Maré is quoted as calling ‘the everyday banality of race classification [that] permeates South Africa’.

Within the limits it sets itself, the paper achieves its objectives of showing through empirical study the way in which racial classification works/is conducted at UKZN, the effects of classifications, and the largely unexamined dilemmas that arise from these. It does not set out to study the philosophical-epistemological issues of racialisation and racial identities, and the role that race classification plays – whether as cause, impetus, symptom or consequence – in maintaining, essentialising, or deconstructing racial categories. In fact, the paper claims that the practitioners of racial classification in this institution are often surprised when objections are raised to such classifications because they are lower level administrators who, unlike their more senior colleagues, have not been trained ‘in the critical social sciences’ where questions about the complexities of social identities are often raised rather than taken for granted. Though there is the suggestion here that higher level officials who, presumably, would have had some training in the critical social sciences will be less comfortable with these practices of classification, the article does not further investigate or elaborate this suggestion.

Kate Lefko-Everett’s ‘Beyond race? Exploring indicators of (dis)advantage to achieve South Africa’s equity goals’ conducts an overview of the debates on the continued use of race categories in South Africa – drawing upon some opinion from outside the country. In the main, she discusses the positions taken by Neville Alexander, Jonathan Jansen, Zimitri Erasmus, Kristina Bentley and Adam Habib, on the South African side, and briefly aligns their [End Page 115] views with those of Yehudi Webster and...


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pp. 114-118
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