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  • Closing reflections on ‘Revisiting Apartheid’s Race Categories’
  • Harry Garuba (bio)

In these closing reflections, I wish to open up a set of questions by drawing upon a larger historical canvass in order to historicise the question of revisiting apartheid race categories and locate it within a global frame. I will frame these thoughts around a few keywords - modernity, race categories, apartheid and beyond.

Perhaps the first truly notable instance in modern history, of a nation revisiting and re-evaluating race categories after a period of revolutionary change, was the Haitian Constitution of 1805. Like apartheid South Africa, ‘racial’ divisions in Saint-Dominique (the colonial name for Haiti) in 1804 were conjoined with ‘native land’ and status. Those designated ‘white’ belonged to a ‘native land’ named France and their status was ‘free’, while those classified ‘people of colour’ belonged to Saint-Dominique and were regarded as ‘freed’. At the bottom of this hierarchy were ‘blacks’ whose ‘native land’ was Africa and had the status of ‘slaves’. In trying to deal with these racial divisions, article 14 of the Constitution of 1805 simply declared that all Haitians, whatever their colour, will be referred to as ‘blacks’. This meant that even the Germans and Poles who had fought with the indigenes after deserting the French General Lerclerc’s army were now to be known as ‘blacks’. This was a remarkable act in the early nineteenth century, an inversion of the dominant order of power/knowledge in the world. Describing this redefinition of race and colour by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the ruler of Haiti at this time, Joan Dayan in an understatement in her book Haiti, History, and the Gods says that ‘Dessalines attempted by linguistic means and by law to diffuse the color issue....[he] took the “lowest” rung and made it a synecdoche for the whole’ (1995:25). [End Page 173]

To begin with Haiti in 1805, is to indicate a genealogy for the problematic of race categories and attempts made in the past to transcend them, which may bear lessons for the South African present. In Haiti, the renaming amounted to a direct attack on and reversal of the universalist pretensions of the Enlightenment which dictated that to be truly human was to be ‘white’. Now the human was to bear a ‘black’ face, whatever the visual colour of the individual person. If attempts to deal with questions of race by means of language and the law are as old as the first successful slave revolution in modern history, what lessons can we learn from this as we revisit apartheid race categories? What does the refusal of race and colour in the South African context mean in contrast to Haiti’s revaluation of the hierarchy of race and its affirmation of the degraded as the human? More broadly, what does a focus on the linguistic and legalistic or the administrative and bureaucratic uses of race reveal and what does it occlude? What are the conditions of possibility for the emergence of a particular problematic concerned with bureaucratic and administrative classification and not another, say, one concerned with the material and discursive production of race? What determines the construction of this problematic in ways that focus on the formal? Do these have to do with the dominance or hegemony of the neo-liberal order of knowledge which disables other ways of framing questions and thinking through problems of humanness and human solidarity apart from the formalistic? These are important questions that need to be to be brought to the fore in thinking through the question of apartheid race categories and transcending their continued use in the present.

One way to begin addressing these questions is to examine the assumptions and goals implied in the formulation of the specifically South African problematic of transcending apartheid race categories – the constant slippage within assumptions and goals notwithstanding. There is, in the background, the paradox felt by activists who, having fought against racial categorisation, are dismayed that they have now been carried over onto the post-apartheid present. Here the logic of non-racialism confronts a history of discrimination that cries out for redress. The unease caused by this contradiction has thus led to the...


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pp. 173-177
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