Friday, May 31, 2013

Should Indians be concerned about the rise of anti-Indian sentiment in South Africa?

If you have been following the fallout over the Gupta landing scandal in South Africa then you may have picked up some speculative noise that it has given new momentum in some quarters to renewed anti-Indian sentiment among so-called "indigenous Africans".

I don't want to reproduce the discussion of what happened with the Gupta scandal or the reasons why their position in South Africa should conjure up concern for Indians or anyone else.

I want instead to address the latest (related perhaps) concern brought on by the publishing of a letter in City Press by Phumlani Mfeka - a young man of Zulu descent who was about 6 years old when Nelson Mandela took office in 1994.

The letter, described as anti-Indian hatred by some commentators, is a laughable stab at creating an opportunistic space in the identity politics of entitlement nationalism.  It is Johnny-come-lately syndrome at its worst and marked by its inelegant appeal to crass racism.

You can read the letter here.

Don't expect too much though.  It is a diatribe against an Indian mayor of a town in KwaZulu-Natal who took offense at being called a Gupta brother by a black (African) traffic cop who stopped him.

The gist of the diatribe is to defend the traffic cop because the Indian mayor reported the incident to his superiors.

Mfeka claims the incident to be an example of Indian racism against indigenous Africans and proceeds to build a misinformed case about the role and place of Indians in South Africa and the continent of Africa.

Mahatma Gandhi is maligned and all Indians are grouped as unworthy aliens who discriminate against real Africans. 

This is dangerous territory no doubt but it is so shallow and unintelligent that it hardly seems worth responding to but in all good consciousness it cannot be left alone.

To be sure there is nothing new that Mfeka is throwing up.  It is a longstanding itch that is being scratched and the historical contours are well known to all South Africans.

It is no secret that some Indians think blacks are inferior.  And it is equally well known that some blacks thinks Indians are thieving racists who don't belong in Africa.

So what is all the fuss about then?

The more important issue is whether we live in a country that offers protection to its citizens from being harmed by racist incitement.

That begs the question of what constitutes racist incitement or hate speech.

If Mfeka is found to be actively creating a movement to oppress Indians or to remove their rights to citizenship by advocating racist hatred, then we can reasonably link his words to a definite illegal action.  But if all we have is the random expression of tired dialectics that is older than the Republic itself then we have nothing but the rantings of a severely misinformed and racist imbecile.

And, since our constitution protects free speech he is within his rights to mouth his racist thoughts no matter how unfounded or despicable.  Conversely, I am also within my rights to call his juvenile ass an idiot and a racist.

I think it important that we protect free speech in South Africa and everywhere.  Unlike some commentators on the local scene I don't buy the exceptionalist nonsense that not all speech should be protected by the constitution.

What then is the content and purpose of free speech in a democracy?

For me the question is very simple as indicated in my thinking above: Is Mfeka's letter advocating violence against Indians that can be construed in legal terms to be an imminent threat to public safety?

I don't think so.

Is he racist towards Indians and making a degenerative argument that should run counter to the logic and values of the post-apartheid nation?

Yes he is.

But then again the very same logic and values ensure that he is given the right to engage his idiocy as long as it does not incite or cause measurable harm.

Words are just words and even though there may be many black and other South Africans that share his misguided view there is no reason to censor him or to blame the editors of City Press for inflaming an unnecessary debate.

City Press is a business and sure there is capital in putting Mfeka's nonsense out there.  South Africans like their American counterparts are obsessed by race and feed off racialized discourse of any kind; it is a kind of theater really.

The nuance of progressive critique is lost in the hysteria and, for some, it speaks to the inability of the current epoch to distance itself from the old era.

For me this is just a moment of buffoonery.  It will be forgotten and replaced by yet another racial incident for as long as race and racialization define our politics and overall existence.

I don't think Indians should be too worried that they will be bundled out of South Africa like Indians were in Idi Amin's Uganda.

I also don't think that Indians should expect to seamlessly exist inside a nation that has been wrecked by racism.  The same is true for coloureds, Chinese, Malays, whites and blacks too.

And let us not forget Somalis, Ethiopians, Zimbabweans, Bangladeshis, and Pakistani communities that are currently under renewed xenophobic attack in Diepsloot and other impoverished locales in South Africa.

We are all victims of racism.  Our very existential mentality is disfigured by the abuse of colonialism, apartheid and subsequent/consequential forms of structural racism.

The end of apartheid in 1994 did not end racism.  In fact, it merely complicated and entrenched racism.

The movement beyond racism is to be found in the political and moral will to recreate ourselves and renew our humanity beyond the identity politics - a false consciousness - that Mfeka and the Guptas illustrate in the post era.

This is not a new or even radical revelation.  No one should be surprised.

What Mfeka's letter speaks to is the failure of the supposed non-racial nonsense the African National Congress (ANC) flaunts as policy directive.  Non-racialism in a racist and racialized state is the overarching buffoonery.

We have hardly made an earnest attempt to eradicate race and racism in South Africa.  What is being done is to uplift a bourgeois black class of comprodor elitists who front blackness as a politics toward entitlement.

It is, therefore, little wonder that Mfeka would be butting heads with a community he perceives as uniformly wealthy and selfishly holding onto what is really his capitalized birthright.

Mfeka, who claims an association with the ANC up to both of the last two presidents, is merely motioning the politics of the moment made possible by the nationalist politics that emerged when white and black elites carved out their post-apartheid interests.

In this continuum Mfeka is a side-show at best.  The real problem lies with the failure of the ANC to shepherd South Africa beyond its fixation on racial hatred, racist discourse and capitalized identity politics.

Even as I write here President Zuma has not acted to slap down Mfeka and his like for sullying the aspirations of the supposed non-racial discourse his party sells from time to time.

So we are left with the usual circus that is political debate in South Africa.  And around dinner tables everywhere and just about anywhere else the talk will be the same.

That talk will be versions of lament that finds South Africa deteriorating and selfishly abused by politically connected folks who are rich beyond belief while the rest are struggling to eat and make debt repayments.

It is a conversation that cannot ignore the fact that a poser like Mfeka is a creation of black political bourgeoisie like Mandela, Mbeki, and Zuma who offer nothing more than existential befuddlement.

It is also a conversation that cannot ignore the fact that for the vast majority of South Africans life in the post country is as hard as it was when the whites held the political reins - some would say harder.

Inside of this conversation the spectacle of seeing blacks as inferior or Indians as crooked is merely par for the course - it is the usual theater of false consciousness that erodes a real movement toward revolutionary thinking.

For this reason I would not sweat the supposed rise of anti-Indian sentiment because nothing new has emerged to make this moment any different than before: or as my colorful landlady used to say in my Baltimore days, "same sh*t different day".

And we are not free.



Pstonie said...

I think you may be underestimating the escalating effects that five years and counting of rising in food prices and decreasing jobs are having on people who where living right on the poverty line when the "recession" began. Back in those "good old days" that was something like 40% of the population.

Remember when they still used to talk about green shoots? Old showerhead is down to asking the miners nicely to stop striking. Even the rand told him to go fuck himself.

Nobody should be afraid, but everybody should be prepared. It's ugly now, it's gonna get worse.

Ridwan said...

Hi Pstonie:

I think you make a valid argument and you are right about the sad and deteriorating state of the economy.

But my point is closer to an appreciation of anti-Indian sentiment. I don't see the fallout of the Gupta scandal or the letter hatred to be an indication of greater anti-Indian sentiment.

That does not mean that there is not class unrest and dissatisfaction throughout.

What is significant is that the poor are no better off now than two decades ago.

We more likely to face a class based revolt than purely a race based one.

To be fair this is a problem of global proportions.

Still, it is not made any easier when conspicuous consumption marks the new political class and their deployments.

I am disgusted with what has come to pass.

Trust you are well.


Ps. I remember a R13.00 dollar about fifteen or so years ago!

It is above R10.00 now and things are gonna get even more expensive.

Geez hey!

Anonymous said...

It is a real shame that they pick on the minority of the country.
As an Indian I have worked hard, studied hard and persevered to be where I am today.
We have diligently rallied against apartheid with our African neighbours.
Succeeded in our attempts you now want to turn on us!
We come in peace. Our roots have grown deep into the soil of this land.
You have absolutely no right to say we do not belong.
And you are very rude now bringing in the name of a much revered leader as Mahatma Ghandi. He was a highly esteemed man. You speak but that's all. He has done and left a legacy of love and peace. You want to leave a legacy of hate but it will never succeed!

Ridwan said...

I share you contempt for what Phumlani Mfeka has written.

It is unthinkable that a young man who spent very little time under apartheid can be so victimized by its racial arrangement.

Indians have an absolute right to live here in SA. That cannot be taken away no matter how much noise Mfeka may want to make.

How shallow his mindset is to think that Indians can just get on a plane or boat and go back to India.

I guess if one really wanted to engage his nonsense we could remind him that the Khoi and San are the only indigenous people in southern Africa and he and his ancestors are descendants of central African tribes who migrated here.

As you know some folks take pleasure in talking the Mahatma down. I think it is necessary to see his contribution as a life struggle.

And for as many mistakes as he may have made his greater presence in world history cannot be ignored.

Thank you for your comment.