More on Gareth Cliff, Mngxitama (and now Magaxa)

Khaya Magaxa, SACP provincial secretary for the Western Cape, has responded to my column in the Mail&Guardian on November 12. His letter was printed in the Mail&Guardian of November 26, and is available online. However, I’m also pasting it here, so that my response (below) can be read in context.

Racism is still a reality

The fact that Jacques Rousseau (“White supremacy rant against Gareth Cliff sullies rational political debate“, November 12) could not identify any evidence of racism in Cliff’s letter to the president is precisely because his defence of Cliff is racist itself.

Instead of attempting to use his analytic tools as an academic to find out whether the charge advanced by Andile Mngxitama is valid or not, he spent time trying to justify the validity of Cliff’s letter.

I don’t have anything in common with Mngxitama except the fact that we are both black South Africans. Our political orientations are poles apart — I am neither an Africanist nor a Black Consciousness activist. But this does not stop me acknowledging the relevance of his point about Cliff.

We have to accept and acknowledge, as progressive South Africans, that the vast majority of fellow white South Africans are still racist, including Cliff and his praise-singer Rousseau.

A black person does not need to be a scientist to see this reality, because black South Africans experience it in their daily lives — on the road, with their white neighbours, at schools and universities, in places of leisure, in the workplace, in the print media, on radio — just about everywhere. We are still “two nations”, white people living a noble life at the expense of the black majority, and a black majority remaining in poverty and hopelessness.

White South Africans use everything at their disposal to maintain, defend and consolidate the wealth they accumulated under apartheid. They attack black economic empowerment, affirmative action and all other government interventions to reverse the apartheid legacy.

They are involved in corrupting black people (we have to note that in most of the corruption scandals involving ANC leaders, white business people are a common denominator). In this context the black majority cannot just accept “criticism” from white people.

Cliff’s letter was not a criticism but an attack on the government. This is the kind of propaganda we are fed by the white-dominated print media. That does not suggest that we do not have challenges in government — corruption, poor servicing of our people by public officials, the legacy of apartheid, racial poverty and so on. Everybody in our country is expected to contribute through constructive engagement to find a way to resolve these challenges.

Cliff does not need to mention “race” for him to be racist. His lack of respect for the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was not just about disrespecting the late minister but her family too, including the entire black majority. Rousseau’s choice of words borders on racism too.

It worries me that after 16 years of democracy there are still such people in institutions of higher learning. — Khaya Magaxa, SACP provincial secretary, Western Cape

It is unfortunate that Magaxa falls so quickly, and deeply, into exactly the trap that my response to the Mngxitama column attempted to warn against. I have absolutely no doubt that many white South Africans are racist. But we cannot assume that criticism or ridicule that involves a black person, or a woman, or a quadriplegic, is premised on their being any one of those things. Of course, a massive imbalance in terms of political and economic power that is correlated with race – as is the case in SA – makes it far more likely that that there is a racial element to many of the judgements that we make.

Regardless of this, we are often still able to separate the two aspects. If concrete claims are made around things like service delivery, as was the case in the Gareth Cliff letter that started this series of exchanges, we can evaluate whether those claims are true or false – in other words, whether they justify the complaints of the letter. If the claims are false, it becomes more probable that they are motivated by racism. This activity could be performed whether the writer of the letter was black or white, or whatever – but the point is that we can’t reach the conclusion that the author is racist until we perform the activity in question.

Mngxitama’s letter did not attempt to do this. It began from the premise that Cliff is inescapably racist, by virtue of the melatonin levels in his skin. This is what I was highlighting, in that any such axiomatic assumption results in not engaging with the content of the letter, but rather pre-judges anything it might go on to say. This is a prejudiced view, and because Mngxitama frames it in terms of race, it belongs in the family of prejudice known as racism.

I did not attempt to “justify the validity of Cliff’s letter”, as Magaxa alleges above. Instead, I justified why Mngxitama’s column never considered the validity of Cliff’s letter, because he already “knows” it to be reprehensible by virtue of his hysterical devotion to Fanon and identity politics in general. The argument, in other words, was largely missing and where present, completely unsound – as is Magaxa’s. Consider Magaxa’s closing paragraphs:

Cliff’s letter was not a criticism but an attack on the government. This is the kind of propaganda we are fed by the white-dominated print media. That does not suggest that we do not have challenges in government — corruption, poor servicing of our people by public officials, the legacy of apartheid, racial poverty and so on. Everybody in our country is expected to contribute through constructive engagement to find a way to resolve these challenges.

Implicit here is the notion that only some forms of criticism are valid, while others are “attacks”, and are somehow illegitimate. Considering the tone of Cliff’s letter (which is largely sad and reflective, rather than hostile and accusatory), the implicit notion once again traces back to the race of the letter’s author. If a letter which politely details various failures on the part of government is not “constructive”, then what could be?

Cliff does not need to mention “race” for him to be racist. His lack of respect for the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was not just about disrespecting the late minister but her family too, including the entire black majority. Rousseau’s choice of words borders on racism too.

Agreed, Cliff could be a racist without mentioning race. I make that point myself, in the column that Magaxa is responding to. But his lack of respect for Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was explicitly related to things that she did, not things that she is. If we cannot separate these aspects by definition, then there is no possibility of any sort of critical discourse of an inter-racial sort in South Africa without the parties being accused of racist views. Magaxa is eliminating critical citizenship in moves like these, and also ignoring common sense, in that an attack on one person (by virtue of her actions) says nothing about the accuser’s attitude towards that person’s family or the racial category to which they have been assigned or identify with.

As for my choice of words “bordering on racism” too, this is again a matter of a judgement which bears no relation to the evidence. I certainly expressed a prejudice against postmodernism in my response to Mngxitama, but I make no claim that postmodernism and being black are causally connected. In fact, given the historical inequalities in this country, I’d expect the correlation to run the other way, in that it has mostly been privileged whites who have been able to afford a) going to university and b) studying for degrees that involve reading that sort of thing, given that those fields generally don’t correlate with significant earning potential (I know, as I did those degrees myself).

It worries me that after 16 years of democracy there are still such people in institutions of higher learning.

And to conclude, Magaxa offers a straightforward character slur, which in context again has to devolve to the fact that I am white. Nowhere do we see an attempt to engage with my argument, or to acknowledge the fact that I began from a premise of recognising that while Cliff might well have racist views, his letter was not being judged on its merits in Mngxitama’s column. So, to summarise:

  • everything Cliff says is racist, no matter what he actually says
  • I defend his letter, and I am white, so I’m perhaps doubly racist
  • there is a proper way of engaging with government, and this does not involve pointing out service delivery failures (unless you’re black).

As they say on the interwebs, FFS.