So now non-racialism is racist too

The Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) have launched a new advertising campaign. Here’s what many South Africans on Twitter and Facebook have been talking about today:

And in the curious place that is South Africa, this poster is somehow racist. It’s one thing to criticise the very idea of non-racialism – you can argue that a political party that is trying to encourage us leave race out of our analysis is naïve, and you can even argue that non-racialism can’t serve as an antidote to racism because we need to focus on race. But if you believe that race shouldn’t matter, as I do, then highlighting the fact that some people are still inclined to see relationships between different races as wrong – or even simply remarkable – is perfectly consistent with a commitment to non-racialism.

That’s what this poster does. It simply highlights the fact that some people would look twice at an inter-racial couple, and reminds viewers of the poster that in the ideal DASO future, this wouldn’t happen. As I pointed out in a Twitter exchange, my regular interactions with students at the University of Cape Town confirm that it’s simply not true that South Africans don’t need to be reminded that inter-racial relationships are okay. Yes, they (they meaning the DASO target audience, ie. youth) might be well aware that the Immorality Act has been repealed, but this doesn’t mean that social pressure to date people with similar pigmentation has disappeared. It’s still a very real pressure, which I hear about (or overhear people talking about) on a regular basis.

This is perhaps again simply an instance of the Twitterati imagining that they are the only arbiters of good sense and reason, imagining that they speak for everyone. And one is sometimes fearful of that possibility, seeing as the Twitterati can say some profoundly stupid things. I was told, for example, that it’s “racist to presume non-racialism is about who you have sex with”. As I said in reply, this poster is but one example of what non-racialism would entail – namely that nobody would care if people were having an inter-racial relationship.

Was the poster meant to include depictions of every possible instance of non-racialism to avoid being racist? It seems that it should have, which would have made for a pretty large poster. And even if it had tried to, someone would still have come up with something that’s wrong with it. Perhaps the art direction was racist, or perhaps it’s somehow sinister that the DASO logo covers the black woman, and not the man (this is not a joke – someone did say that. It does so happen that the black woman has breasts, which is a more likely contender for why the logo was placed where it was).

Should DASO’s poster have featured two white people? Of course not – that would be racist. Should it have featured two black people? Of course not – that would have been described as desperate. Should it have featured a gay couple, whether inter-racial or not? Perhaps (although that would also have been described as desperate) – but one can understand that they did not, partly because the majority of the market is heterosexual, and partly because they might have been cowed by the amount of (obviously unjustified) offence that would have caused.

What this sort of thing goes to show is that if you want to find a problem, you’ll do so – regardless of the intellectual contortions necessary. As I said at the start of this post, it’s entirely possible that non-racialism is misguided, even impossible. But making the claim that this poster is racist – in the context of inter-racial relationships being an actual issue for some – is an entirely unsympathetic, and unjustifiable, analysis.

UPDATE: The stupid doesn’t stop there. The African Christian Democratic Party say the poster is “shocking” and promotes “sexual immorality”. Furthermore, “in a country with high levels of Aids and an overdose of crime, especially the high incidence of farm murders this year, this poster sends the opposite message to the country than needed”. (Apologies to the ACDP for initially mis-attributing these quotes to them.)

Brief thoughts on Jack Bloom

While I’ve previously commented on the illiberal nature of some of Helen Zille’s recent public utterances, at least she’s mostly kept her personal religious beliefs out of the equation. Sure, they no doubt inform her conservative moral stance, but her arguments and proposed interventions are nevertheless supported by arguments (regardless of your, or my, views on the quality of those arguments).

By contrast, Jack Bloom (DA Leader in the Gauteng legislature) seems to have no qualms in putting God at front and centre as a potential answer to South Africa’s ills, regardless of the diversity of belief among those who voted for his party (not to mention a large number of those who work for his party). In fact, God seems to have been here all along, not only facilitating the “transition from Apartheid”, but also working abroad in spurring the abolitionist movement against slavery, and inspiring people to formulate the “democratic concepts that led to the American Revolution”.

There’s no question that Bloom is sincere, and that he believes religion can play a role in encouraging people to think about their moral obligations. Sadly for those of us who think morality can only be principled if also secular, he’s in agreement with the DA’s general position here, where the party says that religion “should serve as a moral and spiritual inspiration“.

But even this view (the mistaken one, that morality and religion are easy bedfellows) is at least comprehensible, given that our country is mostly religious. Comprehensible, not reasonable, because if we need more prayer and less politics (as Bloom argues), surely the ACDP would have a far higher share of the votes?

What’s most egregious about Bloom’s opinion piece is that he by and large simply makes things up as he goes along, plucking historical events out of the timeline and – without any evidence (unless you count dubious correlations as evidence, which you shouldn’t) – attributes them to prayer and religion. It’s true that Lanphier drove a large Christian revival movement in the US during the mid-1800’s, yes, but to say that it was the Christianity – rather than basic human compassion or economics – that informed the abolition of slavery is an entirely circular argument, which assumes what it purports to demonstrate.

The American Revolution – also offered by Bloom as evidence for the power of prayer – seems more plausibly explained by something like the first 13 colonies revolting against rule by the British Empire, regardless of whether some or many the revolutionaries were religious. Their desire to be free doesn’t need religion to make sense, and it seems entirely spurious – and again circular – to use this as evidence for us needing more prayer and less politics.

And then of course there’s the elephant in the room: namely, that the data overwhelmingly suggest that on any benchmark of morality you care to pick, secular countries usually outperform religious ones. Corruption? Check. Divorce rates? Check. Crime? Check. Do a comparison for whatever measure you like using something like Google’s public data explorer, or read a simple and short book like Sinnott-Armstrong’s Morality without God.

One of the saddest aspects of public utterances like this from DA leaders, for me, is the fact that the DA has one clear advantage over other contenders in the political arena: the effective, and entirely pragmatically motivated, delivery of goods and services. That’s their clear competitive advantage, and the drum they should be beating more loudly than any other. But when a DA official – and a highly placed one at that – tells us that he hopes to outsource his job to God (at best) or collective insanity (at worst), it only reinforces the fear that populism is taking the place of common sense.

Bloom closes his piece with “maybe if we all prayed more the social change we desire will happen”. Seeing as all the existing studies of prayer’s efficacy show no effects (or in at least one case, negative effects), don’t hold your breath.

Edit: This post as well as a reply from Jack Bloom can be found on PoliticsWeb, where you’ll also find some entertaining comments. Also see another Christian perspective from Jordan Pickering.

 

The Erasmus judgement on Makhaza

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

The Erasmus judgement in the Makhaza toilet case, handed down on Friday last week, makes for depressing reading, as would the details of the lives and conditions of most poor South Africans. The judgement itself contains a hint of this, where (in section 136), an affidavit related to the City of Cape Town’s counter application is excerpted, in which Thembisa Princess Sokabo tells us that:

The toilets we have in Nkanini (i.e. the one to five households toilets) are generally in an appalling state, notwithstanding the City’s attempt to maintain same, to the extent that members of the community generally do not use them. They are always blocked and filthy, and are not appropriate for human use. Due to the fact that they are communally owned, people do not take responsibility and personal pride in them. Not only are the toilets filthy and unsafe, but they are a health hazard to people in general and to children in particular as they have burst pipes which are overflowing with faeces.

Despite the fact that many South Africans are forced to live in sub-optimal, unhygienic, and sometimes even degrading conditions, Makhaza has become one of the focal points of debate around service delivery in the Cape. By extension, Erasmus’s Makhaza judgement has rapidly become a stick that Tony Ehrenreich is using to argue that the ANC would do a better job than the DA of defending the interests of the poor.

This could well be true, although we should remember that the ANC has already had a chance to champion the interests of the poor in the Cape. But while the ANC’s return of 45% of the vote in 2004, along with the 11% of votes garnered by their partners (the New National Party) in that election, brought them to power in the Province, their support dwindled to 32% in the 2009 election. If we are to take the notion of democracy seriously, this indicates that voters wanted to give someone else a chance to govern, and exercised their right to vote correspondingly.

That was of course a different time, and the fact that the ANC lost control of the Cape can’t demonstrate that an ANC government in 2011, and Ehrenreich as Mayor of Cape Town, won’t do better than previous incumbents. The chaotic nature of ANC politics in the Western Cape, along with floor-crossing and the death (and now, zombified re-animation) of the NNP – not to mention the short history of democracy in South Africa – make trends difficult to pin down.

None of these complications should however obscure the fact that there is a difference between fact and fiction – and in particular the kind of fiction that emerges in the run-up to elections, when selective factual details are plucked out of context and presented as damning evidence for a fiction. In this case, the fiction in question is that the DA government in the Western Cape is somehow at war with the poor, based on the ‘fact’ that they constructed unenclosed toilets in Makhaza.

Except, they didn’t – or at least didn’t intend to. What they did try to do was to collaborate with the residents of Silvertown to ensure that they all had enclosed toilets, by spending their budget on providing the toilets and plumbing connections, while trusting the assurances of the community that they would build their own enclosures where necessary. This plan failed, and cynics could argue that it was always likely to fail, or that the demands of dignity for the residents required that this detail not be left in the residents’ hands in the first instance.

Of course, we can never know whether the residents would have built their own enclosures, because the City of Cape Town eventually resolved to provide these for the 3% of residents who had not built them for themselves. And then, as we should also remember, they were prevented from doing so by the repeated destruction of the enclosures by the ANC Youth League.

You could argue that the DA has been somewhat naïve in their approach to this issue, as they undoubtedly were in the case involving the delisting of the Sowetan journalist, Anna Majavu. There is evidence of such naïveté, in that this was a relatively predictable PR disaster.

In the context of the South African sensitivity to class divisions and poverty, an approach which involved a relative absence of paternalism (here, in which services are provided in partnership with the community) was clearly risky. Any failure, at any link in the chain leading to enclosed toilets for all, would always have been spun as a failure on the part of the DA, with the roles of other agents ignored or elided. Worse yet, any protestations of good will on the part of the DA can immediately be spun as further evidence of callous neglect.

Sadly, the safest strategy may well be to do the bare minimum – and also to do it in a way which minimises the chances of failure, by swooping in and delivering from on high rather than by attempting to involve communities in their own upliftment. If this is the lesson that Ehrenreich or the ANC want the DA to learn, they might well have succeeded.

But in doing so, they could well have simultaneously built a rod for their own backs, because the inflamed rhetoric surrounding the Makhaza judgement makes it appear no less than a capital crime to leave toilets unenclosed, regardless of the circumstances leading to that eventuality. According to Jackson Mthembu, the unenclosed toilets show a “total disrespect for black dignity”, and demonstrate that the DA “is a racist political party”. In fact, the “Makhaza judgment remains a chilling reminder showing on whose side Zille and his [sic] bunch of racist lackeys are on”.

In light of this strong reaction, as well as the claim from Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka that unenclosed toilets would never be tolerated under ANC governance, what are we to make of the unenclosed toilets in the informal settlement of Rammulotsi, in the ANC-run Moqhaka municipality – some of which have been unenclosed since 2001? Or those in Kwadabeka, outside Pinetown in the eThekwini municipality, where the ANC garnered 67.52% of the vote in 2009?

Perhaps the real lesson here is the reminder that in politics – and especially, in the weeks running up to an election – facts sometimes simply stop mattering. But perhaps it doesn’t need to be this way, and perhaps increasing numbers of citizens are starting to realise that the truth doesn’t always correspond to the claims made in political speeches, especially when those speeches concern the actions of competing political parties.

Let’s hope so, because as with all decisions, those made while voting should be informed by the facts, rather than by faith. And Makhaza is one settlement, in one Province, in one (mostly poor) country. We should ideally cast our votes for who we think will do the best for that country in the long-term, and not simply based on caricature, and misrepresentation of those facts.

Freedom of the press doesn’t entail facilitating bias

An edited (see strikethrough in text) version of this column for The Daily Maverick

Reactions to the Democratic Alliance’s delisting of Sowetan journalist Anna Majavu have ranged from outrage to disinterest, although it’s fair to say that outrage is the dominant tone, with one organisation (the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) going so far as to say that the decision was “Goebbels-inspired”. However, very few people seem to have considered the argument in favour of her delisting. Continue reading “Freedom of the press doesn’t entail facilitating bias”