The Indian Question

Unsurprisingly two decades of purified capitalism administered by the African National Congress – with the help of the IMF and World Bank -have done little for South Africa’s poor and dispossessed. Putting it charitably the party was outwitted into giving away control of the economy and enticed into abandoning its faith in socialism. What next?

Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters are a handy distraction. On two occasions in June, Malema claimed the majority of Indians are racist and have not faced the same level of oppression as Africans and ‘coloureds’. He said those who challenged him on this score were self-evidently racists. Chair of the EFF and former head of the SABC, Dali Mpofu was given some 18 minutes on the SABC to defend Malema.

According to the 2011 census Indians make up just over 2 percent of the population. Whites (8.9 percent), Coloureds (8.9 percent) and Africans (almost 80 percent) account for the rest.

In 1972 Indian students were the vanguard of the black consciousness boycott of racially segregated universities. The boycott was followed by a wave of strikes in Durban in early 1973. A decade of silence after the imprisonment of the MK High Command and the banning of the liberation movements was broken. This renewal of public protest, ‘the Durban Moment’ was avenged by the banning and imprisonment of black consciousness activists.

John Kane-Berman (The Method in the Madness:1978) described black consciousness as an indigenous movement with three fundamental components. The first is psychological liberation; the rejection of the imposed notion of inherent inferiority and its replacement with a positive awareness of black culture, history and achievement. The second is to break the dependency on patronising white liberals, to build black organisations and spurn apartheid created institutions like Bantustans and the South African Indian Council.

Thirdly, black consciousness seeks to unite all the black people in South Africa, including Indians and Coloured people. The term ‘black’ thus encompasses Coloured people and Indians as well as Africans since they too are victims of social, political and economic discrimination…The transition from passive acceptance of an inferior status believed to be deserved to active protest against oppressive external factors is an enormous one. It is here that black consciousness had an importance and impact which the bannings are unlikely to undo.

Here is a note about ‘The Population Registration Act No 30 of 1950’ from the ‘The O’Malley Archive’.

This Act “provided for the compilation of a register of the entire South African population” (Dyzenhaus 1991: 40). The South African population now became divided into three racial groups: ‘White’, ‘Black’ (‘African’, ‘Native’ and/or ‘Bantu’) and ‘Coloured’; the last of which was further subcategorized into ‘Cape Malay’, ‘Griqua’, ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Cape Coloured’ (Christopher 1994: 103ft). Classification was determined according to physical appearance and social acceptability (incl. linguistic skills). “Anyone who contested their classification could appeal in the first instance to a special board set up for that purpose and headed by a judge or magistrate, present or former, and then to the law courts” (Riley 1991: 20).This Act was formally repealed in 1991.

Deborah Posel’s 2001 essay, “Whats in a name” captures the magnitude of the race classification project devised to secure rigorous control of the ‘non-white’ population and reassure anxious whites they were not endangered by the spectre of ‘die swart gevaar (the black danger) threatening to overwhelm their cities. Under the Population Registration Act every South African citizen would now be issued with a single authorised classification. Whether a person was declared a member of one of the black or coloured categories made a significant difference. Black Africans were subject to more repressive legislation, not least the notorious ‘pass’ laws.

All citizens, including whites, were required to furnish information about themselves and their families by way of the national census. A photograph was attached to each completed census form sent to the Director of Census for the purposes of making a racial classification. But, in practice, it was the racial verdict of the census enumerator accompanying the census form, which typically sealed the person’s race. Millions of South Africans were racially classified by this means; but it did not complete the process. In 1953, the Director of Census delegated his powers of racial classification to all officials of the Department of Native Affairs (and then again in 1969 to all public servants). Teams of classifiers were then sent out to workplaces, stations and residential areas across the country to continue the task.

Classification was an apartheid art.

Each classifier was at liberty to specify their pet criteria for race… Some officials read racial differences into the texture of a person’s hair, the notorious pencil test being used to determine the boundary between ‘white’ and ‘non-white’… For others, it was a matter of the pallor of a person’s skin – ‘a shiny face being the emblem of continuity of race’, or the feel of an ear lobe (‘softer in natives than Coloureds), or the appearance of the cheekbones (high cheekbones being seen as the sign of a Coloured). One official insisted that he could ‘tell a Coloured with absolute certainty by the way he spits’. ..At other times, various ‘stigmata’ of race were invoked, as in the use of ‘the eyelid test’ or ‘the nail test’ , or in the examination of genitalia (the degree of pigmentation of the penis or scrotum in the case of men and the pubic mound in the case of women). All in all, almost any aspect of a person’s size or shape was potentially a signifier of race, in unpredictable and idiosyncratic ways. All these seemingly narrowly biological readings of racial appearance were shot through with judgements about ‘social standing’ and ‘way of life’ – as was authorised by the terms of the Population Registration Act.

Apartheid’s racial reasoning begins with the notion that racial difference is a self-evident fact, throws biology, class and culture into the mix and  concludes that race is ubiquitous, essential and the determinant of all experience. Unsurprisingly race becomes the site of white fear. But apartheid’s reasoning also contaminated the way blacks thought about themselves.

The Population Registration Act produced techniques of thoroughgoing racialisation. Constructs of race which imagined its imprints in an elastic matrix of biological and social factors, were insinuated ubiquitously into the everyday lives of apartheid subjects, in ways that were enabled and reinforced by the materialities of apartheid’ s social geography and economic structure. Large chunks of this order remain in place, with the large majority of the black population still impoverished, economically excluded and consigned to geographically separate and under-resourced residential areas. The majority of whites too are still confined within apartheid borders of thought and experience. To this extent bioculturalist conceptions of race may retain their purchase in ways that continue to reinforce apartheid modes of racial reasoning, in the lived experience of thoroughgoing difference and separateness.

Posel ends with a question all the more provocative for having been posed 17 years ago.

Pertinent to this paper is the fact that there are now legal requirements, as well as social and political pressures, to restate old racial categories. This produces questions which thus far seem to have remained in the shadows of political debates about change. How, in a post-apartheid era, do we determine who is ‘African’, ‘Coloured’, ‘white’ and ‘Indian’? What are the criteria for racial classifications? With whom is the authority of categorising race vested? On what basis will claims to knowledge about race be issued and defended? What are the processes of racial recognition that accompany the new uses of old racial categories? And what are the consequences of these exercises for the pursuit of non-racialism?

To communicate – one to one – this nuanced understanding of the psychological and sociological impact of ‘the system’, to explain in the face of state propaganda and the security apparatus how easily apartheid provoked suspicion and resentment was the everyday task of the resistance then. What now, in a free country?  Here’s a case study.

Francis Herd of the SABC interviewed Dali Mpofu, chair of the EFF, about ‘The Indian Question’. The interview is worth deconstructing. Whether it should have been broadcast at all is another matter.

Herd begins by playing in a clip in which Julius Malema says:

“The majority of Indians hate Africans. The majority of Indians are racist. And we must never be scared to say they are racist. I’m not saying all Indians. I’m saying the majority of them.”

Herd then asks: Is it necessary to inflame divisions given our history?

Mpofu agrees that it is not necessary to inflame divisions. He is merely pointing out the inequalities created by apartheid. What he is saying is that there is a problem to be addressed.

Quite obviously the sum of apartheid’s inequalities do not amount to Indians hating Africans. Why would this be the priority of a self-proclaimed revolutionary party over unemployment, housing, education, health, sanitation and so much more?

Mpofu continues: “What you are saying would be as absurd as saying if someone says there are differences between men and women then you say they are inflaming gender divisions.”.

Herd says Mpofu is not pointing out a difference, he is stereotyping Indians as people who hate Africans.

Mpofu’s response is that he is not stereotyping Indians at all. He is stating a fact.

“Learned people ask us where’s the evidence and we say that is a stupid question. All they have to do is just phone the IEC and see the voting statistics in any Indian community in South Africa. They will realise that those communities support racist parties.

This is not true. The IEC does not and cannot provide such statistics.

Herd fails to challenge him on this. But she goes to the heart of the matter and asks whether the proof that Indians hate Africans is that they vote for the Democratic Alliance. “Will that really stand up in court, is that really the argument.”

Mpofu agrees that this is his argument. “The DA stands for the preservation of inequalities, the preservation of racism, the preservation of all the privileges that were acquired through killing our people….White people for example, 90 percent or 100 percent vote for the DA”

Herd puts it to Mpofu that he now saying that people vote for the DA because they hate Africans.

Mpofu’s response is that people choose the DA because the party seeks to maintain the status quo, the situation in which African people are on the bottom rung because of 360 years of colonialism. Basically anybody who votes for the DA is a racist.

Clearly the status quo is an ANC government in thrall to capitalism and unconcerned about the plight of the remarkable majority of people who still have faith in the party. The DA is in no position to change or preserve the status quo. Still if the DA is the fountainhead of racism why has this become an Indian Question?  

Herd: “So the EFF is maintaining that the majority of Indian people hate Africans and the proof you’re providing is that they vote for the DA.”

Mpofu’s response is to explain to Herd that a majority is 51 percent. Therefore the EFF is claiming only 51 percent of Indians are racist whereas a former Constitutional Court judge, Zac Yacoob said 90 percent of Indians are racist.

This child-smart reasoning is  a constant feature of  Mpofu’s arguments  although he is a top lawyer. Zac Yacoob has challenged Julius Malema to a public debate on the issue although this was probably unknown at the time.

Herd suggests that Zac Yacoob’s remarks can’t really be used as proof of what people think; it’s not provable.

Mpofu says Herd may not think it is provable because she may not have been a victim of race hate. But if you are a victim you know exactly what racism is.

But of course even a victim of racism cannot tell what people may be thinking without some form of evidence. Throughout the interview Mpofu relies on his  self-proclaimed victim status.

Herd asks why a victim of racial hate would want to encourage racial hate.

Mpofu’s response is that you have to take a bitter pill to cure a wound. He says that the constitution was produced to eliminate a number of inequalities. So you can speak about gender and other forms of discrimination. But talking about Indian racism is taboo.

This is strange. Here’s the former head of the SABC spewing bile at length and complaining he’s been silenced by the constitution.

Mpofu then says that under apartheid more money was spent on an Indian child than an African child and to address these inequalities you have to talk about them.

This is utterly astonishing. A black government has had 24 years not only to talk about it but to ensure that none of South Africa’s children have to repeat the experience of an impoverished childhood and threadbare schooling. 

Herd: So you’re saying its justified to attack Indians because they were the beneficiaries of apartheid through no fault of their own?

Mpofu says it is absurd to accuse him of racism when he is the victim.

This is clearly an evasion but unfortunately Herd does not press him on it. Mpofu was a member of the ANC when the party settled with apartheid. She does not ask why Mpofu is targeting Indian as opposed to other ‘beneficiaries’ now. 

Herd: You’re lumping all Indians together, you’re making judgments on the colour of their skin.

Mpofu does not dispute Herd’s assertion. Instead he says she should be attacking Zac Yacoob .

“Why are you not accusing him of attacking Indians. The fact that you attack someone who says 51 percent, but the one who says 90 percent is not attacked is itself racist. Because you are discriminating between the other one because he is of Indian extraction. You see that’s how sick the society is.”

In short there is nothing wrong about claiming the majority of Indians are racists and he is only being put on the spot because he is African.

Herd: You must admit that emphasising race over and over again can deepen divisions…why can’t you let South Africans say, “no I am not going to be defined by the past”.

Mpofu: “No that’s the biggest problem you are making. You think racism is in the past. Racism is here. Between you and me, as we are sitting here, someone is looking at a black man and a white woman. So racism is alive.

It’s a pity that Herd does not ask Mpofu to explain this.

Mpofu goes on: “This thing about Rainbowism is the biggest load of nonsense you’ve ever heard in your life. In any event you can’t say you want a rainbow nation in which you don’t see colour because the rainbow itself has got colours.”

Herd does not ask how this relates to his claim that Indians hate Africans.

Instead, alluding to the demonization of Jews in Germany and the consequences, she asks why the EFF chooses to emphasise that Indians hate Africans, over and over again.

Mpofu: “We are the truth people, my sister.”

Herd: Are there no dangerous consequences?

Mpofu: “The Bible says the truth shall set you free…If we are going to egg walk around the problem we will never resolve racism in this country for your children and your grandchildren.”

In short the EFF’s attack on Indians is necessary to save whites from suffering racism in perpetuity. Inflaming racial tensions is Biblically justified.

Herd: You called it the Indian Question. Does it not harken back to the Native Question, the Jewish Question.

Mpofu: “No, in the ANC it’s called the National Question…The main objective of the ANC is to liberate blacks in general and Africans in particular. And that whole thing is called the National Question.

And so, according to the chair of the EFF, the liberation of blacks, which includes Indians , coloureds and Africans, is peculiarly dependent on advancing the claim that Indians, a sliver of the population, hate Africans. Perversely, The National Question of how to address capitalist exploitation, racial injustice, colonialism and imperialism has become the Indian Question for the EFF . Clearly there must be a motive for such obvious whitewash.

Herd: I’m not querying why you’re raising Africanness.  I’m querying why you are undermining Indians.

Mpofu blames the media. He says EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu objected to the treasury’s deputy director general Ismail Momoniat – who is Indian -briefing a parliamentary committee because it undermined African leadership. “But you in the media decided that had something to do with Indianness.”

The transcript shows clearly that Momoniat’s racial identity was the central issue.

Herd: He would not have said that to another African person.

Mpofu says that Shivambu’s actions were analogous to someone resisting gender discrimination.

Herd points out that Momoniat was acting on the instructions of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene‎, who is African.  “What are you saying about his ability to lead?

Mpofu provides another analogy. He says those Africans overshadowed by Momoniat may have reacted like battered women in denial. “The victim is not the sole determinant of whether or not they are being undermined.”

Herd: Perhaps Momoniat is the guy Nene trusts to represent him in parliament.

Mpofu: “Its the same thing. It’s like saying a women who is being battered…”

Herd: “Are you not undermining black leadership then?”

Mpofu: “That’s exactly the point I’m making. If we say let’s take you away from this abusive husband and she says no I want to remain, then you say, no, no you’re undermining her by rescuing her from abuse. What is that?”

Dali Mpofu is a celebrity lawyer and a member of South Africa’s black elite.  He virtue-signals copiously but provides little support for an especially inflammatory claim that scapegoats the country’s smallest minority for the failures of the government. It lends credence to the notion that the EFF is not really a Marxist-Leninist party but an aggrieved faction of South Africa’s neoliberal coterie and a threat to the development of a more assertive labour movement.


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