Arguing About Race in South Africa

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
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Jimmy Manyi and Trevor Manuel (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

In South Africa, a raging debate is under way about race, an issue that has never stopped simmering since the black-led government came to power, but which is mostly unattended and sometimes reaches the boiling point and, like now, boils over (not unlike in America since the end of slavery).

The ingredient that sparked it in South Africa this time was an open letter written by Trevor Manuel, one of the top officials in the government of the ruling African National Congress. The act was a highly unusual departure, since rarely do ANC members and officials air their grievances in public, although in recent months some of the members of the tripartite alliance that makes up the ANC — the so-called broad church of leftists, middle-of-the-roaders and others — have become increasingly vocal and critical of their partners in government. But that's another story.

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This one is about what Manuel, currently minister of national development, said and why; what ANC Cabinet spokesman Jimmy Manyi said and why; and how they have ignited memories of South Africa's recent, dark past, when the white minority government divided South Africa's people into three categories: white, black and coloured (as it is spelled in South Africa, referring to people of mixed race) — the dividing line, as in the pre-civil rights U.S. South, determined mostly by appearance. Those characterizations were eliminated on paper, when a new constitution was written after the black-led government came to power, though they are still used in some cases, including in census-data collection.

Manuel's long letter, published in a Sunday newspaper, was in response to remarks that Manyi made a year ago but that have just come to light. In one, Manyi quipped that Indians — who have some 5.9 percent of management positions and should, he said, have only 3 percent — have "bargained their way to the top."

But those words followed closely on his statement that coloureds in the Western Cape area of the country are "over-concentrated" and should look for work elsewhere. The Western Cape, by the way, is the only one of the country's 11 provinces where the ANC local authorities are not in control.

And at the moment, there is a bill pending in Parliament that would amend a 1998 employment act requiring employers to align their workforces with the "demographic profile of the national and regional economically active population." The proposed amendment deletes the words "national" and "regional," but President Zuma insists the changes would not conflict with the constitution or the nonracial ethos and foundation of South Africa. In an attempt to reassure the coloured community, the president added that the proposed change would improve their job prospects rather than make them difficult.

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The ruling ANC party also weighed in, insisting that proposed legislation was aimed at countering white domination and "not to create tensions between black, coloured and Indian South Africans." But, as one newspaper put it, "Confusion reigns over ANC jobs law," and among others, the South African Institute of Race Relations wasn't buying the president's reassurances, insisting that coloured and Indian jobs would be at risk under the proposed changes in the jobs law.

Manuel, a highly regarded former finance minister who identifies as black but who, under apartheid (and still, in the minds of many), would have been classified as coloured, was infuriated by Manyi's comments. Hence the open letter that brooked no restraint, telling Manyi in the opening paragraph to "forget for now that I am a cabinet minister and that you are a director-general [of the Department of Labor] equivalent in the same government," and explaining that he is addressing him as "a compatriot South African." He argues that Manyi's comments are "against the spirit of the South African constitution."

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As the furor built, Manyi offered an apology, saying, "Some people have taken offense," but even that further infuriated Manuel, who argued that Manyi failed "to appreciate the extent to which your utterances are both unconstitutional and morally reprehensible." Manuel goes on to state that Manyi's statements "reduce people to being mere commodities … who are the sons and daughters of those who waged the first anti-colonial battles against the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British when they set foot on our shores," and "who made huge sacrifices in the struggle against apartheid, at a time when people with views like Jimmy Manyi were conspicuous by their absence from the misery of exile, the battles at the barricades and from apartheid's jails.

"By the way," Manuel continues, "what did you do in the war, Jimmy?" Manuel then characterizes Manyi's comments as in the mold "of H.F. Verwoerd" — one of South Africa's prime ministers during the oppressive era of white minority rule.

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As the late ANC leader Chris Hani once explained, South Africans love to debate, and this exchange has affirmed that truth. Critics and defenders of each man have stepped up in print and on radio and television, with questioning of the motives of both men and calls from both sides for each to be ousted from his respective position. The ANC weighed in on Tuesday, calling out Manuel out and chastising him for speaking as a free agent, but otherwise speaking in general terms to the membership, saying that all members should refrain from acting as free agents articulating policy.

The latest to enter the fray is the highly controversial cartoonist Zapiro, who tapped into the reference Manuel made to the Freedom Charter, a 1955 document penned by an interracial coalition of groups fighting the apartheid regime, stating, "South Africa belongs to all who live in it." In Zapiro's cartoon, a male figure, labeled Manyi, is urinating on a bathroom wall labeled "The Freedom Charter." In the hall outside, President Zuma, depicted as standing under a showerhead — an ongoing Zapiro characterization of Zuma, referring to the president's statement that he took a shower after sex to protect himself against HIV — is walking with his arm around Manuel, saying, "Come on now, Trevor, you know there's still place for non-racial principles!"

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If the past is indeed prologue, this debate will be hot for a few days and then take its place on the back burner in the simmering racial pot, until the next racial episode/ingredient causes it to boil over once again. And, as in the States, the media will move on to the next boiling pot. And in neither place does the issue of racism and intolerance remain on the media's front burner. Maybe if it did, both countries could deal constructively and consistently with the elephants in their living rooms.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a frequent contributor to The Root, lives in Johannesburg.

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