February 22, 2002 Friday
SA Must Transcend Its Divided
BYLINE: Mail &
LENGTH: 1341 words
In December last year a
group from the Centre for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of
California published the results of a potentially ground-breaking study on
the perception of race carried out on a group of undergraduate
Social psychologists had long regarded race, along with sex and age, as one of the
three immutable, primary categories into which people classified others.
However, the evolutionary psychologists, Robert Kurzban, John Tooby and
Leda Cosmides, argued that the important factor
determining genetic survival in our evolutionary past was to detect
hostile or potentially hostile alliances - and not race per se.
To summarise, they found that if some other external
feature denoted an alliance, shirt colour for instance, the salience of race diminished markedly in the eyes of
observers while the power of sexual categorisation remained unchanged.
These findings appeared in the prestigious journal,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and have elicited
favourable comment in the scientific media.
The results will need to be tested further under different
experimental conditions, including those more closely related to "real
life". But the findings do confirm the intuitive perception that allowing
race to become a political bone of
contention promotes racial antagonism - or racism. Both common sense and
now scientific evidence offer hope that race need not be the
divisive factor it is in our national life, if only we grasp and act on
the import of these data.
And the implications are quite clear: if group interests
are allowed to coalesce around race, they will remain
a potent element of our individual and collective psychology, impervious
to moralising around the evils of racism.
The expression and, possibly, even the consciousness of race may be partly suppressed through social
pressure, but it will remain a dangerous, unconscious factor primed to
release its destructive effects under the right conditions.
This will hardly seem like news to many readers. Our
history could hardly have been more calculated to enhance the potency of
race as a primary identity in the minds of
most South Africans.
From the earliest arrival of Europeans, and even before,
sharp divisions of group interests formed along racial divides. While the
primary division has been between "black" and "white" other significant
cleavages are also present, all contributing to the pervasive group
feeling that underlies the surface of South African life.
The continued use of a biological marker, race, to differentiate between South African
citizens is justified under the heading of "transformation".
The basis for this policy is simple. It is widely
acknowledged that South African society is profoundly skewed along
racial-economic lines, that a substantial majority of our population has
been systematically subjected to oppressive and discriminatory policies
and that these two realities are causally related. While not all of the
asymmetry in South African society can be attributed to apartheid and its
precursors, it's certainly true that a mainly white minority has benefited
and a mainly black majority has been severely disadvantaged in the
struggle for economic and social well-being.
This history underpins the current emphasis on the redress
of demographic distortions in South African society through "reverse
discrimination" or, more euphemistically, "affirmative action". Hence,
South Africans continue to be classified and ordered in terms of the
biological categories of race and sex that remain significant
determinants of opportunity and reward and, consequently, potent
psychological categories in the collective unconscious of the vast
majority of South Africans.
I, and many others, have argued that "transformation"
should be construed in broader terms than racial redress without nega-ting
its importance. Perhaps sight should not be lost of the reality that a
major "transformation" has already occurred with the achievement of a
universal democracy in 1994. The consequences of this will work through
the South African consciousness for decades to come. But, of course, it is
not enough. Policy must address all components of the damage done to South
Africans through its colonial and apartheid history.
Chief among these has been the consistent relegation of
"merit" to a secondary role in determining opportunity, reward and
justice. This trend did not start with the present government or even with
apartheid - it persisted unabated through the centuries of ethno-racial
conflict culminating in the access to power of the National Party in 1948
and is perpetuated by the present government to this day.
The substitution of birth characteristics, whether based on
racial, sexual/gender or status criteria, for "merit", is now widely
recognised as both unjust and anti-democratic. Hence our Constitution
expressly excludes such criteria as determinants of opportunity, justice
or reward. Perhaps less widely appreciated is the harm that such practices
cause at both the individual and collective levels.
One of these has already been alluded to, the creation of a
powerful racial consciousness, which readily manifests as divisive racism.
Such divisions result in the immense alienation of significant sectors of
the South African population who perceive themselves as victims of
injustice and discrimination; it is the overriding theme of our
The consequences of such alienation on the psyches and
behaviour of the black community have been widely documented. This, I may
add, has also been true of all other ethno-racial sectors at different
times in the South African story. Why should architects of the current
approach to transformation not recognise that whites as a whole will
respond in much the same way, unless they are able to escape overseas as
so many are doing?
Space constraints unfortunately prevent further exploration
of the multidimensional, negative impact of reverse discrimination, but
surely these are well-known. We must create "transformative" policies that
promote the natural redress of demographic inequities without
reintroducing the disastrous features of South African history.
There is no compelling evidence that racial divisions will
wither away as the black community achieves greater economic power. It
seems equally possible that the necessity for catering to the claims of a
new ethnic elite will limit the economic empowerment of the impoverished
black masses and result in intensification of current divisions even if
only to divert dissatisfaction. Further- more, the gains made by one
community will elicit resentment if they occur in a racialised context.
Such tensions have the potential to undermine advances made in other
The answer is to promote all attempts to move away from the
prevailing racial paradigm that supports the South African political
arena. The creation of a genuine multi/non-racial opposition, as proposed
by Herman Giliomee recently ("Wanted: Leaders with a clear vision",
February 8), which is committed to delivery and a working democracy is an
essential first step in normalising South African politics around issues
other than race. No leader who claims to have the good
of the country at heart should allow personal agendas or antagonisms to
stand in the way of this development.
Besides that, South African pressure groups must not
hesitate to use the Constitution to enforce the ideals of our fledgling
democracy. Thus the current application of "quotas" must be challenged as
must be any practice that limits the rights of the citizen to opportunity,
the rights and benefits of our society or the legitimate rewards of
So far, such action has been mainly limited to Aids
activists. There is a great need for a more courageous and pro-active
stance by those who believe that South Africa can and must transcend its
divided history and become a home for all. This is a challenge for all races in our country.
SUBJECT: PSYCHOLOGY (90%); RACE & RACISM (89%); SCIENCE
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February 21, 2002
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