01 October 2015

REPORT BACK: Tracing the unbreakable thread: non-racialism in South Africa

On 22nd September, SAHA, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, hosted a discussion that focused on non-racialism and its place in a contemporary and democratic South Africa.

The evening began with an introduction from Julie Frederikse and her reflections on the work she had done for her 1990 book The Unbreakable Thread: Non-racialism in South Africa. She described the book as 'a mashup of words and pictures: transcriptions of interviews, news conferences, political meetings, court cases, state radio and liberation movement broadcasts juxtaposed with photographs, newspaper cuttings, advertisements, flyers, posters, badges and stickers'.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of this book, SAHA has launched a virtual exhibition based on the book, including chapter reproductions and transcripts of all the interviews used in the book. It was important to commemorate this with a panel discussion, to highlight that the arguments and discussions around non-racialism have been around for a long time. When reading the interviews and research materials that informed the writing of The Unbreakable Thread in the late 1980s, it is apparent that it may be time to revisit the history of how this concept developed, and how its meaning was debated over time, as, despite the prevalence of the use of the team "non-racialism" in contemporary South Africa, people today seem uncertain about what exactly the concept has meant in the past and can mean for contemporary South Africa. 

The panelists for the discussion included Neeshan Balton (Ahmed Kathrada Foundation), Obenewa Amponsah (Steve Biko Foundation) and Sello Hatang (Nelson Mandela Foundation). Each representative spoke about the various ways their organisations approached non-racialism. The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation is based on a firm belief in non-racialism, which has been reduced to a simplistic white vs. black struggle. But it is so much more evolved in contemporary South Africa and includes issues such as poverty and issues of identity. (A research report "Re-thinking Non-racialism" and associated interviews are now also available in the SAHA online repository, courtesy of the Foundation.) 

The Steve Biko Foundation calls for a more Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) ideal of non-racialism,  BCM’s very definition of Black went beyond skin color to embrace anyone who was legally oppressed by apartheid; and as such included people of African, Asian and Mixed Race descent. In her speech on the night, Ms Amponsah also highlighted that one of the consequences of non-racialism is that talking about Race today is taboo, she mentioned that 'Rather than facing the hard and uncomfortable truths about how it’s not only hard work that has earned certain of us opportunities that others don’t have—it’s inherited privilege; and similarly the truth that no matter how hard some of us work we will still be poor and dispossessed—we retreat behind the language of nonracialism'. She ended her talk calling for a more frank and honest discussion and for 'a conversation that does not rob Black people of agency or that promotes dependency; I’m calling for a conversation that instills responsibility; a conversation that results in consistent, tangible action in our personal, professional and political lives.'

The Nelson Mandela Foundation pointed out that not enough conversations about non-racialism were had 21 years ago when South Africa becoming a democracy. Referring to a recent position paper by the Foundation on race and identity in 2015 South Africa, Mr Hatang argued that race remains one of the faultines that we need to deal with as a country and the language around non-racialism needs to change when dealing with the youth of today. Mr. Hatang also mentioned that when you are arguing with the improvement of socio-economic lives of black people you are not doing it in opposition to the privilege of white people. 

The Q&A after the panel discussion included questions about the definition of non-racialism, as well as looking at the roles of different races in the quest for a non-racial society. Questions around how to address the problems of the past and whether or not non-racialism actually addresses any of these problems. What did come across very clearly was that these conversations are still necessary in a post-apartheid South Africa, and that we need to evolve our thinking and our language when dealing with non-racialism if it is to adapt to the changing socio-political climate of South Africa. 

The materials in the online repository, along with the video interviews collected in the course of this event, will be incorporated into a SAHA youth engagement programme on questions of race and non-racialism in contemporary South Africa in 2016.

This event was supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation

The development of the new edition of The Unbreakable thread and the related online repository was supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Visit the new SAHA online repository 'Tracing the Unbreakable Thread: Non-Racialism in South Africa' to access the new edition of "The Unbreakable Thread" and a wide range of interview transcripts, images, documents relating to the history of non-racialism in South Africa.

Watch the short video report: "Tracing the Unbreakable Thread: Non-racialism in South Africa" panel discussion - 22 September 2015 from South African History Archive on Vimeo.

Read the Ahmed Kathrada report "Rethinking non-racialism: reflections of a selection of South African leaders"

Read the speech "Reflections on non-racialism" presented on the night by Ms Obenewa Amponsah of the Steve Biko Foundation

Read the Nelson Mandela Foundation position paper on race and identity in 2015 South Africa

See inventory for the Julie Frederikse collection (AL2460)