22 September 2016

Tracing the Unbreakable Thread at Ike's

SAHA marked Heritage Month in Durban this year with the launch of the commemorative edition, both print and online, of Julie Frederikse's "The Unbreakable Thread: Non-racialism in South Africa" at Durban’s iconic Ike's Books & Collectables on the evening of 21 September. 

SAHA book launch and panel discussion on non-racialism held at Ike's Books in Durban on 21 September 2016

After an initial input from author Julie Frederikse reflecting on her experiences as a young journalist writing this "southern African mash-up" in the late 1980sProfessor Crain Soudien, CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), kicked off the substantive discussions on the heritage of non-racialism today by sketching a history of this inherently South African term, asserting that non-racialism is a contribution to de-colonialism. Today there is no one definition of the term; rather Soudien argued that it has been gutted of meaning:

“The way the term non-racialism is being used is essentially as a synonym for multi-racialism. It’s a discourse essentially of tolerance, but non-racialists want to go beyond tolerance.”

Soudien maintained that even though non-racialism was historically linked to multi-racialism that is not what it is now. He proposed that the term "anti-racism" may better reflect the intent behind the development of non-racialism as a concept, a call for individuals to resist being constituted by the dominance of race, and rather be actively working towards understanding what makes us human beyond how we look in our daily lives. 

Panelist Phila Msimang, a young academic from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, continued the discussion by imagining what a checklist for a non-racial society might look like, and aptly demonstrating how South African is scoring poorly on this front.

“Non-racialism is not itself a way of arranging society. It is rather the rejection of the idea that race should determine the path of one’s life and it is the recognition that race is a social construct. Moving beyond this, we need to imagine what the structure of our non-racial society should be. A substantial notion of non-racialism can be one that is coupled with egalitarianism. A truly non-racialist society requires a substantial notion of equality: non-racialism requires social and material equality, amongst other things, and not just political equality. ”

The commemorative edition of the book was well-received, with Dr Kira Erwin of the Urban Futures Centre (UFC) at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) noting: "The stories in the book beautifully illustrate the messy struggles and negotiations of coming together to fight for a better future; it is in this process that the ideas of non-racialism become a lived practice for the people interviewed”.

Phila Msimang commented: "What is striking in some of the interviews in the book was the collaborative effort during the struggle years across different groups of people trying to realise a non-racial society. They did this whilst engaging with their own racial identities in relation to the highly racialized society in which they existed. We have much to learn from these stories."

SAHA thanks Professor Soudien, Phila Msimang and Julie Frederikse for taking part in this event, to Ike's Books & Collectibles, Adam's Books for helping SAHA to bring this event to Durban, and to the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung for funding this SAHA project and publication. 

The UFC will be hosting a follow-up seminar with Julie Frederikse in October 2016, entitled "Non-racialism in South African history: in words and pictures", where she will discuss the approach that gave rise to her book on non-racialism and her previous works, which emerged from her work as a journalist in the 1980s. She will also speak about her oral history work, and the related archival collection at SAHA, as well as the ways that ordinary people can contribute to archiving and curating our country’s history, including her work across different forms of media, including radio, print and film. See http://www.dut.ac.za/faculty/engineering/urban_futures/weekly-seminars/ for more information.

Limited print copies of the commemorative edition are available for purchase (R250) from Ike's and Adam's Books in Durban and other independent booksellers, and by order directly from SAHA.

Visit SAHA's virtual exhibition Tracing the Unbreakable Thread: non-racialism in South Africa to access chapters of the book, alongides interview transcripts and other primary sources collected in the course of researching and writing The Unbreakable Thread.