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21 years after the end of apartheid and the first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa remains a country defined by race. Despite the strong ideological tradition of non-racialism in the liberation struggle in South Africa and the centrality of the founding principle of non-racialism to the much lauded South African Constitution, the legacy of the apartheid policy of race classification and the economic, social and political stratification this system both entrenched and enforced remain all too evident today.

A recent Nelson Mandela Foundation position paper argued that public discourses on race today "are dominated by expressions of denial, alienation, obfuscation and even self-hatred" and laments the apparent disappearance of those "robust narratives of non-racism and of Black Consciousness... that defined identity in terms of a political vision and a concomitant way of life, or praxis... that shaped our struggles for liberation and our negotiating of a post-apartheid polity."i But, as Aubrey Matsiqi pointed out in 2011, "(a)ny attempt at building a non-racial society in SA will fail if it proceeds on the basis of avoiding difficult conversations about race. Also, such a nation will never come into being if we continue to posit a post-racial vision that seeks to deny the ravages of apartheid in present-day SA."ii

In an attempt to ignite reconsideration of these "robust narratives" and foster these "difficult conversations", the South African History Archive is conducting a two-year project in 2015 - 2016, drawing on archival materials to prompt inter-generational dialogues about, and educational engagements with, the history of non-racialism in South Africa. This project takes as its starting point Julie Frederikse's 1990 book, The Unbreakable Thread: Non-racialism in South Africa, and its associated archive lodged at SAHA, including recordings and transcripts of those interviews conducted in the late 1980s on which this book draws.

At the time, the author likened the advocacy of non-racialism to an unbreakable thread which, although wearing thin at times, runs through the history of the struggle for democracy in South Africa. Since the original publication of this book in 1990, this thread appears, on the surface of it, to have been woven into the country's democracy, with non-racialism being a key feature in the ANC government's post-1994 policy framework. Yet, despite the persistence with which non-racialism is referenced within both the laws on the ‘new' land and the vocabulary of public rhetoric, there seems to be little understanding of what the term ‘non-racialism" is actually intended to mean. David Everatt observed in 2010 that "it has almost as many meanings as there are speakers... Non-racialism is a slogan, but it lacks content or more accurately lacks consensual content, other than being an ideal most agree on.'iii

However, the status of non-racialism even as an "ideal" is being contested today - there is increasingly vocal scepticism of non-racialism simply being synonymous with colour blindnessiv, with pointed questioning of exactly who this "blind" non-racialism might be serving in contemporary South Africav. Recent activism on South African university campuses highlights dissatisfaction with the shallow contemporary rhetoric surrounding non-racialism as one commentator on the #IAmStellenbosch campaign commented: "Non-racialism" is the new magic cloak whiteness wears to disguise itself."vi

It is not just young South Africans who have lost faith in, or grown impatient with the term "non-racialism" - we have seen previous advocates of non-racialism distancing themselves from the term in recent years. As far back as 1998, John Sharp named the growing discontentment with non-racialism "a post-apartheid paradox". In a June 2015 paper laying out why he considers himself to no longer be a non-racialist, Suren Pillay argues that the "political present" demands of us an engagement with a "politics without guarantees" in which we "give up on both the spirited defence and the tragic lament about the fate and future of non-racialism as the sacred destination of our political horizon."viii

In contrast, other scholars have argued that instead of dismissing the concept entirely, the historically deliberate, and richly debated, use of the term over time deserves consideration. Deborah Posel recently observed in an editorial entitled "Whither non-racialism?", while the country's 'foundational commitment to non-racialism is looking a lot thinner than in the democracy's infancy', the call for a "fuller and more concerted engagement with its meaning and promise... should include, and proceed from, a reappraisal of what the term originally stood for - a meaning that ... can and should be extracted from how the term was used."ix

Hilda Bernstein, in her positive, yet critical 1991 review of The Unbreakable Thread, made the cautionary, prescient observation that what is revealed through the interviews was that non-racialism had, and has, to be fought for. Unlike nationalism, non-racialism emerged, often slowly and with difficulty, for a variety of reasons, not the least being the practical experience of struggle:

"Fundamentally non-racialism has to be learned and taught. The alternative is to assume that it is something innate, instinctive, a thread that has always been there - and is unbreakable. But non-racialism is not an intrinsic part of political consciousness... each new generation must study it and learn it for themselves. It is a breakable thread. It does not arise naturally out of South African life, as does African nationalism. It has to be learned by teaching, by experience, by example."x

What the voices in this book, in their attempts to reflect on non-racialism, reveal is a long and rich practice of meaning-making and re-making through rigorous debate, the strategic decisions in selecting and aspiring to the term "non-racialism", in different ways, in response to different pressures, over time.

Kgalema Mohlanthe spoke of the ‘dimming of this non-racial aspiration'xi in the inaugural Ahmed Kathrada Foundation 2010 annual lecture. And arguably it is the notion of aspiration that is at the core of the question on rethinking non-racialism. By bringing these voices out of the archive and into the "political present", it is hoped that this 25th anniversary commemorative edition may prompt a return to the frank talk and dedicated work South Africa is in desperate need of, if the country is to consolidate in any meaningful way a non-racial democracy that will always be coming...

Director of the South African History Archive


iNelson Mandela Foundation, 2015. Position paper: race and identity in 2015 South Africa. Available online: https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/race-and-identity-in-2015-south-africa

iiAvailable online: http://www.bdlive.co.za/articles/2011/03/08/aubrey-matshiqi-race

iiiAhmed Kathrada Foundation, 2010. Non-racialism: an unbreakable or very fragile thread of South African's democracy? Summary report of a round table discussion held in February 2010.

ivSee, for example:
Raymond Suttner, 2014. "Does non-racialism mean being colour-blind?" Daily Maverick, 10 July 2014. Available online: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-07-10-op-ed-does-building-non-racialism-mean-being-colour-blind/#.Vh41jfmqpBc; Achille Mbembe, 2014. "Blind to colour or just blind?? Mail & Guardian, 17 July 2014. Available online: http://mg.co.za/article/2014-07-17-blind-to-colour-or-just-blind

vSee, for example: Simon Howell, 2012. "The problem with non-racialism" Thought Leader, 26 November 2012. Available online: http://thoughtleader.co.za/simonhowell/2012/11/26/the-problem-with-non-racialism/

viAvailable online: https://suburbanzulu.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/iamstellenbosch/

viiJohn Sharp, 1998. "Non-racialism and its discontents: a post-apartheid paradox" International Social Science Journal, 50(156):243 - 252

viiiSuren Pillay, 2015. Why I am no longer a non-racialist. In X. Mangcu (Ed.), The colour of our future: Does race matter in post-apartheid South Africa? (pp. 133-152). Johannesburg, South Africa: Wits University Press

ixDeborah Posel, 2015. "Whither non-racialism? The new South African turns 21." Ethnic and Racial Studies 38(13).

xHilda Bernstein, 1991. "The breakable thread." The Southern African Review of Books 3: 20-21.

xiKgalema Mohlante, 2010. Address at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Lecture, 2 October 2010. Available online: http://www.gov.za/address-deputy-president-motlanthe-ahmed-kathrada-foundation-lecture

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