Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sawyer seminar - In a Moment of Danger

The Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was awarded a Sawyer Seminar by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to host a series of events during 2010 and 2011. The Seminar is to be used to develop fresh perspectives on the quandaries and puzzles of the present democratic moment in South Africa from the vantage point of the relationship between race, property and poverty and justice. More information on the series is available on http://www.sawyerseminar-wits.co.za/

The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC) is hosting the series, and the first reading group on Old and New Racial Formations began last week. Over the next months, participant will reflect on the readings and the discussions on race. Today’s blogging is by Micaela Alicia Smith, a PhD student from Los Angeles, and a doctoral fellow with the JWTC.

Please feel free to participate in the developing conversation by posting comments.

Reading the Flashpoints of South African Race Relations

The Sawyer Seminar readings and discussion for April 14th centered around the themes of peace and conquest, property and privilege, and the uneven and contested racial terrain structuring South African life, both within its historical and contemporary moment.

The discussion generated some productive comments on the structures of racial and class hierarchies, specifically when thinking through the South African Frontier and the violent embattlement for land and labor between Afrikaner burgher settlers, British colonial settlers, and Xhosa peoples. “Race is the modality through which class is lived,” is one of the most well-known phrases of cultural theorist Stuart Hall. If Afrikaner historian Hermann Giliomee argues Afrikaner victimhood centered around their identification as “a subject and inferior race,” can Hall’s argument be applied to Afrikaner burghers? At the same time, Giliomee argues the relations between Afrikaner burghers and Xhosa peasants were not rooted in a racial hierarchy; rather Afrikaner insistence on creating their own nation was primarily to maintain their hierarchy based on social status. A question raised was how to think through these tensions when social status cannot be defined without invoking race. A participant commented perhaps a more productive question can be: If we take as a given the ways in which both race and class structure the political economy of settler power, we can then ask: How do race and class differently produce and animate each other depending on the particular historical moment we are looking at?

The discussion then turned to whether we can identify the set of struggles Giliomee articulates as still remaining with us today. Can we live together? In a state of conquest, how is the making of order and peace produced? Property is understood as the material possession of land and cattle but it must not be forgotten property is first and foremost the materiality of one’s own body. The economy of one’s own survival, the right to defend oneself, makes the establishment of Truth and Justice for the State especially difficult when property is also used as a weapon of war. In these moments it becomes hard to identify the enemy, the loser, the racial Other—as this Other is also always shifting, where one cannot exist/survive without the other.

Yet, to what extent lies the danger of identifying this constantly contested racial terrain and the fluidity of each historical moment that defies any clear cut answers— like the dancing play of history, as accident and event? The danger can be navigated through a return to the everyday experiences of those marginalized, Black lives, their happiness, their pain, their desires. This is to say, while the fluidity and multiple subject positions each person inhabits are well understood and accepted, we must also attend to the logic of race and capital as fixing race and class, both historically and today—this unchanging racial logic we have inherited with the centuries of violent struggle over capital accumulation. Once located within the bodies of enslaved and their extracted labor, how do we read and bear witness to the planned evictions of the urban poor in preparation for the 2010 World Cup—a plan that will leave thousands homeless in an effort to cleanse the downtown urban core? How do we read the complete destruction of living settlements as if they never were, what are the interconnected strategies for state-building that promote urban regeneration at the same time there is a move to dehumanize lived neighborhoods as 'slums' and as sites of criminality that must be “cleaned up”?

This dredge of history, this cumulative weight, this act of conquest as a set of waves always made anew, also identifies the pain that does not change, that race is continually manifest for whites and Black people through very different lived experiences and investments. A question raised was how to read white fear, generated most recently by the murder of Eugene Terreblanche. A participant argued white fear is situated primarily vis-à-vis white wealth, since it is white cumulative wealth that has been crafted from the exploitation and active disinvestment of people of color. The history of Black revolt, including the burning of township schools by Black students is an act of self-inflicted violence — by burning a symbol of class mobility, Black youth are forcing whites, and the world at large, to pay attention to them, to recognize the separate and unequal system of education structuring Black life. While the embodiment of white privilege allow whites to feel threatened only through the fear of Black revolt, Black survival, rich and poor, cannot escape race as it structures their everyday life, where they live, where they work, where they play.

In this moment, on what basis can Truth and Justice be established? We can identify the same tensions that structured the Frontier Wars between white settlers and the indigenous African nations during the 19th century as still with us today. The murder of Eugene Terreblanche perhaps can be best understood as the most recent flashpoint of race relations. It is these moments that force the public to pay attention, yet we must also pay attention to the surprising alliances and to the fissures that open up because of the inherently unstable act of conquest. These are the possibilities and dangers we must attend to and which will continue to generate discussion for us—most especially when our discussions are grounded in a close reading of the texts, as these texts illuminate the other perhaps more subtle flashpoints living with us today.

Micaela Alicia Smith