THE NATIONAL QUESTION: NON-RACIALISM or ETHNICISM – POISED ON A THRESHOLD – A reflection on the 58th Freedom Charter Day 2013


(Patric Tariq Mellet 26/06/2013

There is a fairly widely held view of ANC history which is a misrepresentation that has no factual basis. This is the view that the ANC only opened up its membership to all national groups for the first time in 1985 after the Kabwe conference.JOHN GOMAS ET AL

Certainly at the Kabwe Conference there was a vigorous debate which involved three different viewpoints and the one viewpoint that ANC should be open to all, emerged as the majority viewpoint. But this debate developed from a political climate post 1959 and had its roots in practices of a tactical nature by some and a reactionary nature by others, rather than in the ANC policy or its constitution which declared for the first time in 1943 took a non-racial position in saying that “Persons over the age of 17 who were willing to subscribe to the aims of Congress and abide by its constitution may become an individual member on application.”

The ANC in reviewing its constitution in 1958 stated:

“Membership of Congress shall be open to any person above the age of 18 who accepts its principles, policy and programs and is prepared to abide by its constitution and rules.” The 1958 ANC Constitution also acknowledged “the right of all members to take part in elections and to be elected to any committee, commission or delegation of Congress.”

The late Prof Jack Simons, activist, historian and ANC/MK Political Commissar indeed outlined these facts in his paper produced in June 1985 which influenced the Kabwe Conference debate – THE FREEDOM CHARTER, EQUAL RIGHTS AND FREEDOM.

In the same paper Comrade Jack Simons also clarified the ANC had prior to 1943 been an organisation where membership had been restricted to indigene Africans only but that the ANC’s historical position of how it defined ‘Africans’ was as being inclusive of ‘Coloured’ people. He says, “The ANC Constitution first published in 1919 provided…that individual members all required to belong to the ‘aboriginal races of Africa’. This proviso was interpreted to include ‘Coloured’ on the assumption that ancestors of at least one parent were aborigines.”

In practice there were prominent ‘Coloured’ ANC members from the beginning in the ANC and indeed who held office in the ANC without any restriction as per the examples of Cape leaders such as Johnny Gomas and James la Guma who also served in the leadership of the National Liberation League and other organisations.

The ANC furthermore worked closely with other Cape leaders of the African Political Organisation (later called the African Peoples Organisation) such as Matthew Fredericks, Ojer Ally and Dr Abdurrahman. The naming of this institution clearly spelt out the deeply held belief in the “Coloured” communities of being AFRICAN.

But the ANC regardless of its non-racial constitution, post 1943, in practice still did not attract many “Coloured” members outside of Kimberley, Port Elizabeth, Worcester, Paarl and some quarters of Cape Town.

Although there were whites, mainly communists and a few liberals, who worked closely with the ANC, they too did not join the ANC at this time, but this is not because they were not allowed to join. Indians too, collaborated closely with the ANC and influenced it strongly but joined the South African Indian Congress. So, de facto, there was a tendency towards tactically operating in separate silos but cooperation between those silos.

Pragmatically or tactically it was from these practices on the ground that a Coloured People’s Congress and the white Congress of Democrats was formed as a means to reached out and draw these communities in close cooperation to the ANC. It was from this that the Congress of the People emerged in 1955 and it adopted the FREEDOM CHARTER which Jack Simons used to anchor his ground-breaking paper of 1985. Their argument was that the tactics towards unity had created Unity in Action and had in fact triumphed over the colonial and Apartheid strategy of “Divide and Rule”.

Today we celebrate the 58th Anniversary of the Freedom Charter adopted on 26 June 1955 and have cause to reflect on our achievements and failures regarding resolution of what we came to call the National Question.

The political approach of establishing “group” congresses and a Congress of the People was one of strategy and tactics and not an end in itself. It should be noted that these tactics was heavily criticised from a number of quarters at the time and it certainly did court problems over the decades that followed, some of which we still sit with today. On the positive side it united a broad cross section of people across the Apartheid ‘Race’ silos in very successful resistance movement that was victorious in forcing the Apartheid Regime into negotiations. But on the negative side within a few years this tactical action became entrenched as a rigid outlook among people in all of these formations who began to accept this silo approach as “the Congress way”.

It was not the “Congress Way” in that it was moving in the direction of Apartheid multi-racialism as different to non-racialism or anti-racism. There was a fairly strong core within the liberation movement across political formations, including within the ANC that champion ethno-nationalism where only those African identities recognised by Apartheid as “Native” or “Bantu” were considered to be African or “Black” in the Apartheid ethnicised version of that term. Thus an active push emerged to de-Africanise those the Apartheid Regime classified as “Coloured” people.

The colonial and Apartheid system had created a common label  of “Coloured” for the descendants of a range of indigenous African tribes – the Nama, Korana, Damara, Griqua, San, Cape Khoi as well as those who had some Khoi ancestry as well as substantial African creole ancestry which some of us refer to as Camissa heritage – 70% African slave ancestry mixed with 30% Indian and Southeast Asian Slave ancestry; and including African and Asian indentured labour ancestry and some admixture of non-conformist Europeans. Both the Genocide and Ethnocide faced by the indigenous tribes of the Cape and the crime against humanity – Slavery – faced by these people is the well documented worst experience of all Africans during the first two and a half centuries of colonisation in South Africa.

In 1904 within the official Cape Colony census a figure of 85 892 persons broken down the figures for each town noted those classified as “Hottentot” (Khoi) and included Africans of Nama, Korana, Damara, Griqua, San, and Cape Khoi identity. (this would be around 1 million today) The same census noted 288 151 people of “Mixed/Coloured” classification referring to descendants of former Slaves, Free Blacks, Masbiekers, “liberated Africans” from both East and West Africa, Indentured labourers, migrants of colour, and with some admixture of Khoi and European. The Masbiekers were Slave descendants from East Africa, as well as English speaking Southern African indentured labourers from outside of South Africa. Most original Masbiekers came from Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Limpopo province, Mpumalanga province and KZN province during the period 1780 – 1870s.

In the 1911 census after the formation of the Union of South Africa, these indigenous tribes called “Hottentots” and these “mixed” descendants of African roots and Asian roots were thrown together under a single classification as “Coloured” numbering 454 959. The predominant identity of the people classified “Coloured” was African but was artificially separated from other Africans simply as a buffer tactic by white people who translated this into physical manifestations of buffer townships.

It is out of this tactical “divide and rule” environment by the European colonialists and the counter tactics of the unity building process using group platforms that the “Narrow Ethno- Nationalist” tendency gained traction from the late 1950s onwards taking a militant stand of de-Africanising those labelled “Coloured”.  Alongside this progression of events, unlike the “Coloured” people who joined the ANC and also developed tactical formations like the non-racial African Political Organisation, National Liberation League and United Front, the longstanding South African Indian community had established its own Indian political formations which made an alliance with the ANC in the famous Doctors Pact. Then too, a white liberal-left organisational formation called the Congress of Democrats allied with the ANC. The ANC then took an initiative to encourage leaders in the “Coloured” community to create a tactical formation called the South African Coloured People’s Congress, but it closed down within 9 years for various reasons.

ANC from late 1959 onwards the ANC lost sight of the past valiant history of Africans labelled as “Coloured” and began to adopt this way of thinking that ghettoised “Coloured” people, referring to them as a non-African minority.  From this the false notion, it began to be said that the ANC is not an organisation that was open to all and had a restricted membership. And this was what Professor Jack Simons, the popular MK political commissar, spoke out against and wrote about in the lead up to the Kabwe Conference.

The mythology that led to the de-Africanisation of “Coloured” people was enhanced in 1969 after the Morogoro conference when a split took place and the small “Group of Eight” ethno-nationalists were suspended and formed the ANC-African Nationalist. But these were only a small group and within the ANC the broader supporters of this antagonism to “Coloured”, White and Indian participants in the liberation movement continued to uphold the ethno-nationalist approach. The notion of “Coloured” as “Non-African” evolved further when antagonisms to the Black Consciousness Movement surfaced and was seen as a threat to the old guard. The ANC fundamentally were scornful of the notion of a single identity of all oppressed black people, meaning “all people of colour” as elaborated upon by Steve Biko. The ANC had become comfortable in using the same multi-racial silos that was used by the Apartheid regime. Contrary to the core black unity approach of the Black Consciousness Movement which was incorrectly interpreted as a platform that was more aligned with the PAC and the ANC-AN, the ANC took a scornful approach. The Apartheid regime after the national youth uprisings in 1976 and 1977 in a rather successful tactic repealed the use of the term ”Bantu” (which had succeeded the term – “Native”) and replaced it with an etnicised version of the term “Black” now meaning only those tribes that the Apartheid regime deemed to be Africans. The ANC in a sop to the ethno-nationalists in its ranks and those suspended ANC-AN thus came up with the formulation still used today – “the oppression of blacks, Africans in particular”. In a stroke it adopted the Apartheid de-Africanisation of “Coloured” people.

To legitimise this move, it argued that “Coloured” people were junior beneficiaries of Apartheid and had not suffered as much under colonialism and Apartheid as those tribes recognised as “Blacks” (Natives/Bantu) during the long history of colonialism in South Africa. The ANC effectively did what the Apartheid National Party did. It airbrushed history in favour of an ethno-nationalist base. This effectively resulted in spreading the seeds of counter ethno-nationalist movements among those tribes forced under the label “Coloured”. The ANC also effectively entrenched the Apartheid philosophy of multi-racialism and “Apart – ness”.

It all started when the ANC took an ultra-cautious approach to ensure continued unity in 1969 at the Morogoro conference to ensure that no further damage was done by the “gang of eight”. Progressives in the ANC conference tactically agreed that under the circumstances, leadership of the National Executive Committee would in practice be restricted to exclude ‘Coloured’, ‘White’ and ‘Indian’ members until further review. By this time the ANC was on the cusp of re-affirming leading organisation status in the national liberation struggle. The left supported this move even although there was some discomfort. For the first time the ANC was also attracting larger numbers of “Coloured” supporters and also for the first time, larger numbers of white supporters. Due to the waves of imprisonment and exile, these were joining the ANC as members too. Indian South Africans now no longer had an Indian Congress, so they too were joining the ANC and because of the pressures from the ethno-nationalist right it had a tricky balancing act to perform. All of these had also answered the call to arms and had joined Umkhonto we Sizwe. The realities on the ground were bringing change into what was a fairly conservative movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. The ANC became very adept at managing change and was harsh on any deviation from from its compromise positions.

By the time of the Kabwe Conference in 1985 the ANC had thoroughly reviewed the tactics of the mid 1950s and the interim restrictions on who could be in the executive and weighed up the dangers posed by some of the interim restrictive measures adopted which ran contrary to the ANC constitution. Thus the ANC returned to fully upholding the principles of open membership first established in 1943 and re-confirmed in 1958. But the culture had already become deeply entrenched and would rise to the fore under Jacob Zuma in later years.

As far as those labelled as ‘Coloured’ were concerned, many voices in exile, in MK, in the underground inside South Africa and in the Mass Democratic Movement and the Trades Union Movement were also in no mood to accept the notion that they were a non-African minority as a few over-amplified voices within the ANC were increasingly labelling ‘Coloured’ people.

In terms of the 1919 Constitution of the ANC, people classified by the colonial and Apartheid authorities as “Coloured” had a long history of placing emphasis on the fact that most had indigenous or aboriginal bloodlines, as well as African slave bloodlines, besides having some Asian slave roots and a degree of European roots. But just as Walter Sisulu declared his African roots and the culture of his mother, despite having a white father, people labelled “Coloured” who were in the liberation movement emphasised their pride in being just as African as Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana and other national groups. Some began to have a discourse as to how this could be expressed in a manner that was not ethnic or ‘race’ or colour orientated, but focussed on a rich African heritage as descendants of indigenes and slaves. While some were comfortable with the term “Coloured” these were mainly the older generation. All however were agreed that a people, culture and heritage did exists that was as legitimate as any other African social identities and heritages such as Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi et al. It would take some time and for freedom to be realised for this to crystallise into two streams. One stream being those who wished to simply have their indigenous identities restored to the pre 1911 identities and then those who began to say that they have a Camissa identity. In both cases, other than those tiny delinquent elements on the fringe and who indulge in fakery, the two streams both claim the same overarching affinity to being Africans.

Those labelled as ‘Coloured’ were particularly proud to proclaim their Indigenous ancestry and strongly believed in black unity of all Africans. As descendants of South Africa’s oldest foundation indigenous peoples, they rejected the crass notion that somehow lumped them as non-Africans alongside whites, and played into the hand of Apartheid divide and rule ideology.

This notion of “Coloured” as non-African however, post 1994 became more and more vogue in the ANC and led to policies of exclusion which disempowered ‘Coloured’ people and to the practice of aberrations. This in turn led to a huge backlash of “Coloured” people towards the ANC. Because the ANC leadership became very much out of touch with the feelings of people on the ground it has led to the ANC being seen as no different to the Apartheid regime. Unfortunately there are some “coloured” people in the ANC who are not willing, informed or able to speak truth to power. Regardless of loss of support the ANC leadership remains deaf to the pleas of community leaders and rather listens to characters with little standing in communities. All of the hard work that Oliver Tambo had done to build strong and deep alliances between those labelled divisively as ‘Blacks’ and ‘Coloureds’ began to unravel.  All of the hard work of Reg September, Alexa la Guma and the sacrifice of life by Dulcie September, Basil February, Ashley Kriel, Robbie Waterwitch, Colleen Williams and others to build support in “Coloured” or Camissa and Khoi communities has been squandered by the ANC marriage to Apartheid “divide and rule” approaches that it adopted. The ANC simply poured old wine into new wineskins. This unity needs to be rebuilt from scratch.

Post 1994, more and more ‘Coloured’ people felt “othered” and rejected as past ANC constitutional principles and acceptance of “Coloured” as Africans waned in favour of separate-ness policies and practices as communities were now labelled as a “Non-African Minority”. With de-Africanisation linked to the Apartheid phrase “oppressed blacks and Africans in particular” which has become the badge of narrow ethno-nationalists in the ANC, the black unity dream of Steve Biko was shattered. “Coloured” or Camissa people had happily supported Affirmative Action as necessary for correcting white domination and black social and economic exclusion, but had never supported the adoption of the very same Apartheid silos which separated “Coloured” people from being beneficiaries of our liberation struggle, as some kind of ‘race’ set apart, now being used as a tool for implementing Affirmative Action and BBBEE. The notion of ‘Coloured’ being a ‘race’ is complete nonsense. Shamefully the courts had to rule on this matter and the ANC government was shown to have adopted Apartheid reasoning, but has not apologised and continues with what “Coloured” or Camissa and Khoi communities regard as insult and oppression.

The skewed reasoning for excluding ‘Coloured’ people from the umbrella of ‘African’ went something along these lines:

It is said that because the colonialists and Apartheid architects favoured some limited privileges for some “Coloured” people as part of their “divide and rule” tactics, and that this tiny beneficiary sub-set also included collaborators, therefore all “Coloured” people should not be considered as Africans nor benefit in the same manner from restorative justice and economic redress. This of course ignores the fact that limited benefits and collaboration was extended to and engaged in by all other Africans in the form of those who were part of Bantustan infrastructure, the SADF, SAPS and the security police, who benefitted handsomely and made up much larger numbers. It is a fallacious argument. Those labelled “Coloured” can actually show a history of genocide, ethnocide, land and livestock theft, gruesome tortures and executions over 176 years of resistance wars that is much worse than that endured by any other society in the resistance struggle. Post 1994 no redress of this long legacy of Colonialism and Apartheid has been offered to “Coloured”, or Camissa and Khoi communities. It is a blot on our liberation struggle to be marginalised and discriminated against in this manner.

Save for a very tiny middle class, most “Coloured” people were as poor as other Africans, unemployment was as high and access to education was the lowest in the country, and most are still at the receiving end of exploitation by those who had always exploited them. Recently released statistics shows an alarming picture of “Coloured” people being no better off than other Africans and in some areas doing worse than most. The past and present are so similar that NO HOPE prevails.

“Coloured” people were and continue to be treated like slaves in rural areas, were subject to mass forced removals, loss of homes and income. job reservation, even although there were a few relatively insignificant variations to that of other Africans, put a ceiling on progress. Homelessness and landlessness affected most “Coloured” people adversely and little or nothing has been done to change this with many now on waiting lists that started 30 – 40 years ago. This still continues for most.

In saying this, nobody can deny that in the Western Cape in particular, that a tiny “Coloured” middle class with a strong consciousness around the need for education made some major advances despite the adversity of Apartheid and, that the Apartheid regime did their utmost to try to win these over and engaged in much manipulation in doing so. But likewise the resistance from this quarter to Apartheid machinations was equally strong. The ANC under Oliver Tambo had a focus that was always on the latter resistance rather on the quislings which benefitted from Apartheid. The ANC post liberation betrayed Tambo’s embrace of “Coloured” or Camissa and Khoi people. There were also always that rump which preferred being 2nd class to Baas rather than 1st class to their fellow Africans, but they do not define the majority. Some amongst the latter are today very keen on developing an ethnic party or throwing their lot in with the DA. But most “Coloured” or Camissa and Khoi led the same oppressed lives that their fellow Africans led and engaged in the same struggles.

There was no rationale for treating one African group identity different from any of the others. While some suggest that “Coloured” people were too close to whites, every African community and not just “Coloured” people had some degree of collaboration under colonial and Apartheid circumstances. Remember the Mfengu. Why should some Africans, belonging to an “othered” group, be singled out for perceived punishment and enforced dispossession of their African identity. The vast majority of ‘Coloured’ people were oppressed by Apartheid and showed their rejection of the Apartheid tri-cameral elections where the maximum participation was around 5%. But  the ANC today suffers from amnesia.

Comrade Jack Simons warned against ethnic tendencies and said that once the genie of ethnicism is let out of the bottle and given any credibility it will turn into a demon which will spread and negatively infect everything. This genie will begin creating clones. Ethnicism will begin to fight ethnicism with new forms ethnicism. The history of racism and Apartheid can easily metamorphous into fascist Ethnicism. We see signs of this developing all over in South Africa and most strongly here in the Western Cape. We need to change our way of doing things before it is too late. In commemorating the 58th Anniversary of the Freedom Charter and in the run up to the next general election we need to start seeing some leadership on this issue. Alas no leadership seems to be forthcoming and people keep trotting out the same tired old mantras. I have requested an opportunity sometime soon to discuss this with the President; so concerned am I about the road we are presently travelling down in this regard.

We must not let bitterness set in and “Coloured” or Camissa and Khoi people should not be pushed away from the ANC into the arms of their oppressors by the use of spurious, divisive and indeed ethnic arguments. This is not the tradition of the African National Congress. Likewise I would caution that for “Coloured” or Camissa and Khoi people to respond to their real concerns by retreating into an ethnic laager as some are doing will only spell disaster and lead to further marginalisation. There is no other way than to have national dialogue on these matters. Leadership has been lacking within ‘Coloured’ communities and has been replaced by ethnic orientated experiments. True leadership must be shown by opening up dialogue and this should include the airing of grievances in a mature manner aimed at finding solutions. These issues go way beyond party politics and can never be dealt with by the formation of ethnic political parties as touted by some.

The ANC use to vigorously debate the National Question and it is high time that we return to this debate and dialogue with affected communities on this issue, lest an injustice continue.  Vital to the resolution of the “National Question”, and indeed the “Coloured Question” is the issue of restorative justice regarding land, dispossession of livestock and the means to farm, homelessness, humane urban environments, education and being true stakeholders in our society.

The most progressive of the arguments, still relevant today and elaborated here, were championed by the late veteran ANC activist, Prof Jack Simons in 1985 and it won favour at Kabwe. One of the tenets of the ANC is to successfully build one united nation on the ruins of colonialism and Apartheid. You cannot do this by pouring new wine into old wineskins. You cannot use Apartheid methods to transform. You cannot repeal Apartheid laws but then use the very definitions of those repealed laws to manipulate those unrecognised as an African people, the Camissa and Khoi. It is time for us to be clear that in rejecting white baasskap, privilege and continued domination, we do not accept the Apartheid framework of four race-based silos in going forward towards a new South Africa and in our quest to build a just society where all are equal. We must be extremely careful not to elevate tactical tools to become ends in itself. In so doing we must better develop our tools of restitution, restorative justice and corrective action and we must make the space to develop a new South African. The ANC needs to hear the cries of “Coloured” people, the Camissa and Khoi People, who are proud to have a history of rising up above adversity, who are proud of our Khoena, San and other African indigenous roots and proud to have survived slavery. We all deserve a better future and release from the chains of the colonial and Apartheid past. Let’s embrace dialogue to ensure a non-racial future….. or is it already too late. Has the genie of ethno-nationalism taken control?

Patric Tariq Mellet  –   26/06/2013

Os is!  We are!