THE RACE CARD. The Hill Debate

South Africa


Sunday Times ( South Africa)

August 17, 2008



By Brendan Boyle



2. THE RACE CARD: Is it abused for political gain?


‘We know that elites of all kinds, including black elites in our country, play race cards for their own narrow purposes’


– Jeremy Cronin


‘It is a refuge of all scoundrels, and we must eliminate it in our body politic’


– Saki Macozoma


Davis: There is a sense out there that if you play the race card and show that you’re more populist and shout louder about transformation, you’re the person. You may say to me: "Oh, well, it’s just a stage." But populism has a habit of staying longer than we sometimes want.


Cronin: I think we need to be very careful, particularly as white South Africans, when we throw around words like "race card" and "populism". We know that elites of all kinds, including black elites in our country, play race cards for their own narrow purposes. But I think we need to recognise that I’m an African and that we’re all African – and that wonderful inclusive vision mustn’t conceal the reality that, for black people in South Africa, to be black, to be a woman, statistically marks you out for poverty, for unemployment, for being marginalised and so forth, and therefore we mustn’t reduce the issue of race in South Africa to "race card" – there’s a profound issue.


Leon: The problem with the race card isn’t that we don’t have a racial background, we don’t have 350 years of systemic discrimination against black people. The problem is, it’s being used in the debate to actually cut it off before it begins. It’s being used to actually reduce our political discourse to a form of democratic fundamentalism: I am right, you are wrong, go to hell.


Davis: Well, if you’re not a market fundamentalist, what policies of redress for racial discrimination?


Leon: Well, the first thing I would do is I would absolutely get a five-star education policy. The second thing I would do in this country, I would actually go and implement the constitution, which has an affirmative action clause in it. Mamphela put it so well when she was the vice-chancellor of UCT. She said it’s equity going hand in hand with excellence. You can’t have the one without the other.


Macozoma: This idea that the only people who play the race card are black people – I object to that.


Leon: I didn’t say that, incidentally.


Macozoma: It’s implied in all your career. But the fact of the matter is that in this country we do have the race card, and in my view it is a refuge of all scoundrels and we must eliminate it in our body politic. But in doing so you also have to be mindful of the hurt that you can cause by saying that every black person who is successful is successful because they played the race card.


Davis: But don’t you think to some extent that white people are extraordinarily mean-spirited in relation to these matters, and in a sense don’t celebrate black excellence?


Leon: I absolutely agree, but our country in the last 10 years has reached a point where it was impossible to differentiate between Hendrik Verwoerd and Helen Suzman. (We say) all white people should apologise for aparth
eid, (we don’t) differentiate between the various roles we played.


Ramphele: I think, Tony, we all as South Africans have to acknowledge that both sides of the divide abuse the race card.


Maphai: You can make race-based policies without using the word "black" or "white". Listen to Mr Leon’s speech and that of all his colleagues in parliament. Once you decode them, they are always about white interests. I would have liked one day to hear Mr Leon stand up and say to white South Africans – the way Madiba challenged us as black South Africans: you have had it too nice; stop whingeing, let us now rebuild together.



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