Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sawyer seminar - institutionalizing and internalizing divisions

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, beginning its reading group with a series on Old and New Racial Formations. Over the next months, participants will reflect on the readings and discussions on race. This posting is by Christina Cielo, a doctoral fellow with the JWTC.

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

Institutionalizing and Internalizing Divisions: Miscegenation, Segregation and De-Segregation

The conversation in the Sawyer Seminar Series on segregation emerged from a set of readings that highlighted historically institutionalized processes of race-making in South Africa. But an abiding concern in the readings and in the discussion was also the inability of racial categories to contain biological, social and economic phenomena.

This was evident in an extraordinary study we read on the early 20th century production of the tuberculosis epidemic in the black South African population. In White Plague, Black Labor, Randall Packard gathers a wealth of data to show that the extent of the tuberculosis epidemic among black South Africans was related to the ways that their labor was exploited. Government policies directed by the economic interests of first mining, then urban industrialization, dictated blacks' spatial mobility, which in turn exacerbated their collective vulnerability to the disease.

Participants in the seminar linked this historical study to the current AIDS epidemic in South Africa. This idea sparked further remarks on the entanglements of contagion and fear, intimacy and race. Discussions of race relations often invoke its association with economic and social or symbolic power. But we need to look beyond power as domination and begin to try to understand the complex intertwining of affect and power. Urban white residents were uncomfortably close to the tuberculosis epidemic among migrant laboring Africans, and used it to justify segregation policies in the early 20th century. If urban segregation was the fearful response to the contagion of “white plague” in that period, to what extent is the economic segregation of private and public health care systems a fearful response to health risks today?

But the story, as ever, is more complicated. It is not just that fear and power drive segregation and its consequent inequalities. There is always the excess of affect that mires such a direct cause-effect relation. Emotions and identifications do not fit neatly into categories that are authoritatively imposed. In the 20th century consolidation of South Africa as a white nation, it was precisely the cleavages among whites as a group that shaped particular segregation policies. The 1913 Native Land Act that created black reserves kept rural whites and blacks from becoming too familiar or equal. If that were tolerated, as a proponent of the bill said, “they would soon find that they would be a bastard nation” (in Gilliomee, p.309). And such a nation would do little to sustain the driving economic force of industrialization that depended on categorical divisions of laborers. In the interest of capital, racial and class categories were adjusted hand in hand. One seminar participant asked, “Can you even put in place a structure of segregation without calibrating class categories as well?”

Early segregation policies were also shaped by an acknowledgement of the ways that identity is affectively grounded in particular places. The 1923 Native Urban Areas Act, passed on the heels of an influenza epidemic in Cape Town, restricted where blacks could live in cities. It attempted to prevent blacks from internalizing an identification with the industrializing cities which nevertheless needed their labor. Blacks' sense of belonging to the cities would be tantamount to a first step in making it theirs. As the prime minister of the Cape said, Africans should “go back to the place whence they came – to the native territories, where they should really make their home” (in Gilliomee, p.292). Yet the relatively small tracts of land reserved for what were eventually called “homelands” were wholly inadequate to sustain the majority black population. Since 1918, African homelands sustained less than a third of their inhabitants. By 1976, the proportion of homeland families' income from urban areas was over 70% (Gilliomee and Schlemmer, p.7).

The legitimizing narrative of segregation shifted throughout the 20th century. By the 1960s, homelands were defined as separate nations, with their own authorities and citizenry. Yet this was in no way a threat to the white nation that South Africa was forging: “After all, what nation state can be held responsible for the educational expenditure or the unemployment, old-age and other welfare benefits needed in another sovereign land?” (Wilson, p.61). South Africa's process of capital accumulation in the first part of the 20th century assured that investment took place not in these separate Bantustans, but in the cities that legislation prevented becoming black South Africans' “homes.” The result was a dependence that deprived the homelands of economic, social and symbolic power, forestalling any real political or economic sovereignty.

The parallels with contemporary international relations are striking. A colleague Marcel Paret is working on research that compares black migrant labor policies through apartheid in South Africa with current U.S. migration policies. Arizona, one of the four U.S. states that border Mexico, recently passed a bill that makes it a crime to fail to carry immigration documents and gives police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Marcel pointed out that this state bill controls Latinos and Mexican migrants in the United States just as the pass system controlled black labor in apartheid South Africa. In each case, the creation of a class of potential criminals presumes and constructs race.

Segregation depends on borders and fences. The sheer preponderance of physical boundaries in South Africa has come up repeatedly in the seminar. There was the bitter almond hedge built in 1660 in the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch to keep their settlers apart from the vast land that stretched up and beyond their ken. We ruminated on the mythic and material importance of the frontier in previous seminars. And now in Johannesburg, there are high walls and fences, many electric and alarmed, around homes to keep their residents safe. Perhaps, as a seminar participant commented, we need to better understand the conditions that make for constant fence-building. One thing that has become clear is our discussion is that fences, here and elsewhere, depend on and produce processes of racialization.

Yet post-apartheid, post-multiculturalism, distinctions and divisions do not map onto race quite so neatly. There is now an emerging black elite in South Africa. Differences are now incorporated into unequal systems, rather than used as the basis for explicit exclusions. Claims for the universality of citizen and human rights have also meant that the equality of human work can lead to its objectification as a commodity. As Simone Weil intimated some 60 years ago, there is indeed a profound link between human rights conceived as goods (i.e. the right to water, the right to health, etc.) and a market-based development model. Thus it is no surprise that universalization of “participation” throughout the developing world in the last decades has not transformed structures of inequalities. In Bolivia, for example, the Law of Popular Participation extended access to the state by incorporating local differences into decision-making mechanisms. So the customary authority, for example, is also the community's representative within the municipality. But critics note that this recognition and integration of cultural distinctions has also allowed difference to be “managed within a general economy of domination” (Crespo and Fernandez, p.37).

Still, the continued insistence on institutional respect for local and ethnic distinctions is a fundamental part of indigenous social movements worldwide. Last year, the Republic of Bolivia officially became the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Its new constitution defends not only representative and participatory democracy, but communal democracy as well, in an attempt to negotiate between positive and customary rights frameworks. In this context, and with a government brought to power by indigenous social movements, how are Bolivian state institutions and national legislation conceiving and racializing difference?

To answer that question is far beyond the scope of this blog entry. But I wonder if attempts to make and institutionalize distinctions and separations are unavoidable. After all, we need conceptual fences. It is our ability to distinguish differences, to define patterns and categories that help us make sense of and act on our world. But when do collective demarcations and borders become debilitating? When do definitions of who we are, and who others are, divide and blind and oppress us?

Following the ideas raised in the seminar, perhaps it may help us to take seriously the facts of excess and affect. Institutions and legislation not only produce results but also people with unexpected and radically different ways of seeing and experiencing and connecting to the world. The ways that we conceive of the institution of property, for example, would have to consider factors beyond market exchange values and even Marxist use values. Property and space, rather, are vital to a sense of belonging and becoming. Power and race relations are thus not only about segregation and domination, but also about the impossibility of the closure of racialized domination. This may help us understand the haphazardness and contingency of the historical processes of race-making. With this in mind, we can also more clearly see what today's divisions and categorizations, miscegenations and de-segregations, do for us and why. And so shape the horizons of our possibilities of living together.

By Christina Cielo


Packard, Randall. 1990. White plague, black labor: tuberculosis and the political economy of health and disease in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

Giliomee, Hermann. 2003. The Afrikaners : biography of a people. Cape Town: Tafelberg.

Giliomee, Hermann and Lawrence Schlemmer, eds. 1985. Up against the fences: poverty, passes and privilege in South Africa. Cape Town: D. Philip.

Wilson, Francis. 1985. "Mineral wealth and rural poverty: an analysis of the economic foundations of the political boundaries of South Africa," in Giliomee and Schlemmer (eds.)

Crespo, Carlos and Omar Fernandez. 2001. Los campesinos regantes de Cochabamba en la Guerra del Agua. Cochabamba: CESU/ UMSS/ FEDECOR.

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