SOME people, including the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, are of the view that the election victory of Barack Obama marks the end of racism. The Obama election victory is unprecedented, taking into account the nature and the character of the United States’ body politik.
There is hope throughout the world and in particular in Africa that the election victory of Obama might fundamentally change the attitude of the United States (US) towards other countries, in particular developing countries. Of course this might happen but we should not expect a major shift in the US foreign policy towards Africa in particular. Any shift in the policy direction will be determined by the balance of forces in the US.
Unfortunately, the preponderance of power there resides in the hands of a few rich white people. This might pose a serious challenge to the Obama administration; those who own and control the wealth of the country have the power to influence the strategic direction of any country.
Obama himself is conscious of this fact, indeed he has to tread well to ensure that the interests of the US take precedence over other factors. America, in order to sustain its dominance and its interests in global politics, has to ensure that it has major influence and control over other countries and their natural resources.
The role of Obama and the influence of his administration should be understood within this context. Obama has entered a complex global political theatre characterised by political inconsistencies and naked inequalities. Therefore, it’s unfair to expect Obama to fundamentally change the US foreign policy towards other global actors, but he might introduce some cosmetic changes.
Importantly, the election of Obama is a historic one and indeed a symbolic one. But it’s my contention that his presidency is not going to qualitatively change the balance of forces in the international arena and, indeed in favour of the vulnerable countries.
The manner in which the South/ North power relations framework is structured, does not give Obama enough space to address global imbalances and inequalities. Indeed he might not have the capacity to eradicate racist tendencies dominating the global space. The existing power relations have been designed to ensure that the north enjoys hegemony in the international arena over the southern hemisphere countries.
To reverse colonial legacies, in particular on the African continent, is a long term agenda that requires collective and conscious effort. The struggle against racism is a long-term process, since this is a universal phenomenon. The global political and socio-economic space is characterised by deep seated inequalities, flowing by and large, from colonial interventions.
Though racism has been abolished in the world it’s still prevalent. South Africa is one of the most vulnerable countries to this cancerous disease. It manifests itself in different forms, overt and covert. The former takes the form of incidents like those that occurred at the University of Free State, as well as other countless racially motivated incidents.
The latter is sophisticated, systematic, subtle, sarcastic and difficult to quantify. It’s prevalent in organisations and plays a subtle role in determining the strategic direction of institutions. It’s a well organised and coherent ideology aimed at tilting the balance of forces in favour of the older thinking within democratic establishments.
Within the South African context racism has been in existence for more than 300 years, and was intensified and consolidated in 1948 by the installation of the apartheid regime. The institutionalisation of racism has made it difficult to completely eradicate the intangible side of it. Debates around racism must be located within this context.
Racial outbursts like those made by the former Sunday Times columnist David Bullard are a reflection of a retrogressive ideology that seeks to create space for its existence within a democratic order. It’s absurd and fallacious to think that the national democratic breakthrough of April 27, 1994, has obliterated the apartheid mentality. It might have expunged apartheid and its underpinning policies from the statute books, but the psychological dimension of it still exists. Racism is still dominant in historically white areas; racial harmonisation within such areas is still a challenge.
This implies that we still have a colossal task ahead of us, to ensure that racism is finally liquidated on all fronts.
Taking into account the existing socio-economic inequalities mainly affecting the black population, Gordimer’s assumption of the demise of racism based on the election victory of Obama is fatally flawed and misplaced.
To promote reconciliation in this country, it is important to ensure that poverty, unemployment and other forms of inequalities are addressed as a matter of urgency. Reconciliation should be informed by many factors such as ethical, moral, political, and socio-economic factors.
Chris Mbekela is a PhD student at Rhodes University (Industrial Relations). He writes in his personal capacity