Think!Fest Unpicking the race knot

Unpicking the race knot

This year’s Think!Fest sees a host of interesting topics and debates taking place. The events, in Rhodes University’s Eden Grove complex, see a wide range of bright minds coming together to flesh out the problems facing South Africa.

Tuesday’s headliner was a potent three-way discussion entitled “Troubling Race”, which featured three academics whose work intersects in different ways with the problems of race in South Africa.
Nomalanga Mkhize, who lectures in Rhodes University’s history department, is a prominent presence on South African social media. Vanessa Malila, a postdoctoral researcher whose current focus area is the relationships young South Africans have with the media, joined her as one of the panellists. Completing the trio was UKZN psychology professor Kevin Durrheim, whose work on racism and social change is well-respected.

The event kicked off with moderator Anthea Garman proposing that South Africa is a country disillusioned by the present. “We thought that history would tip us from the past into the future,” she mused, suggesting that this disappointment gives rise to many of South Africa’s anxieties about race.

She then asked the panellists to give a personal account of their experiences of being troubled by race. Malila named an incident at a conference in Potchefstroom, where her dining at a restaurant with two black male colleagues was met with stares and pointed glances. Mkhize took a broader approach by stating that the experience of being Black is one in which the Black subject is always confronted with their race in ways that are surprising and discomforting.

Durrheim related the experience of airing his opinions in staff meetings, and his increasing realization that taking up the position of speaking is always racialized and, in his case, masculinized.
From there, the conversation took many different twists and turns, with the panellists expressing their scepticism at the idea that non-racialism is something that needed to be strived for. As Mkhize succinctly put it, “South Africa’s problem is racism, not race.” She added that it is impossible to tackle racism without an understanding of historical racialism, a point that struck a chord with me, given the de-contextualised reports one often reads in the media.

Durrheim made the intriguing suggestion that race issues stem from an excessive enjoyment of the act on the part of the racist. He cited the example of people who slop their worker’s food into bags or substandard crockery. Nomalanga agreed, reemphasizing that the masterservant relationship formed a basic tenet of South African society, which explained why people delighted in being the dominant power in these relations.

There was much to unpick from this event, with the audience participation adding a further dimension. As a demonstration of the sort of discussion you can expect over the remaining days of Think!Fest, it was highly impressive.

Wamuwi Mbao
Cue specialist reporter

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