Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mbeki's alienation from Coloured people

Rhoda Kadalie, slammed President Thabo Mbeki's speech on the Cape flats on Freedom Day. In a Cape Times article, Mbeki's babbelas blast, she is quoted to have said: "He's very alienated from the coloured people of the Western Cape. They are cannon fodder - they are neglected, marginalised and feel left out of the equation.The only time these people matter is when elections come closer." The question is not whether she is correct in her assessment of the Mbeki speech, but whether this statement is rings true of the current president and his government. There will be many answers to this critical question. Within the ruling elite and the political classes the answer would be that such statement is alarmist and devoid of any truth. They would argue that the Coloureds, in terms of government policy is counted amongst the 'designated groups', 'black' and therefore high on the current government's priority list. They would also, with a sigh of irritation, paradoxically dismiss the reality of a unique Coloured perception of reality. Coloured for most of them would be a relic of the apartheid past, a creation of the Population Registration Act and therefor irrelevant as a social category within the 'New SA'. In any case, for them there are only 'black', as a relevant political consciousness over against white hegemony.

There would also be those who agree wholeheartedly with Kadalie. In fact for some of them, she is not going far enough. Coloureds for them, constitute a nation and separate race and they, as the true embodiment of the first peoples of this region, should in fact receive preferential treatment.

Evidently, these two extreme positions does not hold promise in dealing with the type of perception that persists and that Kadalie articulates. How are we to judge Thabo Mbeki then ? Mbeki has shown promise with his 'I am an African' speech, but since then he has been spiraling downwards in failing to articulate the real developmental challenges that (let's call it then) Coloured-blacks or Coloured-Africans experience. This is rooted in how he view these categories. His persistent distinction between Coloureds and Africans is a case in point. Coloureds, whites and people of Indian descend, at least in the language (mind?) of 'our' president, are not Africans, in contradiction to his earlier speech. No, they might be part of the broader category of blacks, but not as black as his 'Africans'. This discussion, of course have nothing to do with shades of skin colour, or genetics, as it refers to social and political categories. Hence, whilst the political elite might pay lipservice to service delivery in traditionally Coloured residential areas and communities, the reality is that, indeed, it doesn't count as much as when it happens in townships across the N2 in Cape Town or in Soweto. That is the reality and this is where Kadalie has a point.

Further, I have a sneaky suspicion that his reference to 'babbelas' is a reference to the stereotype of Coloureds to be lazy drunkards. Is this response too petty or squeamish ? But then, how is it possible that Mbeki, who is so eloquent a speaker and politician to let something slip, without thought of his context ? The reference to babbalas, a typical Cape Afrikaans term that comes from Zulu, on the Cape flats and on Freedom Day, seems to shows exactly what he thinks of us. This, in the context of his diatribe against the scourge of racism and xenophobia comes as a surprise, or maybe the President thinks that he has the credibility to discipline these poor souls. Well, maybe he did it in a light hearted, tongue in the cheek manner, especially given his own vulnerability for what David Bullard in his last swan song termed 'the curse of the white man'. Maybe this was a way he wanted to 'connect' with the babbalas-prone people of Athlone and Landsdown. Even is this was the case, it simply doesn't deal the fact that it only served to illustrate graphically the extend of his tragic alienation from these proud communities. We don't need this patronizing stereotypes foisted upon us by a fading friend of a tyrant like Robert Mugabe. His rants about racism and xenophobia is void of substance if he is not even able to stop himself from yielding to the temptation of throwing a below the belt punch.

Hence, we cannot but, raise concern about the current callous disregard for the development concerns of Coloured people, who are integral to the challenge we as a nation face. But then, maybe the alienation displayed here is simply a symptom of Mbeki's inevitable slide into oblivion.

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