New song, same old tune?

New song, same old tune?

Bronwyn Harris

Mbongeni Ngema's song AmaNdiya certainly explodes any myths about a reconciled rainbow South Africa. It illustrates the complexity of race within the post-apartheid era and reveals the subtleties and tensions that constitute contemporary racial relations. Not because the lyrics themselves complexify the issue or offer any solutions. Rather, the song plays a divisive role, repeating old racial stereotypes and introducing new ways of fostering prejudice.

Human Rights Commissioner, Jody Kollapan, notes that the song is dangerous because it "taints an entire community" and "perpetuates harmful myths and stereotypes". To speak about "Indians" in negative, generalised terms does not open a debate about reconciliation. Nor does Ngema's suggestion that reconciliation has been achieved between black and white South Africans because there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Rather, this rhetoric re-enacts an apartheid style of racially categorizing people, whilst simultaneously simplifying the concept of reconciliation. It reduces individuals to their race and, when coupled with prejudicial and negative stereotypes, contains the potential for inciting hatred and racial tension. Along with a blanketed notion of "Indians", Ngema imagines cohesion and solidarity within the "African community" which similarly does not exist. Racial communities in South Africa are not homogenous. A number of factors, including economics, language, geography and individual psychologies, contribute to fault lines and rifts within racially designated groups. To portray racial tension by presenting "Africans" and "Indians" in monolithic terms denies the audience an opportunity to confront the complex dynamics that create and sustain prejudice.

AmaNdiya does not only portray negative stereotypes that are drawn on racial lines. It also creates prejudice through the language of xenophobia. By presenting "Indians" as outsiders from India, the song raises questions about belonging within South Africa. This moves beyond race alone because it introduces concepts of citizenship and nationality. It implies that "Indians" are not South African and therefore have less legitimate claim to their citizenship than others.

Research at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) shows that xenophobia (or the hatred of foreigners) represents the dangerous face of nationalism; it is a negative consequence of building a 'new' South Africa. Foreigners have become handy scapegoats for South Africa's ills, particularly crime and unemployment. AmaNdiya extends this xenophobic discourse to "Indians" and so conflates a race-group with a national-group. This is a divisive trick. Not only does it challenge the idea of racial inclusiveness and unity, it also suggests that South African nationality is racially exclusive.

To challenge AmaNdiya is not to deny that racial tension exists, both between "Africans" and "Indians", and other racial groupings. Given South Africa's history, this is not unexpected, although very little has been done to address the issue. Many critics have acknowledged this and explanations, especially those that focus on economic inequality, have been put forward. Conflict is, however, more complex than pure economics. Unequal access to resources, poverty and deprivation may foster community tensions, although this is certainly not a given. Various community-level reconciliation projects, for example, challenge assumptions about economically-driven conflict, as does domestic violence in affluent families. Similarly, the prevalence of violence in some localities but not in others of comparable socio-economic status illustrates the complexity of conflict.

When tensions and violence manifest, there are a range of factors at play. The psychology of prejudice is itself a crucial dynamic that promotes racial divisions, both between communities and across generations. Prejudice does not recognise the complexity of personal experience and the multiple levels through which racism permeates the South African society. This is reflected in the negative racial attitudes held by many young South Africans. It also emerges through reactions to Ngema's song; these strikingly suggest that no one is really hearing anyone else. In their reactions, people are speaking past each other. They are emphasizing completely different points and perspectives.

Another key factor underpinning conflict is the role that particular individuals play. For example, CSVR research on vigilantism reveals that charismatic and influential community members can make a difference, either through promoting or curbing tensions. This point challenges the view that AmaNdiya merely reflects a social reality. It gives social actors such as Ngema a more productive role, one that can impact on the future nature of racial relations in South Africa. This also flows from his own assertions regarding his personal contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle. This is why the argument needs to move beyond whether the song should be banned to one that looks for responsible solutions. It underscores the need for a detailed look at prejudice, as well as reconciliation, both between and within racial communities. Even if the song does not actively promote racial hatred, it clearly does not advance tolerance, dialogue or understanding. There is nothing like a 'common enemy' or 'threat' to unite groups against each other, to solidify opinions, reinforce attitudes and harden positions. And, if it is unexamined prejudice, hatred and fear that is causing 'unity', then where is the space for the "true reconciliation" of which Ngema speaks?

Bronwyn Harris is a former Project Manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
In City Press, 16 June 2002.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

+ posts

CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Translate »