Mamphela Ramphele: ‘‘Mandela said: never accept anyone telling you one sole organisation is the author of this freedom’’

The politician and anti-apartheid activist talks to Nana Yaa Mensah.

You’ve had a hugely varied career. Which bits have given you most political insight?
Each part brought a different strand to what’s needed. Leadership is not about technical knowledge. It’s about understanding your environment, the human condition – understanding what is possible and what is not, and learning to make decisions. Now, I’m at the age where I’ve got nothing to prove to anybody, so I can take the risks that younger people find difficult to take. Because I think the country of our dreams is still possible.
 
What barriers does South Africa have to cross?
The most important barrier is self-imposed. We fought a struggle which was mass-based. Instead of us building on that, we handed over our agency, saying: “We were liberated by the ANC.” Hello? Mr Mandela said please, never accept anybody telling you that one sole organisation is the author of this freedom: it was fought for by all of South Africa’s people. Did anybody listen? No, because even the most retrogressive people saw it as a way of making up for the sins of the past. That opened the door for the kind of passive citizen that has replaced those brave people.
 
So I founded Agang. We have launched not as a party, but as a platform. That has enabled us to go from village to township to corporate office and say: “South Africa, you fought for it. We are betraying the promise of this freedom. Let’s get together to shape a vehicle that will extricate us from this.”
 
You intend to stand in the 2014 elections?
Absolutely.
 
Why did you choose Pretoria for your launch?
It’s symbolic. [Laughs] We’re marching to Pretoria for the second time, for the second liberation of South Africa.
 
There’s a groundswell of dissent against the ANC. But other than opposition to the status quo what does Agang stand for?
Agang does not stand for opposition to the status quo. It stands for restoring the promise of freedom. We laid the foundations for a democracy where the citizen was meant to govern. But we have an electoral system that has created distance between the voter and the public representative. So we’ve launched a petition to reform the electoral system.
 
What do you see as the opportunities for South Africa in Africa in the next 20 years?
When I was vice-chancellor [at Cape Town], we attracted lots of Africans in the diaspora, because we knew it was going to take too long to attract and to train and prepare black South Africans. That process worked. South Africa has to have a migration policy aligned to our interests and our human rights principles. If we do that, we’ll go back to being the country people used to admire. And it will be an example not just outside, but inside.
 
I believe that we need to take a leaf out of what Helmut Kohl did after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He told West Germans: “If you want to buy the peace that comes with unity you’ve got to pay for it.” In 1996, after the Truth and Reconciliation report, there was a suggestion that all South Africans earning above half a million rand should be asked to contribute to a development fund. Thabo Mbeki said: “We don’t need that.” We will need to think carefully of appealing to highnet- worth South Africans, to say: “You know what? The best insurance policy you can buy for your children is to contribute X so that for the next five years we can tackle the backlog.” 
 
Would you describe your approach to the economy as liberal, or redistributionist?
Neither of those. We’re going to use a nonideological approach. We’re going to be governed by social justice outcomes. People who today are willing to work hard to support their families can’t. Those people could be building our roads. We’ve got a massive waste-removal problem. Yet we’ve got people walking around in the streets? It’s nuts! It’s a management, a leadership problem.
 
At the recent launch in London of Zamyn’s forums on global citizenship, you seemed to say that identity politics is more important.
My argument is: you have to know who you are. Having cut my teeth in the Black Consciousness Movement, I know that the day we named ourselves – from being nonwhites to being black – that was the radical moment for me: not only black and proud, but black woman who was proud. You’ve got to have a strong sense of what you can uniquely contribute to human history in order to be an effective global citizen.
 
When you were setting out as a young woman did you have a plan?
It wasn’t a detailed plan, but the one thing I wanted to do – and what I’ve achieved – is to be my own woman.
 
Do you have any regrets?
We all make mistakes. The biggest mistake I ever made was to marry someone while I was in love with another man. [Laughs] And losing my daughter, that was very painful. [She died as an infant.] Because if we’d been living in a country with a health system that was responsive she wouldn’t be dead.
 
Are we all doomed?
There’s no possibility of us being doomed unless we choose to be doomed. We have huge potential in knowledge that wasn’t there even 50 years ago. So, I am very optimistic. And I think that Africa will at some stage get its act together and give the world a human face.
 
 
Mamphela Ramphele. Photo: Getty

Nana Yaa Mensah is chief sub-editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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