"Racial problems in South Africa", Speech by Oliver Tambo at the second Pan-African Youth Seminar Dar Es Salaam, 5 August 1961

Title"Racial problems in South Africa", Speech by Oliver Tambo at the second Pan-African Youth Seminar Dar Es Salaam, 5 August 1961
CollectionOliver Reginald Tambo
Resource TypeSpeeches and Public Statements
Sourcehttp://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=4258

Pamphlet published by World Assembly of Youth

Racial problems in South Africa

There is unquestionably much which could be said on the subject of racial problems. I think I could speak to you on the situation in South Africa for several hours and there would be plenty left over for discussion. I thought that what I might do today is to scrutinise the question of racial problems, in order to ascertain, as far as possible, the scientific facts on which they rest. It is true that man is mainly concerned with his day-to-day affairs. But it is also true that youth, by their very nature, are curious as to what lies behind these problems. Our enquiry into racial problems in Africa might therefore be commenced by discussing very briefly the nature of race in the context of sociological terminology.

There are two schools of thought. There is the biblical one which dates from the days of Adam and Eve, the two people biblically responsible for our being here. The question that arises is, at what point during this progression towards the present does the element of race enter the picture, out of Adam and Eve how did races emerge? The other aspect is the scientific one, the evolutionary process, from the ape or whatever it is we come from. I hate to think I had anything to do with apes but I am bound to respect the scientists in whatever they say, and it is possibly true to say that all of us had something to do with apes. And at what stage did this human species begin to coagulate or to disperse into racial groups? What are the characteristic features of these groups? How do they come to give rise to problems? For the purpose of our discussion, I think I should suggest that we regard the word race, whether there is any such thing as race or not, as a convenient formulation for reference to mankind in so far as it is organised into groupings, according to certain common characteristics, such as colour, the shape of the nose, the type of hair, or, culturally, the language spoken, characteristics which enable us to identify a particular group of people as being a particular race. And, therefore, what we mean by race is men organised into groups. But I am sure no one will suggest that there is anything objectionable about these characteristics.

Take the commonwealth of colour. No one has ever raised any objection to black, or white or green, or yellow, they are natural phenomena. There are black boars, there are black cows and horses and there is no repulsion attached to this. There is white, there is snow which is white and if people are said to be white or black, may I suggest that these are very unscientific terms indeed, there is nobody who is white. We went over to the Mount Kilimanjaro this morning and I saw snow that was white. I am travelling with a number of people, Africans, and a very nice gentleman from Switzerland who lives here. He was what you would call a white man, but his whiteness had nothing to do with the whiteness of the snow I saw on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. And yet, we use this word, we say there is a white person, there is a black one, unscientific. If we had time we might investigate why we have to say people are white, or black, why we can`t find an appropriate term, why we have to say that people are non-white, as we are so fond of saying in South Africa, why can`t we say they are something, instead of what they are not. Why do we have to say that there are Northern Rhodesians, or Southern Rhodesians, why can`t we find a name? or South Africans? These are some of the things which we take for granted, out of laziness, because we are not in the ordinary course following necessarily scientific approaches to these issues. But, there is no scientific basis for racial problems arising solely out of the fact that there are different characteristics common to various groups of people.

Racial problems

What then is the problem? Why are there racial problems in South Africa? Are they in fact racial problems? And the answer is positively yes, and they have assumed proportions which have become almost impossible to contain within reason. They are genuine racial problems. They present themselves as racial antagonism and attitudes of dislike towards a person who belongs to a group which is outside of your own group. It starts with recognising yourself as a member of a particular group, sharing several common characteristics with other members of that group. And that is the form in which this racial antagonism presents itself. Its causes are various; but before I enumerate these it would be interesting to go back a little on this problem of racial antagonism.

In the days of the Roman Empire there were slaves in Rome, some of these came to be slaves by reason of their tribes or nations being conquered by the Romans, others were purchased in the ordinary course of things as captives. It does not appear that there were many racial elements in this. Although many of the slaves were black in Rome, it does not appear that there were racial elements crucial to the concept of master and slave.

Take now the United States of America, and the importation into that land of slaves from Africa. And take a corresponding instance, leaving out other cases which one could cite, South Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, where slaves were brought in from West Africa, from Asia. In these two instances there is evidence that over and above the pure relationship of master and slave, there was also a racial element. For instance, in the United States, you will recollect that about a hundred years ago the northern states went into war with the southern on the question of the emancipation of slaves. And they won. These were two groups of the same people, Anglo-Saxons, who had decided to kill one another, on a question which they regarded as crucial. What happened after this war? Of course, the slaves were set free, as they have been free ever since, a law was passed, guaranteeing their rights, at least as far as the Federal Government is concerned; and yet, the relations between the southerners and the northerners, before and after this war, remained the same, and the relations between on the one hand the southerners and the northerners and on the other hand the liberated slaves also roughly remained the same. There were few intermarriages before this war, there were few, if any, after the war. There is still antagonism, repulsion, by the one group towards the other which is basically racial. But before the war there was intermarriage between the southerners and the northerners, there still is. I don`t want to misrepresent the position. There is a difference, I think a real difference, in the position today, in the southern and the northern states, and in their attitudes towards the Negro-Americans. But it would be misleading to suggest that the basic issue involved in that war has been solved, it is yet to be solved, even now. And some of the most frustrated people today are the Negro-Americans. You can feel it in the way they speak, in their actions, the life they live. And this is because of an attitude which is basically no different from that which they experienced as slaves.

In South Africa it did not take long for the settlers to insist on a distinction between what they called black and white. I think some of you may remember that one of the women trekkers around 1836 gave as one of the reasons for the Trek the fact that slaves were being treated as equals to whites, liberated slaves that is. Before the emancipation of slaves, there was a law which enabled slaves, who became Christians, to become free. And when they were free they were entitled to be treated like anybody else. And then objection was raised to this position, and they announced as early as then that there should be no equality between black and white, either in State or in church. About a century later this dictum was written into the constitution of one of the republics which went to war against Great Britain in 1899. And, quite significantly, to this day there still is no equality in South Africa, according to government policy, between black and white, either in State or in Church. This is the position which was taken before the slaves were emancipated. The racial element is very old and has endured.

Causes of Racism

The causes are various. There are psychological causes, some of them are traceable by methods of psychoanalysis. I don`t think we should get embroiled in that sort of thing. Let me enumerate the more obvious and more important ones. These causes are common to the whole phenomenon of racial hostility, racial problems not only in South Africa but throughout the world. The first is the attempt to entrench privilege. There are situations in Africa where the white people have entrenched themselves against Africans, against peoples of races other than their own, and the dividing line is a racial one. Then there are economic considerations. The history of colonialism and imperialism is well known. We discuss it in and out of season. This also has given rise to racial problems because it also happened that it was the people who emanated from Europe who colonised what we call non-white peoples. That was an accident of history, but that is how colonialism and imperialism have expressed themselves. It is the non-white race which has been placed under this subjugation for so long. And it is this subjugation which has brought economic advantages to the imperialists, to the colonialists, to the rulers, to those who at a given time had been in power, and those have been in power all the time.

Another cause is sheer prejudice. Prejudice is interesting because it is something fed into one`s mind. A child grows up prejudiced against another person, not because that person has done anything or a group of persons has done anything to the child, but because the child assumes that those who are older know better and if they have that attitude towards a group of people, that attitude must be correct. That is genuine but mistaken prejudice. But it has created problems. There are other cases of prejudice which are not genuine. A person who operates on a certain assumption, for instance that Africans are inferior, may believe it. It is proved to him in numerous instances, facts are placed before him which contradict any belief in the inferiority of the Africans, and yet he persists. That type of prejudice is not genuine and it also creates problems.

Problem in South Africa

In North Africa the racial problems are in the process of resolution. In West Africa racism can hardly be regarded as a problem. But as you travel down the continent into Central Africa the racial problem starts. Actual strife emerges, basically determined by the groupings according to colour, according to culture, according to language. You come to a place like Tanganyika and you find that even here there is a racial problem but it is being solved, perhaps it has been solved. We sometimes say that Tanganyika is progressing very smoothly towards independence. That is not the end of the story. It has taken foresight, it has taken the spirit of give and take, it has taken cooperation, it has taken unity. What we see are the results of the effort, not the effort itself, and we are inclined to talk not of the efforts but about the results of that effort. The racialist is blind to facts, blind to everything, until it bleeds. Then of course the blindness tends to evaporate, as it is in process of evaporating. From Mozambique, for a long time, there was not so much as a whisper from across the border to tell us what was going on. But there is a serious racial problem which will have to be solved by one or other of the methods that we have come to be accustomed to. Then I think although the protectorates - Swaziland, Basutoland and Bechuanaland - fall into a slightly different category, they are also not free of this racial problem.

South Africa had a complicated and varied racial problem. First of all, we have become conscious in South Africa of the existence of what we call Afrikaners, English-speaking people, Africans, sians, Coloured people. That is a very large number to have to deal with. And the policy of that country has been such that these groupings have been created, maintained, kept alive and developed, strengthened and fortified one against another. And the efforts to entrench these groups and separations are still going on today. But that is not all. The effort has also been directed at building up a mutual hostility between them. And of course, that was not enough. The Africans too have been assailed with the principles of the same policy. They have also been sorted out into minor groupings, according to tribe, so that it would not be possible for them to speak of themselves as Africans. And one of the instruments being used for this purpose is what is called Bantu education, rammed down the throat of the people by force of arms, by imprisonment, by all forms of victimisation.

It is a wholesale onslaught on the people who live in the same area to ensure that they live not only conscious of their difference, these accidental differences, but are also hostile to one another, and the laws which have been passed are intended to maintain this structure. And any breaking of these laws to reduce to the barest minimum by the organisation of armed forces.

I think for African youth it is fair to say that unless we all meet with an accident, South Africa is going to be an excruciating problem for the entire continent. A cruel problem, because human beings have tended to accept these divisions. Africans and Asians and Coloureds have been victims of this government policy, and have come to accept the racial designations. That itself is an acceptance of the doctrine that has been preached. We are not however something or the other. And indeed, in the government of the country, we are not anything, in the passing of laws, in the adoption of national policies, we are not anything. These are appropriate appellations as seen from the point of view of those who are something. What we have got to try to teach our peoples is to reject these concepts, but we will have to substitute something in their place.

I know that the Asians have been told by their international leader, a very sagacious leader, Mr. Nehru, to regard themselves as Africans if they elected to make Africa their home. Now, the question is how they do this. Of course, it is not sufficient to regard themselves as Africans, we have also to do the regarding, we have to accept them as Africans. How does this work out in practice? It is not so easy to say. Sometimes we glorify ourselves into saying we are all South Africans. But for the moment we are not anything, not South Africans. We are of course in various ways and by various methods - in South Africa, in Central Africa, in Angola - trying to give an answer to this whole problem of racialism in Africa, by various methods, various tactics, various political organisations.

But when we have achieved our immediate objective, such as Tanganyika has an immediate objective of independence on the 9th of December, when we reach that stage for which we are struggling, then that which binds us together will be removed and a new set of problems will arise and one of them may well be this. We may well remember that we still are Asians and Africans, and as between these two, not to mention others. There may be considerations of economy, privileges, the entrenchment of those privileges, perhaps prejudice which has never been driven out of the hearts of people, and the whole range of manifestations of the problem of racialism as we know it will be present. Although perhaps we have a simple problem at the moment, the simple one of simply becoming free, complicated only by the need to find various methods of dealing with the situation we find, on attaining independence we still have not solved our problems, perhaps even not the racial problems which at the moment are a part of independence.

Unity of Mankind

There are a welter of problems peculiar to the state of political advancement known as independence. How to tackle these? I still think that the key answer is unity. Unity must be a tired word, overused everywhere, by everybody. We are always talking of unity. I am a member of the United Front, the South African United Front. We talk about unity in Africa, we spoke about it before the first All-African Peoples` Conference, it was spoken of when Pan-Africanism was first discussed, it was mentioned at Bandung, hardly a month ago we were discussing unity at Accra, and the theme of this conference is unity. I think the important thing to raise here is that unity does not grow wild. Tanganyika is a rich country, all Africa is rich, there is plenty that grows wild, you don`t have to cultivate it , you don`t have to water it, to nurse it. But unity is not like that. It does not grow wild. It has to be nurtured, built up, it wears away. It must be doctored, treated. It also has many enemies like the enemies that enter any plant that you grow, and you have to keep vigilant against these. And where does unity begin and where does it end?

I think true and lasting unity, as opposed to the unity we may seek at a given time for the achievement of a certain purpose, is one which is conceived on the basis of the essential oneness of mankind, based on what is basically a common human problem. That would be hitching our idea to the stars and I think we are likely to travel at least a little farther than if we are confined to, for example, tribal units. The World Assembly of Youth Seminar gathered here, predominantly Africans, is a gathering of people who, even assuming they could solve the African problems, will still be members of the international world and committed to seeking a solution to international problems. And I believe that the idea of unity as a solution should not in fact disappear when it reaches the borders of the African continent. We should think in terms of world youth. We had better. Because if we don`t and allow the progressive gravitation towards armed conflict, which is so manifest in the relations between East and West, we shall not save ourselves by saying we are neither East nor West. Our guarantee is to ensure the unity of mankind and this is not exclusive of the idea of the unity of a tribe, of a clan, of a nation, of a continent. I think unity is going to be discussed very mercilessly during the course of this conference. I need not dwell any further on it. I only wish to say that I am glad to be able to contribute incidentally to the basic theme, a vitally important theme for Africa.