South Africa is a challenged society. No one living in or visiting the country can avoid confronting that reality in some manifestation or other: the omnipresent poverty, the enforced idleness of unemployment, the threat of violence and the never-ending stream of official malfeasance and incompetence.

Former editor and current columnist Peter Bruce recently described the bleak state of the country as ‘a crisis, rotten economic policies and a skills desert’.

While these pathologies are nothing new, I sense a palpable change in the national mood around them. For as bad as things might have been, South Africa’s people did not typically despair; they hoped and battled for something better. Today, the prospect of catastrophic decline is now mainstreamed, evidenced in opinion polling that shows optimism in the country at probably its lowest level since the transition to democracy.

No longer do we ruminate about whether South Africa could be a global power; now talk is of its survival. Last year, Eunomix, a consultancy, produced a report on South Africa’s developmental trajectory in which it made the following chilling claim: ‘Bar a meaningful change of trajectory, South Africa will be a failed state by 2030.’

The stakes are not merely high, they are existential.

So how does this relate to Critical Race Theory?

If South Africa is to stand a chance of emerging from its present condition, it needs to get to grips with viable solutions that address problems as they exist, and as will make a difference to people’s lives – and not those that dominate the thinking of ideologues. Don’t misunderstand: ideology is an important and inevitable part of political interaction; it is even a helpful one as it can help make discussion coherent. And when I describe myself as a liberal, I am declaring an ideological position.

Ideology is a system of beliefs tied to a call to action. Unfortified by criticism and evidence, it can be a reckless thing. It is this that has often made nationalism a force for destruction, as impulses for the national community’s aggrandizement have overwhelmed voices of caution.

CRT is an ideology, not a theory. This is according to Prof Darren Zook of the University of California Berkeley in an incisive piece entitled ‘The real problem with Critical Race Theory’. Published initially on Medium and later reproduced by The Daily Friend, this piece makes the argument that CRT is in fact profoundly uncritical – it is, in his formulation, ‘hypo-critical’. It refuses its detractors the legitimate option to critique its axioms. It makes a totalising claim about the centrality of racism in society, how it is constructed and how it manifests itself. This is not open to disagreement or criticism, and to do so is merely to expose oneself as culpable in the pathology. He writes:

Testing a theory is a legitimate exercise in free thought. Implementing an ideology, on the other hand, is indoctrination, and indoctrination has no place in education. In fact it has no place anywhere in a democracy.

‘The real problem with Critical Race Theory’ ~ Professor Darren Zook of the University of California Berkeley

In other words, once a CRT perspective is adopted, firm injunctions in respect of intellectual and political behaviour follow. While factors other than racism might factor into an analysis of a given problem – indeed, the idea of ‘intersectionality’, the influence of multiple vectors of oppression and advantage that a given person might be subject to as a result of various combinations of identity, is closely linked to CRT – the influence of racism is always to be discerned. The nature of its influence might be debated, the existence of its influence is not.

So, from this point, any analytical exercise will inevitably have to consider if not prioritise the questions of race, racism and racial power. There is a dreadful risk that this will drive thinking about our pressing problems down pre-determined blind alleys, and make durable solutions ever harder to come by. If we are consciously looking for racism as a causal factor in any situation, we can probably find it. Where it is not immediately apparent, ideologically-attuned reasoning – as the CRT worldview prescribes – can confidently discern it.

The response might be that this is all good and well, but given South Africa’s history is it not entirely reasonable to look to race and racism as an explanation for the phenomena that bedevil us? In reply one might say that racism has played a visible and destructive role in South Africa’s history, and this has left us with a litany of problems. Many are directly attributable to the racism and racial discrimination in this lamentable past. But does recognising this mean that it follows that foregrounding racism and racism discrimination necessarily offers solutions to them as they manifest themselves now?

This matters greatly. The extent and patterns of poverty in South Africa can be attributed largely (if no longer exclusively) to race-based policies that extended back to at least the 19th Century, and in some instances before – what one might call the ‘legacy of colonialism and apartheid’. There is further no dispute that alleviating poverty is a central condition for South Africa’s endurance and a key marker of its success. This will in turn require increased investment, sustained economic growth and the upskilling and employment opportunities associated with it. All of this has been recognised in a slew of official economic strategies. Yet how that is to be achieved and what trade-offs should be made to achieve it are deeply contested. South Africa’s authorities have determinedly ratcheted up demands on business to conform to its ideological outlook and programme. In large measure, these have been targeted explicitly at addressing the racial disparities in the economy. Prominent here have been the imperatives of ‘transformation’, requirements to meet affirmative action and racial empowerment (Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, B-BBEE) targets. These have become entrenched as sacrosanct in government thinking. Indeed, it is currently the government’s intention to introduce ministerially mandated quotas that firms will be obliged to meet, with the threat of damaging fines to enforce them.

But there is considerable evidence that these policies have undermined South Africa’s investment attractiveness. The demand for ownership transfers to B-BBEE partners, for example, has been flagged in research by European firms as the largest disincentive to doing business in South Africa.

Is it then in the interests of the country to dispense with these demands, or should they be maintained (enhanced even, as proposed Employment Equity Amendment Bill would have it, or as senior figures in the government have suggested)? This is a deeply serious matter, with profound implications. Should we focus on economic expansion overall, or on ensuring that such benefits as are realised are directed to specified groups? From a CRT perspective, it’s doubtful that that it would even be considered worthy of discussion. Inequalities – or inequities – defined by race are ipso facto evidence of racism, if not racism itself, and thus self-evidently demand race-specific responses.

Understand that there is a fervent moral impetus behind this – little excites the moral conscience quite like the allegation or accusation of racism. And since those pushing these ideas will tend to be in the intellectual professions and policy bureaucracies, they have a significant degree of insulation from any of their adverse consequences. The question of the country’s economic climate, meanwhile, falls out of focus.

This is actually a good part of what has happened with regard to South Africa’s economic policy. Ideology has overwhelmed pragmatism to the extent that it’s hard to find anyone in the government who will even concede that a legitimate debate can be had on these matters. Recently, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana dismissed any suggestion that B-BBEE dissuaded investment.

Now don’t misunderstand: this is not necessarily the direct doing of CRT. It is not as if policy makers got hold of a library full of the works of Ibram X Kendi and Robin DiAngelo and decided to rule out criticism of affirmative action and B-BBEE as a consequence. As I pointed out in the first part of this piece, much of what ails South Africa, including race obsessions, were well in place long before CRT was a widely-known concept. What CRT would do – and as it gains traction among thinkers, is doing – is to give intellectual authority to this sort of reasoning. Debate is the great gift of democratic regimes to policy formation; CRT will be an encumbrance on debate that our development prospects can ill afford.

When Marianne Merten described CRT as the ‘prevailing approach in academe and public discourse’, it must be appreciated for the threat it is. For in its self-conception it is not merely a plausible approach, but a truth-claim that accepts no deviation.

And the implications of that are disturbing. More than just circumscribing debate, CRT stands to be deployed as a formidable weapon for less than honourable ends. Much has been made over the years of the so-called ‘race card’, a cynical response by compromised politicians and other luminaries in which their detractors are accused of racism. Thabo Mbeki, for example, reacted to allegations of corruption in the notorious arms deal – something that did incalculable damage to South Africa’s institutions, aside from its pecuniary value – by scolding critics as ‘fishers of corrupt men’.

‘What our country needs,’ he wrote, ‘is substance and not shadows, facts instead of allegations, and the eradication of racism.’ (And lest we forget, the same tactic has been deployed time and again, on matters as diverse as government’s record on crime and AIDS, and on the Nkandla upgrades.) In an environment in which CRT had established a ‘prevalence’, it’s hard to see why it would not be given a reverent reception. A very plausible response from a CRT starting would be to foreground the question of racism, and to order whatever facts and allegations exist around it. Not entirely a get-out-of-jail-free card to be sure, but at least a narrative in which corruption (or any other governance failing) is but one transgression among others, and not necessarily the most important one.

For myself, I fear that CRT poses a threat to some foundational democratic and civic values. For CRT leads inexorably to this position: discriminatory racial injustices can be met with discriminatory racial justice. Racism, being the omnipresent and malevolent presence it is, is to be challenged with the same tools that produced it. The solution replicates the problem it is meant to alleviate. To quote Zook again:

When a CRT advocate such as Ibram Kendi claims that antiracist racism is a legitimate strategy to smash systemic racism in the United States, what he is really saying is this: the current dominant racism does not benefit me, so I would like to replace that racism with a racism of my own that does benefit me. By calling the new racism ‘antiracist’ it appears to validate the truth-claim by making it impossible to question (only a racist would reject what is antiracist). But at the end of the day all Ibram Kendi is doing is emulating his alleged oppressor. Antiracist racism is at the end of the day still racism, and to paraphrase Einstein on war, you cannot simultaneously abolish and entrench racism. To the extent that Ibram Kendi is a proponent of CRT, then with this type of argument, CRT gives us simply more racism, not less.

Professor Darren Zook of the University of California Berkeley

The CRT thought-process logically then throws up some sinister possibilities. Discrimination is not only permissible, but well-nigh imperative. On what basis and to what issues can that be limited? Hiring and trading practices can be mandated to follow racial patterns, as we’ve discussed above. There is considerable argument about the permissibility of disparate outcomes by different racial groups in educational attainment. In the United States, this has produced pressure to restructure educational systems to produce visibly ‘equitable’ outcomes. This has included deemphasising correct answers and tests, and replacing academic achievement records with lotteries as the basis for admission to high-achieving institutions to ensure proportionately appropriate student demographics.

It’s hard to see why or how ideas such as democratic citizenship or human rights should be immune from such recasting. They depend on the assumption of moral, political and legal equality, which are at odds with the world as CRT conceives it, and (it seems to me) an obstacle to reordering it. If this seems far-fetched or even absurd, bear in mind that flashes of this have been evident for some time. Consider that in April 2019 a senior official at the SA Human Rights Commission – a state body constitutionally mandated to promote and protect human rights in South Africa – declared that the institution dealt with racist transgressions differently depending on whether they were committed by black or white people, ‘because of the historical context’.

If ‘historical context’ can determine the protection afforded to individuals’ human rights, then we are not far from making the argument that human rights themselves are conditional on identity. ‘Historical context’ is intimately related to ‘social context’. And from there it is a short step to dispensing with human rights altogether – at least in the sense of universal, natural and equally-held entitlements held by virtue of a common humanity. Rather, one could argue for sets of identity-dependent privileges, ‘black rights’, ‘white rights’ maybe…

We are not at that point now, but we dismiss this possibility at our peril. After all, non-racism was an aspiration to which we were all exhorted not that long ago – now, that idea is increasingly damned as a species of denialism, to be supplanted by ‘anti-racism’.

One hastens to add here that none of this is to say that all enjoy human rights in equal and bountiful measure at the moment, whether within a given society or across the world. It is also not to deny that racism plays a role in denying people the full enjoyment of the rights that by natural law should be theirs. But it is to say that we concede the idea of universal humanity, human rights and the ideas that make them possible at our extreme peril.

So, what does all this mean?

Despite protests to the contrary, CRT is not a mere academic fad, nor is it a contrived diversion appropriated from anxieties of the American ‘right wing’. It is strongly activist ideology presenting itself in the form of an intellectual framework. This gives it an air of erudition and respectability that exceeds any analytical value it has to offer – indeed, it seeks to foreclose alternative perspectives. And from an academic base, its ideas (and their corresponding calls to action) have spread to numerous other centres of social power.

Sometimes, quite possibly most often, these ideas may not go by the name of CRT: they may be presented as analyses of systemic racism, or demands for social justice, or ‘anti-racism’. But it is necessary to understand their ideological nature and intellectual origin to appreciate where they are likely to go.

For South Africa, CRT poses a real risk to the open and constructive debate we desperately need. It also threatens to undermine some of our most valuable achievements and most beautiful aspirations. That it may do so under the guise of striking a blow against racism does not make this any less hazardous.

And for that reason, CRT is a concept that must be brought into the open and challenged.

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Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank promoting individual and societal freedom. Readers are invited to join the IRR by sending an...

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