Change the world


Gary Koekemoer who graduated with a PhD from Nelson Mandela University on “Race as a complex system: The persistence of race as a primary driver of contemporary social relations and beneficiation” shares his journey with us.

“The world we are part of is a complexus, not a machine, in which nothing stands alone but is interconnected with multiple other elements. Over time, core elements set up mutual relationships and develop patterns of interaction that come to serve an overarching purpose, while at the same time, adapting to changes in the environment they occur within to stay “alive”. We call these complex systems - examples of which are a cell - the human body, societies, ecosystems, and importantly too, ideas. 
In philosophical terms, the complexity-systems premise of my thesis is that the real (ontology), how we know the real (epistemology), and the human observer (the subject) are each complex systems, that each exist through elements that interact, serve an “emerging property” purpose, and constantly adapt to changes in their environment. To understand something as fully as possible, it is necessary to take all three aspects into account. 
Specifically, one of those complex systems - humans - have a limited sensory and processing capability. We are not aware of everything around us, and we are unable to process everything we are aware of. To survive in this complexus, not to be overwhelmed by the mess of complexity, we chunk the data available to us and sort it into categories that allows us to fast-track information and bring sufficient order to the chaos. And as social beings, we rely on social categories such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, class to bring order to the mess of societal relations. Each of these is an idea, and each idea is in turn a complex system of its own. 
My thesis takes one of those categories, race, and asks the question why it still persists as a driver of social relations and the way societies divide social goods? The question has particular relevance to South Africa, as race remains a dominant force in how we identify, how we interact, and how we benefit as part of the broader society. 
I start by looking at how the idea of “race” first arose and conclude that it was central to the European “discovery” project that in the transition from the Middle to Modern Ages took an emerging idea of the difference between Christians and recently converted Jews and Moors and used that to categorise “the Other” humans they encountered on their global travels. I show how this idea of race, based on physical and assumed inherited traits, was central to early capitalism, expansion of the Christian church, and biological sciences. And how this served to privilege Europeans and their descendants while dehumanising and demonising specifically Black and indigenous persons. In turn, the idea of race, an emerging complex system, was primary in the rise of the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, and most recently apartheid.
I then take the idea of race and examine it in three different contexts: the United Nations’ opposition to racism; the development of race within biological and anthropological sciences; and how social sciences understand race as a “social construct”. I show how early science used race as a primary difference to categorise and place humans into hierarchies. That early science has now evolved to take on a very different view, and via input from DNA and genetic science, it concludes that race is not biologically real, but is a social real that influences people in significant ways through how we structure society and identify.
Having understood the origins of the complex system of race, and how it has adapted and evolved in specific contexts, I go on to examine how the original idea then gave rise to other ideas, to other complex systems in response, specifically the idea of blackness, and how local contexts have shaped the idea of race further. What is clear from that examination is that race drives two primary complex systems: one that has evolved from serving European interests to serving “Whiteness” generally, and retaining those systems of power, privilege, and wealth; and the counteracting idea of “blackness” that serves to empower people originally classified as black, and challenge and change the systems whiteness employs to retain its dominant status. 
My thesis is a philosophical endeavour, and thus my “laboratory” is both the ideas of theorists that have looked at race; and using these insights to reflect on my own experience as a white male born in apartheid and how I was blind to both my race and the privileges it brought me. I am particularly reliant on the works of the likes of: Steve Biko’s “Black Consciousness”, Achille Mbembe’s “vertiginous assemblage”; Zimitri Erasmus’s “meshworks” and the role of the “Look”, the “Category”, and the “Gene”; Jonathan Jansen and Cyrill Walter’s “fault lines”; Robert Sussman and Ashley Montagu’s idea of race as a “myth”; Paul Taylor’s “probabilistically defined populations” emerging from his radical constructionism; and Shona Hunter and Christi van der Westhuizen’s critical studies in whiteness. 
Ultimately, what my thesis shows is that race as a complex system is driven by the human use of difference that makes a difference (and sameness) to develop and maintain systems of privilege and intergenerational benefits. And that while race originally served European interests, it now dominantly serves white interests. To change that, to undo racism, it is necessary to both see the complex system at work and understand our own place within it. I hope that my thesis in using complexity-systems has made a modest contribution in understanding why race remains such a dominant force and offered some preliminary thoughts on how we can leverage change.   
Given my interest in complexity and complex systems, my social science interest in human complex systems, and my environmental activism centred on natural ecosystems, I hope to apply the insights of my thesis to the intersection of human and natural ecosystems to leverage change in those areas.”    
Dr Koekemoer graduated with a PhD in Philosophy on 20 April 2023. 

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Primarashni Gower
Director: Communication & Marketing
Tel: 0415043057