In South Africa, Apartheid Is Dead, but White Supremacy Lingers On

Robert Jensen, CounterPunch, June 9, 2009

Apartheid is dead in South Africa, but a new version of white supremacy lives on.

“During apartheid the racism of white people was up front, and we knew what we were dealing with. Now white people smile at us, but for most black people the unemployment and grinding poverty and dehumanizing conditions of everyday life haven’t changed,” a black South African told me. “So, what kind of commitment to justice is under that smile?”

This community activist in Cape Town said that, ironically, the end of South’s Africa’s apartheid system of harsh racist segregation and exploitation has in some ways made it more difficult to agitate for social justice today. As he offered me his views on the complex politics of his country, Nkwame Cedile, a field worker for People’s Health Movement, expressed a frustration that I heard often in my two weeks in the country: Yes, the brutality of apartheid ended in 1994 with free elections, but the white-supremacist ideas that had animated apartheid and the racialized distribution of wealth it was designed to justify didn’t magically evaporate.

That shouldn’t be surprising–how could centuries of white supremacy simply disappear in 15 years? What did surprise me during my lecture tour was not the racial tension but how much discussions about race in South Africa sounded just like conversations in the United States. There was something eerily familiar to me, a lifelong white U.S. citizen, about those discussions. I have heard comments from black people in the United States like Cedile’s, but I’ve also heard white Americans articulate views on race that were sometimes exactly like white South Africans’. {snip}

Those similarities: South Africa and the United States were the two longstanding settler states that maintained legal apartheid long after the post-World War II decolonization process. The crucial term is “settler state,” marking a process by which an invading population exterminates or displaces and exploits the indigenous population to acquire its land and resources, with formal slavery playing a key role at some point in the country’s history. Both strategies were justified with overtly racist doctrines about white supremacy, and both required the white population to discard basic moral and religious principles, leading to a pathological psychology of superiority. Both of those settler strategies have left us with racialized disparities in wealth and well-being long after the formal apartheid is over.

The main difference: The United States struggles with its problem with a white majority, while South Africa has a black majority. But what I found fascinating his how little difference that made in terms of the psychological pathology of so many white people. So, as is typically the case, my trip to South Africa taught me not only about racism in South Africa but also in the United States, which reminded me that perhaps we travel to observe others so that we can learn about ourselves.

{snip}

[A footnote on racial terms: In South Africa people sometimes talk about race in terms of white and black, with “black” in that context meaning all people who aren’t of European descent. More specifically, the black population is made up of black Africans (such as the Zulu and Xhosa), Indians (descended from various waves of immigration from India), and coloured (mixed-race). Most whites tend to identify as of primarily English or Dutch/Afrikaner background. Many people in South Africa try to avoid apartheid-era terminology but still sometimes use these four traditional racial categories, in part because they are the basis for measuring economic progress in relation to various forms of affirmative action.]

The first trend was the belief that whatever racism remained in South Africa, things will get better naturally, as long as South Africans respect all cultures. The argument seems to go something like this: Apartheid is over, we have a black government, and now it’s time to move ahead by understanding that the problem of race in no longer political but one of inadequate cultural understanding and engagement. This celebration of diversity is familiar to us in the United States, where institutions (especially corporations and schools) tend to address difficult questions about disparities in political power and the distribution of wealth through multiculturalism. While there’s nothing wrong, of course, with acknowledging cultural diversity and helping people learn more about other cultures, multiculturalism does not take the place of real politics, no matter how much many white people wish it could. Understanding others doesn’t automatically mean that those with unearned privileged will work to undermine the system that gives them that privilege.

{snip}

After a talk at the University of Johannesburg in which I argued for always keeping discussions of race grounded in the white-supremacy of the culture, a faculty member there took issue with the tone of my remarks. If we want to be a “post-racial” society, she suggested that dialogue without all the political baggage was necessary. The only path to racial harmony was to put aside the bitterness and find a common humanity, and part of the success of the interracial dialogues she was part of was the ability of the group to put race aside, she said.

I told her I had no problem with people pursuing such discussions so long as we didn’t pretend we could erase the effects of race with the snap of our fingers. Racial distinctions and racialized disparities in wealth endure, even without the legal enshrinement of them, and that reality has to be acknowledged. She pressed the claim that such a focus on race undermines commonality, noting that as a person of German and Jewish heritage, she knew this first hand. The comments from blacks in the room who disputed her call for color blindness didn’t dissuade her; she was adamant about the proper path. As she pressed on, I noticed a row of black students behind her rolling their eyes, suggesting they had heard this before and were tired of it. The price of admission to these race dialogues was to leave behind what people of color know about race, and one thing they know is that we whites typically are too quick to believe we have transcended race.

There’s nothing new about either of these examples, of course. The student leader’s sense of supremacy that lingered just below his multicultural commitment is a painfully obvious sign of self-deception, but so are the feel-good claims of the fans of race dialogues. In 1970 one of South Africa’s most eloquent voices for justice, Steve Biko, referred to these black-white circles as “tea parties” that turn out to be “a soporific on the blacks and provide a vague satisfaction for the guilty-stricken whites.” {snip}

“Instead of involving themselves in an all-out attempt to stamp out racism from their white society, liberals waste lots of time trying to prove to as many blacks as they can find that they are liberal. This arises out of the false belief that we are faced with a black problem. There is nothing the matter with blacks. The problem is WHITE RACISM and it rests squarely on the laps of the white society.”

In rejecting what he saw as a false integration, Biko made it clear he believed in real integration premised on a struggle for justice:

“If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up by and maintained by whites, then YES I am against it. . . . If on the other hand by integration you mean there shall be free participation by all members of a society, catering for the full expression of the self in a freely changing society as determined by the will of the people, then I am with you.”

{snip}

{snip}. Leaders such as Biko don’t blame everything on whites but instead analyze the effects of white supremacy and ask for accountability on the part of everyone. For people with unearned privilege, that accountability is too easily avoided.

{snip}

After acknowledging Biko’s political skills and courage, my conversation partner warned me not to be too taken in by the “cult” around Biko. “Remember, he died before he had a chance to get corrupt,” he said. Playing a bit dumb, I asked what he meant, and then the floodgates opened. “Just look,” he said, at the litany of incompetent and corrupt ANC politicians. They’ve gotten rich but are slowly turning the country into “one more basket case in Africa.”

Were there no honest black leaders? Was corruption more common in a black government than a white one?

He conceded that there were honest ANC leaders, and perhaps the ANC was no more corrupt than a white party. But it’s not just about honesty, he said, his sentence trailing off. I asked what he meant.

“South Africa is a modern society. We have advanced technology,” he said. “We’re more like a European country than an African one.”

That is the other face of white liberalism. A “hard-headed realism” that understands you can’t really expect the blacks to run the complex society that whites built. After our initial amiable chatting, I was taken aback by the overt racism, though I knew enough to know lots of pleasant people are racist. {snip}

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