by Robert Jensen
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’. I learned that even with all the differences in the two countries there are equally important similarities, and as a result the sense of entitlement that so many white people hold onto produces similar dodges and denials.
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.
From a two-week trip I wouldn’t claim deep insights or knowledge about South Africa. My contact in the country, outside of informal chats with people on the street, was limited primarily to university professors and students, or left/progressive activists in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban. I didn’t have a chance to get behind the gates in the wealthy neighborhoods or talk to elite business people, and my travels in the black townships were limited in time and scope. But with those limits, some clear patterns emerged about the moderate/liberal/left white people I engaged with.
[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.
During my first days in the country, my host for the trip, Junaid Ahmad, reported an incident that drove home how superficial such commitment to multiculturalism can be. Ahmad, a Ph.D. student and activist at the University of Cape Town, had been asked to appear on the campus radio station opposite the student government president to discuss race issues. When the other student (a white man) pointed to a recent musical performance in which black African and coloured choirs sang together, Ahmad (a Pakistani-American) challenged the assumptions of multiculturalism-as-a-solution behind the comment. The student body president got more and more agitated with Ahmad’s critique until finally, as the interview was ending, the student president turned to him and said, “You should be careful.”
Ahmad said the man didn’t appear to be reminding him to look both ways while crossing the street or to be careful driving in heavy traffic. The vague warning wasn’t a direct threat, but Ahmad said that given the context of a white man angered by a challenge from an Indian (the category into which Ahmad would likely fit in South Africa), it was hard not to interpret the comment as white-supremacist. The white man had acknowledged that racial issues still haunt South Africa but wasn’t eager to engage in a debate about his assessment of what was needed for real progress, especially not when the critique came from …
Though his expression of his emotional reaction was crude, the young man was not idiosyncratic. In my experience, many whites — in South Africa and the United States — expect their endorsement of multiculturalism to be accepted as evidence of a serious commitment to ending racism.
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.” Biko can’t be written off as a black separatist from a bygone era who is no longer relevant; he maintained personal and political relationships with principled white allies while he was alive, and today even with a black-run government South Africa’s economy is dominated by whites with privilege. Biko’s analysis rings as true today as it was in the years before he was murdered while in police custody in 1977. Quoting more extensively from that same essay, “Black Souls in White Skins?”:
“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.”
Those principles were central to the black consciousness movement that Biko helped lead in South Africa, and they apply just as clearly to the United States, then and now. As I read Biko’s words while in South Africa, I was reminded of my own attempts in the past to prove my anti-racist bona fides by creating the appearance of solidarity when I had yet to demonstrate real solidarity. I cringed at how much I still struggle to avoid this.
My point is not that all problems in South Africa or the United States are the result of racist actions of whites. In South Africa I heard a steady stream of criticism of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for its failure to live up to the promises in its Freedom Charter that had helped define the struggle against apartheid, for what some see as its willingness to sell out the interests of ordinary people to the white elites who were allowed to retain much of the wealth acquired under apartheid. 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.
I finished reading “I Write What I Like,” the book of Biko’s writings quoted from above, while sitting in the Cape Town airport waiting for my flight home. The book stuck out of my over-stuffed shoulder bag as a white South African sat down next to me and said hello. Tired of reading, I put down my newspaper and responded to his friendly conversation starter. As we chatted about our personal lives and I reported on my experiences in the country, I could see his eyes glance several times over at the Biko book. After a few more minutes he felt comfortable enough to ask me what I knew about Biko. I mentioned I had taken a South African history course around 1980 and had read about Biko right after his murder. But this was the first time I had read his own writing, I said, and I was sorry I had waited so long.
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. I awkwardly excused myself to go to the bathroom, though it was as clear to him as to me why I was leaving. As I walked away I immediately felt ashamed for not confronting him. I told myself that this wasn’t my country and it wasn’t my job, that I was legitimately tired, that the man likely would have dismissed me as a naïve American. I told myself that it was okay to walk away, and maybe it was in that particular situation. I reminded myself that I was emotionally and physically exhausted from the trip, but the more I reminded myself, the less compelling my excuses sounded to me. I couldn’t avoid the fact that I, like other white people, always have the choice to walk away.
Whatever my obligation was that day in South Africa, it is clear what we white people can’t hide behind the litany of excuses we use to justify our failure to confront white supremacy: “you have to pick your battles,” or “you can’t change every person.” Maybe that’s all true, but as I got in line to board the plane and looked up to see the man smirk at me, I realized my failure and recognized my moral laziness. The question for me, and for all whites, is whether we learn from those failures or remain stuck in the laziness.