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The thorny issue of ‘race’ in South African politics: why it endures almost 30 years after apartheid ended

“RACE” continues to have much political salience in South Africa, a country where, in the past, perceived differences of skin colour were used to construct a hierarchy of “races”, with whites at the top, to justify their political economic domination.

The move to constitutional democracy in 1994 committed the country to non-racialism. However, almost three decades after the end of apartheid, politicians of different stripes continue to use “race” as a wedge issue to mobilise support.

The question is why. Two answers stand out.

The first is that racial oppression has been entrenched by the country’s brutal history. The second is that the 1994 political settlement has failed to significantly improve the conditions of the mass of South Africans.

As a sociologist and long-term observer of South African affairs, I suggest that these arguments are not easily dismissed, despite counter suggestions that life for most South Africans has improved since 1994. Both arguments suggest that, after nearly three decades, the democracy of 1994 has become a form of neo-apartheid. Only a small black elite and middle class has been admitted to the old order of white economic prosperity and privilege while the majority of the population remains poor and black.

As long as this is the case, “race” will continue to have salience in the country’s politics, contrary to the non-racial consensus to which the constitution aspires.

A fault of history

The first argument says that “race”, as an explanatory feature of the continuing inequalities in South Africa, is hard-wired into the country’s politics by the long history of racial oppression. Moeletsi Mbeki, a provocative commentator, writes that the country’s conquest by the Dutch and the British, and the reaction of its native peoples to their conquest, is the only context in which the issues of “race” and “race relations” are understandable.

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Having decimated a prosperous African peasantry to produce a massive supply of cheap labour to the mines, the British enlisted a class of Afrikaner collaborators who managed the country between 1910 and 1994.

The implication is that even if South Africa’s politics officially subscribe to non-racialism, the physical and psychological violence inflicted upon the African majority cannot be wished away. It is easily exploited as a resource by unscrupulous politicians.

Some see elections as a “racial census”, spurred on by a shift away from non-racialism within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), to prioritising black African interests. The ANC characterises its principal rival, the Democratic Alliance, as the political vehicle of white people.

Failure of the 1994 settlement

The second argument about “race” is that the foundation of the 1994 settlement was built on the premise of a non-racial South Africa. But this has failed to significantly improve the conditions of the mass of South Africans.

In its most conspiratorial form, this presents “white monopoly capital” as having concocted a deal with an incoming black political elite. This helps white people to maintain their economic dominance over the black African majority.

More convincing are suggestions that the social democracy constructed in 1994 produced only a few winners. From this perspective, South Africa’s democracy was built on the simple proposition that the rising black elite and middle class could bargain and compromise with whomsoever it liked so long as each generation of black South Africans did better than the last.

For the first 15 years or so, this held. Although inequality remained vast, the bottom quarter of the population was enabled to rise through the expansion of a welfare state. However, following the global crisis of 2008, the state capture era under former president Jacob Zuma and COVID, this “foundational covenant” has been broken.

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The lives of the younger generations are likely to become worse than those that preceded them. The levels of inequality are not only intolerably high, but racially skewed. As a result, South Africa has, according to academic and commentator Jonny Steinberg, become

a perfect cocktail for populist mobilisation.

The liberal Institute of Race Relations has argued that South Africans are far more concerned about material improvement (more houses, more jobs, improved schools, and better services) than they are about “race” and that public perception is that “race relations” have improved since 1994.

They may well be right, yet this rather misses the point that social change could well have been faster than it has been. As many black (and other) commentators point out, there is as much continuity with apartheid as there has been change.

Not least the fact that whites continue to be disproportionately advantaged in terms of income, wealth, housing, and opportunity relative to other South Africans. Yet, there is an unwillingness among white people to recognise that to be white in South Africa continues to be a primary marker of socio-economic advantage.

A counter view to this is that continuing inequalities are falsely ascribed to white racial privilege rather than to the broader political and economic dynamics of post-1994 South Africa. Central to such claims is that the non-racialism to which the 1994 settlement aspires has been perverted by the ANC’s policies of black economic empowerment and employment equity.

Although those policies are officially pitched as levelling the playing fields to render society “demographically representative”, critics decry how they have become instruments for the dishing out of state contracts to those with connections to the ANC.

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The debate continues with a remorseless circularity.

White versus black fragility

“Race” remains central to politics in South Africa and cannot simply be wished away, even if whites have conceded political power and offer no major threat to democracy. This does not suggest that white privilege has evaporated. Nor does it mean that there has been no significant change in racial dynamics since 1994.

We also need to understand the dynamics of class as much as those of “race” to understand why “race” remains so central to contemporary political debate.

To state the obvious, whites have lost control of the state, enabling ANC policies such as black economic empowerment and the widening of access to higher education to promote upward mobility and the growth of the black middle class. Indeed, South Africa’s middle class is today as much black as it is white. This, even though the black middle class is on aggregate less well-off than the white middle class.

The critics of the political settlement of 1994 largely hail from the black middle class, even though it is the black middle class that has been one of the principal beneficiaries of South Africa’s social democracy. Despite their gains, it is they who are most likely to encounter what they perceive as “white privilege”, most notably in the workplace, as the primary obstacle to material advancement and upward social mobility.

By The African Mirror