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Whiteness without apartheid: the limits of racial freedom

About the author
Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Thirteen years after the formal abolition of apartheid, South Africa is no longer what it used to be. Whether by design or not, the country is undergoing multiple transitions, at different paces and rhythms. It is coming out of the dark age of white supremacy and entering, wilfully or not, into a new age of diversity, pluralism and inclusion.

Today, there are significantly more blacks in the middle and upper classes than twenty years ago. There has been a dramatic decline in the overt daily horrors of segregation. Although a lot remains to be done, blacks are visible in positions of leadership, affluence and influence in almost every sector of South African life (government, business, industry, banking and commerce, higher education, health, media, etc.). The meaning of race and the nature of racial identity are now far more complex and ambiguous than they have ever been. Who is "black", "Afrikaner", "white", "coloured", "Asian" or "African" is no longer pre-fixed.

Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He is the winner of the 2006 Bill Venter/Altron Award for his book On the Postcolony (University of California Press, 2001)

Also by Achille Mbembe in openDemocracy:

"South Africa's second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome" (15 June 2006)

But the struggle for racial equality is far from over. To be sure, in major corporations, substantial transfers of ownership to blacks have taken place. A drive to ensure representation at board and management level is underway. Preferential procurement of goods and services from black- and female-owned enterprises is now the rule. But far from leading to a wider distribution of wealth, most of these efforts seem to foster a culture of cronyism, clientilism and corruption. Black South Africans still command less than 5% of the national economy.

Still far away is the moment when South Africa will be able to recognise itself and be recognised as a truly ethical community. In fact, the dirty little secret of racial prejudice keeps breaking wide open, often in the guise of debates about things that, apparently, have nothing to do with race as such - poverty, identity, crime, corruption, HIV-Aids, rape, or more recently the change of names of roads, dams, boulevards, avenues and public places, cities and airports or the erection of monuments commemorating past struggles or celebrating newfound freedoms.

Because "transformation" involves both moral questions of justice and equality and pragmatic-instrumental questions of power and social engineering, it epitomises more than any other post-apartheid project the current difficulty of overcoming whiteness and blackness as ideology and reality. It is therefore not surprising that the debate on "transformation" has become more and more contentious, even at times acrimonious. It is as if South Africa was unable to "face up to race" at the very moment when the walls of racism, while still firmly in place here, are nevertheless tumbling there.

Of the various explanations for this state of things, the main one is the collision between the persistent denial of white privilege on the one hand, and the impetus or the drive to assert a form of black nationalism or black identity predicated on the idea of victimhood on the other hand. The collision between - and the collusion of - these two logics of defensiveness is gradually fostering a culture of mutual ressentiment which, in turn, isolates freedom from responsibility and seriously undermines the prospect of a truly non-racial future. Furthermore, the logic of mutual ressentimentownership of this country while foreclosing whites' sense of truly belonging to this place and to this nation. frustrates blacks' sense of

Wages of whiteness

Current South African disputes about "transformation" are therefore expressive of the extent to which, thirteen years into democracy, the country finds it difficult to clearly articulate the ethics of care and responsibility, duties and obligations that freedom demands. These disputes are not unlike similar controversies in other formerly racist states. Take, for instance, the United States where there have been two relatively unsuccessful historic efforts to undo the legacy of racial inequality. The first - the reconstruction - was initiated after the civil war. The second was the civil-rights revolution in the 1960s.

It helps to remember that after each of these major initiatives, the operation of white privilege and supremacy could not proceed as before. White racism in an era of legal racial equality had to don new clothes. For instance, in the aftermath of the civil-rights revolution, the principle of racial equality found widespread acceptance among whites even as substantial numbers of whites later rejected policies to implement it. Although most whites came to consider themselves free of racial bias, they nevertheless sought to maintain their social distance from people of colour.

They continued to embrace the privileges of white skin and devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to restoring the normalcy of these privileges. Not only did racism become subtle and often unconsciously practiced, many whites went as far as declaring that racism was a thing of the past; that in fact, white men were now suffering from reverse discrimination. Today, the dominant claim in America is that racism is dead. America, we are told, has solved its race problem and can now be "colour-blind." As a result, race-specific policies such as affirmative action can no longer be justified.

Similar developments can be observed in South Africa. To be sure, all white South Africans do not think alike. Nor do they share the same political and economic interests. Very often, those whites who are the most committed to achieving genuine racial equality are not recognised and are hardly heard. Many - including former anti-apartheid activists - have been marginalised. The new ruling black elite, keen to protect its newly gained positions against challenge, has not been able to tap into the immense reservoir of goodwill and talent among white professionals, some of whom do not support the governing party but seek to fully exercise their citizenship and contribute to the building of a non-racial society.

It is nevertheless a fact that after apartheid, many former beneficiaries of past racial discrimination have wholeheartedly espoused the promises of individualistic liberty which they now oppose to the requisites of racial equality. Perhaps more than South African black citizens, they have bought into the presumption of the self-reliant subject and self-made capacities of liberal-conservative ideology. They pretend that after liberation, white racism can no longer be considered the most fundamental cause of black poverty. Nor can it be held responsible any longer for the troubling gaps in life-chances between black South Africans and their white compatriots.

Arguments are being made to the effect that racial disparities in South Africa today are either the result of the misguided policies of a corrupt and incompetent black government, or simply a manifestation of the moral failure of many individual blacks who do not work hard enough, do not go to school, do not live an ethical life and do not know how to stay out of crime, corruption and ill-health. Policies aimed at redressing past injustices and undoing decisions that cumulatively resulted in a profound imbalance in the most fundamental structures of opportunity (housing, education, income, transportation, employment, social insurance) are proclaimed unfair by white political parties such as the Democratic Alliance, white trade unions such as Solidarity, and white civic and business organisations.

These policies are said to interfere with market rationality, discourage foreign direct investment and act as a form of reverse racism and discrimination against whites who, disenfranchised, therefore have no choice but to leave the country. Those who cannot leave have but a fleeting attachment to the new democratic order. Unable to give up their former investment in the psychic and material benefits of whiteness, they vacillate. Instead of practicing freedom, they disdain it and, as their former identity unravels, they opt for a politics of recrimination and rancour.

Something devious and perverse

That a large number of white South Africans can stigmatize the project of "transformation" at the same time as they continue to feel entitled to their privileged position in society and fail to appreciate the accumulated injustices on which these privileges rest - this can only be seen as one of the many ironies of the 1994 "negotiated settlement". For centuries, whites in South Africa - and not only Afrikaners - enjoyed unfair advantages in the labour market. As in the United States, they were able to rig the rules of the game and control access to jobs and promotions while closing off access to training or education for blacks. These tactics were instrumental to the accumulation of white wealth on the one hand and the development of patterns of dispossession for blacks on the other hand.

To protect white privilege, boundaries were created that took the form of laws, customs and traditions. A racist ethos, a deeply embedded racist habitus constantly helped to justify whites' loss of feeling for human fellowship with blacks. This is how white privilege came to be seen as an entitlement that was hardly ever contested. Indeed, whites' ability over more than a century to pass out to succeeding generations the spoils of racial discrimination in monetary or property value, banking practices, housing markets, educational resources, cultural capital, insider networks, good jobs and media representations - this has something to do with current levels of racial inequality and black poverty.

The process by which white privilege came to be legislated in South Africa has been well documented by historians. It started as a genuine concern for the real problem of white poverty. But from the early 1920s, the more concerned the state became with alleviating white poverty and rehabilitating the white poor, the more racist it turned out to be. Already with the Pact's victory in 1924, JBM Hertzog wanted to replace large numbers of cheap black workers with unskilled or semi-skilled whites. "Uncivilised labour" was replaced with "civilised labor" at "civilised wages." Such was particularly the case in the railways, harbours, post office and local government.

Employers who hired "whites only" received preference for state contracts. Under the policy of import substitution, customs were relaxed for protected industries which employed a certain percentage of whites. A wage board allowed the state to enforce minimum wages. Meanwhile, the trades were closed to blacks as a result of the Apprentice Act. Welfare was reorganised. Extended state assistance was provided to the white poor in the form of public works, vocational guidance, health services and housing, social clubs for the unemployed, pensions for poor mothers, old-age pensions or sick and disability grants.

Later, the capital accumulated in farming flowed into financial institutions, which in turn helped greatly to diversify the range of Afrikaner commerce. A recapitalisation of the education sector, especially at university level, expanded Afrikaner involvement in a whole range of professions in the public and private sector. A new generation of Afrikaner entrepreneurs spearheaded upward social mobility. Sanlam and Trustbank, amongst others, gave Afrikaners a footing in a commercial world dominated by English corporations. Anglophone mining houses made space for Afrikaner-controlled corporations to buy into this sector. Per-capita income amongst Afrikaans-speaking whites was less than half that of English-speakers in 1946. By the late 1970s, it had risen to 80% and was heading towards parity. This is how white South Africa came to enjoy a standard of living equal to that of the richest countries in the global north.

Today, large sections of the South African white population can no longer see the advantages they gained from these arrangements. Indeed, in order to oppose "transformation", the past has to be erased. The element of cruelty and brutality it took to maintain white privilege has to be forgotten. Whites have to be discouraged from understanding the benefits that still accompany their own skin colour, including in the new democratic dispensation. Instead, in a typically neo-conservative move, they are encouraged to perceive themselves as the new victims of a corrupt and incompetent black government which, in addition, is "soft on crime".

The poor white's predicament

But what about today's white poor? A century ago, the African-American scholar WEB Du Bois remarked that white workers' choice to define themselves by their whiteness was understandable in view of its short-term advantages. These short-term advantages were manifested in, for instance, higher wages than those of people of colour. But even when white workers received a low wage, Du Bois added, they were compensated in part by a public and psychological wage that amounted to a tangible benefit acquired at the expense of people of color.

In the United States today, the white poor are encouraged to support the dismantling of the welfare state and the cutting of specific policies that could improve their life chances. Although policies stigmatised as "affirmative action" have helped hundreds of thousands of white women enter colleges, secure employment, and gain promotions, white poor are persuaded that "the blacks get more". For this reason, they are the most virulent opponents of "affirmative action" although they, too, suffer from economic hardship, social stigma and political disempowerment.

South Africa has a long history of poor whites - a destitute class, illiterate, with little self-respect and no self-reliance, with an intense religious excitability and a deep-rooted antagonism to the black. Here, racism has always played an important role in maintaining the self-esteem of the white poor. Very often, the white working class has thought of itself and its interests as predominantly white. As a result, it has been unable to contemplate a struggle of united white and black labour against the exploiters. The white poor have always believed that black emancipation will keep them out of work, threaten their human worth or even their masculinity. That is one of the reasons why, as in America, white society in South Africa long stood against democracy which might have emancipated blacks.

Historically, race has therefore played a powerful role in fracturing classes while serving as a barrier to alternative forms of cross-racial solidarity. Since 1994 and the advent of globalisation, the white poor are forced to compete with blacks in an unstable labour market without the privilege of their whiteness. No wonder they cling so tightly to the symbolic vestiges of a racist past as a way of softening their newfound material precariousness. They no longer know what it means to be white, or how to be white, without apartheid. But evidence also suggests that while they navigate cross-racial inner-city life as beggars and destitute, some members of the new white underclass are forced to undo the racism of earlier generations.

On the other hand, the end of apartheid has not affected the structural positions the white propertied classes enjoyed during the period of white supremacy. If anything, they are doing economically better today than ever before. To be sure they lost political power. But they did not die as a class. In most instances, they can still use their economic muscle and social capital to co-opt an increasingly predatory black élite, therefore gaining the upper hand including in matters of "transformation".

The ethical implications of "transformation"

What to do with the inequalities which are the result of unfair policies consistently applied over centuries is both an ethical and a pragmatic question. To achieve a modicum of social justice after apartheid has been abolished and racial segregation outlawed, we must dismantle the barriers that were erected against full justice for all and attend to distributional inequalities.

But the project of "transformation" cannot be confined to a largely managerial, bureaucratic or quantitative exercise with the primary concern of ensuring that adequate numbers of blacks find places in government, higher education, commerce and industry in general. We cannot afford to simply replicate the old Afrikaner model of filling state corporations, civil service and the universities with incompetent citizens while using state patronage to promote dubious business ventures.

Also on South African politics and society in openDemocracy:

Gillian Slovo, "Making history: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission" (5 December 2002)

John Matshikiza, "Johannesburg: shanty city, instant city" (13 December 2002)

Paul Kingsnorth, "Apartheid: the sequel" (20 May 2003)

Nahla Valji, "South Africa: no justice without reparation" (2 July 2003)

David Mikhail, "South Africa and Iraq: the missing example" (15 December 2005)

Devoid of any ethical consideration, the project of "transformation" can easily turn into blacks coming to make havoc in the former master's house after the latter has relinquished political power. This is indeed what has been observed in countless African post-colonial societies. To be morally legitimate, the project of "transformation" should be judged by the extent to which it fosters equality and restores capabilities to those who have been deprived of these by unjust laws and racist policies.

But equality does not mean equal distribution of everything to everyone. It means instead the equal treatment of everyone, the granting of the same weight to everyone. South Africa constitutionally subscribes to the idea that all South Africans, black and white, are subjected to the same rule. Furthermore, the latter should be applied in a manner that is always equal. The paradox of the "transformation" project is that its implementation requires that preference be given to "formerly disadvantaged groups".

"Transformation" therefore introduces a rule of inequality in the very process by which it aims at reaching the goal of equality. Indeed, in the calculus of "transformation", everyone does not count as much as everyone else. Everyone does not have the same weight as everyone else. This, in itself, constitutes a serious risk for democracy - an association of free and equal consociates under the law in so far as the latter is the expression of a substantive ethical consensus. Today, there is no ethical consensus in so far as "transformation" is concerned. The first task facing South Africa is to rebuild a cross-racial ethical consensus around this project.

Implemented blindly, "transformation" is also susceptible to leading to "moral corruption". It risks codifying within the law and in the psyche the very powerlessness it aims to redress. It risks socially stigmatizing black South Africans by turning their past injuries into new assets and entitlements. It risks turning victimhood into an affect as well as a social position. In itself the race, gender or ethnicity of an individual might say something about that individual's social narrative of suffering, victimisation or privilege. But it strictly does not say anything about that individual's qualifications or value.

But if the ethical risks involved in the implementation of the project of "transformation" are real, so would be the endless deferral of black hopes for South Africa's political stability and overall economic well-being. This danger is evidenced in the ongoing struggles about poor "service delivery". The risk is also that of a reversion of times - the disjointed times of black and white South Africans curving uncertainly towards each other, coming apart once again, reverting and taking up once again their segregated paths.

Were blackness to be solely rooted in an unredeemable injury and seldom in the duties and obligations that black citizens have with regard to everyone else, South Africa would be unable to achieve the particular ethical forms of life its constitution requires it to strive for. At the same time, neither political stability nor genuine democracy will be achieved if the beneficiaries of past discriminations yield political power while still clinging to the rule of property, that is, the monopoly of ownership of labour, land, capital, commerce and industry.

"Transformation" today cannot simply be the exact replica of what the uplifting of the white poor was then - minus the doctrine of race supremacy. If its goal is to restore capabilities to those who have been deprived of these by past unjust laws, barriers that have operated in the past to favour "whites only" should be removed. This is not the same as to argue that the less qualified be preferred over the better qualified simply because they are black or have been "disadvantaged" in the past. In today's global age, South Africa cannot afford to lose the best of its white professionals in the name of a blind implementation of the "transformation" project.

But the formal-legal removal of these barriers is not enough. As evidenced by countless anecdotes in sectors as diverse as higher education, business and industry, practices and procedures neutral on their face, or in intent, may in fact operate to freeze the status quo and to keep in place, under a new guise, prior discriminations. Moreover, the racist ethos written in the life of institutions, in the public mind and in popular culture is the hardest to tackle once the legal and coercive apparatus of apartheid is gone. The removal of these immaterial barriers is mostly the result of new forms of cultural creativity and imagination - a realm whose power is misunderstood by the current government.

A real freedom

"Transformation" is a justified claim that requires urgent treatment. It will be a justified claim so long as we can establish that we are not pursuing the good by violating the basic requirements of justice itself.

Because it is the most likely device to shield us from calls for vengeance, "transformation" is also one of the various mechanisms to achieve true racial equality and, ultimately, real freedom. In our context, real freedom means "freedom from race" - the kind of freedom that South Africa is likely to enjoy because this nation will have built, for the very first time in the history of humankind, a society, a culture and a civilisation in which, for once, the colour of one's skin will be superfluous in the overall calculus of status, dignity, opportunities, rights and obligations.

It's a freedom that will originate purely and simply from our being human. In this relation between race, freedom and democracy is where might potentially lie South Africa's unique gift to humanity.


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