South Africa Isn’t Post-Racial Either

By Robert Jensen

Published in Colorlines · June, 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,” Nkwame Cedile, a Black South African, told me. “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. So, what kind of commitment to justice is under that smile?”

As he offered me his views on the complex politics of his country, Cedile, a field worker in Cape Town for the People’s Health Movement, expressed a frustration 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 didn’t magically evaporate.

That shouldn’t be surprising. How could centuries of white supremacy simply disappear in 15 years? What did surprise me (as a white U.S. citizen) is how much discussions about race in South Africa sounded just like conversations in the United States.

While the United States struggles with its race problem with a white majority and South Africa has a Black majority, I found this made little difference in terms of the psychological pathology of so many white people.

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 and 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 even with those limits, some clear patterns emerged about the white people with whom I engaged.

The first trend is an argument that goes 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 is 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 commitments to multiculturalism can be.

Ahmad, a Ph.D. student and activist at the University of Cape Town, had been asked to speak on race issues opposite the student government president during a campus radio program. When the other student (a white man) pointed to a recent musical performance in which Black African and mixed-race choirs sang together, Ahmad, who is a Pakistani-American, challenged the multiculturalism-as-a-solution assumption behind the comment.

The student president got agitated with Ahmad’s critique until finally, as the interview was ending, the young white man turned to him and said, “You should be careful.”

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.

Though this young white man chose a crude expression for his emotional reaction, he 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.

This professor pressed her claim that such a focus on race undermines commonality, noting that as a person of German and Jewish heritage, she knew this first hand. As she continued, 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 is 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 his 1970 essay “Black Souls in White Skins?,” 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 did in the years before he was murdered while in police custody in 1977. Here’s another quote from his essay that resonates today:

“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.

Of course, 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 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, 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 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 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 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 like other white people, I always have the choice to walk away.

That day in South Africa reminded me again that as white people, we 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.