Passages to Freedom: The Politics of Racial Reconciliation in South Africa
Thirteen years after the formal abolition of apartheid, South Africa is no longer what it used to be. It is coming out of the dark age of white supremacy. Whether by design or not, the country is undergoing multiple and systemic transitions, at different paces and rhythms. In an age that has witnessed an exacerbation of historically entrenched racial hierarchies, it is involved in one of the few contemporary global experiments with a view of creating the first credible nonracial society on the planet.
To a large extent, this involves deracializing the ownership of assets and cultural capital while reconciling the principles of equal protection, affirmative action, and nondiscrimination. This experiment’s chances of success cannot be ruled out. But nor can they be taken for granted, so paradoxical and contradictory are, in this instance, the relations between the “forces of capital and cultural production known as globalization and the processes of subject articulation known as racialization.”1
There are significantly more blacks in the middle and upper classes today than there were twenty years ago. In the words of a black female entrepreneur, some blacks have more than one luxury vehicle. They own more than one home and can afford to send their children to private schools and buy them cell phones. Notwithstanding the extent of the abuse and daily humiliation and degradation of farmworkers and tenants in rural areas and small towns, the overt daily horrors of segregation have declined dramatically, at least in the major metropolitan centers.2 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, and so on). The meaning of race and the nature of racial identity are far more complex and ambiguous now than they have ever been before. The categories “black,” “Afrikaner,” “white,” “colored,” and “Asian” are no longer pre-fixed. The discourses through which South Africans represent race relations are changing. Racism itself no longer seems to reside exclusively in the economic and social settings of yesteryear; instead it seems to be migrating into the realm of privately held beliefs.
But the defeat of legalized white supremacy has not ended the struggle for racial equality. Pervasive material inequality between whites and blacks coexists with formal legal equality. To be sure, in major corporations, substantial sales of shares have been sold to blacks who, in virtually all cases, did not have the requisite capital to acquire the stakes being sold. A drive to ensure representation at board and management level is also under way. Preferential procurement of goods and services from black- and female-owned enterprises is now the rule.
Far from leading to a wider distribution of wealth, however, most of these efforts — including employment equity measures and skills development — seem to foster a culture of cronyism, clientelism, and corruption. Many participants in equity transactions have financed their acquisitions using debt, or a mix of debt and equity finance. Black South Africans still command less than 5 percent of the national economy. Whites still occupy about 75 percent of top management posts in South Africa. Racial and gender imbalances in the distribution of wealth, income, and opportunity are still the rule.3 Too many poor blacks are still not in a position to create something meaningful with their lives.
The moment when South Africa will be able to recognize itself and be recognized as a truly nonracial community is still far away. The dirty little secret of prejudice keeps breaking wide open, often in the guise of debates about things that seemingly have nothing to do with race as such — poverty, crime, corruption, HIV-AIDS, rape, sports, questions of linguistic and cultural pluralism, or, more recently, the change of names of roads, dams, boulevards, avenues, public places, cities, and airports, or the erection of monuments commemorating past struggles or celebrating newfound freedoms.
Because “transformation” or “empowerment” (the set of policies designed by the government and the private sector to redress past racial discriminations and to redistribute wealth and income to previously disadvantaged groups) involves both moral questions of justice and equality and pragmatic and instrumental questions of power and social engineering, it epitomizes more than any other postapartheid project the current difficulty of overcoming whiteness and blackness. 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 is unable to face up to race at the very moment when the walls of racism, while still in place, are nevertheless tumbling.4
Proponents of “transformation” (not all of whom are black) and those who oppose it (not all of whom are white) disagree about what it is, why it is needed, and how it should be implemented. Is it a form of reparation and redress or, rather, a temporary expedient that will at some point wither away? Can an injustice rendered in the past against a black person be compensated for through discrimination against a white in the present? Do claims for racial rectification advanced by former victims of racial discrimination irremediably compromise the nonracialist principles enshrined in the Constitution?
In a country where very few apartheid-era atrocities have been prosecuted, where key political figures refused to testify to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where there have been hardly any acts of public contrition from former executioners and where most killers and torturers have escaped jail time, the persistent denial of white privilege partly explains the acrimonious nature of the controversy. But so does the drive to assert a form of black identity predicated on the idea of victimhood.5 The two defensive logics of black victimhood and white denialism collide and collude, often in unexpected ways. Together, they gradually foster a culture of mutual ressentiment, which, in turn, isolates freedom from responsibility and seriously undermines the prospect of a truly nonracial future. Furthermore, the logic of mutual ressentiment frustrates blacks’ sense of ownership of this country while foreclosing whites’ sense of truly belonging to this place and to this nation.
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- Kamari Maxine Clarke, ed., Globalization and Race: Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006), 9.
- See, for instance, Wonder Hlongwa, “A Place Where Black Life Is Cheap,” City Press, July 22, 2007.
- Department of Labour, Commission of Employment Equity Annual Report 2006 – 2007 (Pretoria, South Africa: Government Printers, 2007).
- Sarah Nuttall, “Stylizing the Self: The Y Generation in Rosebank, Johannesburg,” Public Culture 16 (2004): 430 – 52.
- On these questions, see Achille Mbembe, “African Modes of Self-Writing,” Public Culture 14 (2002): 239 – 79.