Roger Southall’s latest book “White People and Democracy in South Africa”, helps bring the sometimes overly abstract idea of whiteness into more meaningful engagement with white people, and their actions and ideas, writes CChristi van der Westhuizen.
In his latest book, sociologist Professor Roger Southall, a prolific scholar who has written extensively on political dynamics in Southern Africa, avoids the “negative and condemnatory” approach typically seen in writing about white South Africans, creators and beneficiaries of apartheid.
In the preface to the book, Whites and Democracy in South Africa, he explains that he did this to undertake a nuanced and constructive assessment of white people’s adjustment to post-apartheid democracy.
Therefore, he enters into the South African debate on critical race studies by distinguishing his study from whiteness research which assumes
the homogeneity of white practices, ideas and attitudes and that being white is synonymous with being racist (p. 13).
Southall criticizes academic writing that attempts the corrective reorientation of whites toward more desirable behavior as “sociologically overambitious” (p. 13).
He views such scholarship as prescriptive and removed from the everyday experiences of white people. Instead, he insists that the analysis of whiteness must be based on empirical research.
With this approach, Southall cuts through the sometimes heated debate over race in South Africa with conclusions based on solid research. The book helps turn the sometimes overly abstract idea of whiteness into a more meaningful engagement with white people, their actions, and their ideas. The results provide a welcome update on white political positions after nearly 30 years of democracy.
Whiteness in South Africa
The book is based on data collected during eight in-depth qualitative focus group interviews, conducted in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape, Gauteng and Free State. Southall anchors the study in a historical contextualization, giving a long view of the specifically political evolution of whiteness.
It offers an analysis of the state of liberalism. There is renewed interest in this due to the controversial positions on race taken by the main opposition, the Democratic Alliance. The party is the main representative of liberalism among the opposition parties in the country.
It also analyzes changes in Afrikaner politics over time, whites as citizens, and explores the politics of representation through to the politics of wealth redistribution.
The study confirms the diversity of white political positions in the country. This is also found in other works.
Whiteness takes center stage in a racial order in which those who are positioned as “other” to whiteness are seen as inferior. But it also creates internal hierarchies by superimposing regimes of domination, whether economic, patriarchal, heteronormative or otherwise.
The analysis, when done critically considering ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality, shows complex intersections within whiteness. In these, women, LGBT and economically marginalized people occupy “lower” statuses.
Southall’s contribution is to show the political changes within whiteness. Embracing these internal complexities is important because it avoids mythologizing whiteness, which can make whiteness appear as an insurmountable form of racial exclusion and dehumanization.
Democrats reluctant but without apartheid nostalgia
One of Southall’s important findings is that there is limited nostalgia for apartheid among his respondents. Not a single respondent expressed the wish that the apartheid dispensation had continued.
He shows in this book that white South Africans might be “reluctant democrats”, but they have accepted democracy (p. 239). This may seem like a disappointing statement to make. But it is a reminder that an inclusive democracy in which all South Africans enjoy equal citizenship status was a complete anathema to successive ruling white cliques for centuries.
The violent efforts of the group of white settlers to maintain their dominance are well known. As recently as the first half of the 1990s, the then ruling National Party had no intention of relinquishing white power.
In 1992, a whites-only referendum was held. The result showed support for a transition to democracy. This indicated that not only the apartheid ruling elite, but also the majority of white people wanted to open up political space.
This contributed, as Southall puts it, to the country becoming a “failed colonizing state”. It is a liberating failure that has created the possibility of extending human dignity to all in the country. Those who lose sight of this minimize the gains made since the end of official apartheid in 1994.
However, this is not about congratulating white people. Historical conditions, mostly beyond their control, have forced a rethinking of political positions beyond the small groups of already critical whites. Sustained white dissent against colonialism and apartheid is beyond the scope of the book. But, it is again important to keep in mind the multiplicity of white political positions.
Needed: a “responsibility policy”
The study reveals that white people are willing to admit the “evil” of apartheid, even as they blame it on apartheid-era security and political elites. They had “a sense of relief” when the country finally transitioned to democracy in the 1990s.
However, respondents in the study do not favor reparation to correct the effects of racist colonial and apartheid policies. This despite the legacy of white privilege which remains very visible in the present.
This disturbing finding helps to understand how white resistance to wealth redistribution contributes in part to the persistence of black poverty in South Africa.
Leading postcolonial thinker Achille Mbembe is quoted in the book to point out that what whites need, in particular, is a “politics of accountability” (p. 240). This would include whites bearing a material responsibility to blacks to repair the ravages of centuries of colonialism.
Southall provides a useful set of criteria for giving substance to South Africa’s unique contribution to the global fight against racism, namely the decades-old idea of non-racism. When it comes to a “politics of responsibility”, non-racism necessarily implies a socio-economic dimension. This must take the form of addressing racial inequality, the question of property and the eradication of black poverty. All of this alongside strengthening the commitment to democracy and promoting interracial inclusiveness.
He may be circumspect about integrating his book into whiteness scholarship. But Southall’s latest work adds important insights to a newly critical whiteness studies literature that seeks new ways out of the destructive conundrum created by race and racism.
Christi van der Westhuizen, Associate Professor, Center for Advancing Non-Racism and Democracy (CANRAD), Nelson Mandela University
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