2019 marks 25 years since Nelson Mandela was elected as the first black president of South Africa. Finally, apartheid, the system of racial segregation institutionalised by the Afrikaans-led Nationalist Party in 1948, was a chapter closed. Since that time, South Africans of all backgrounds have been debating the extent to which the post-apartheid vision of ‘a rainbow nation’ -- a multicultural unity of people of many different nations -- is being realised.
This question is not only of interest and importance within South Africa. Against a context of rising populism and white nationalism across the Global North, are white people in South Africa really rejecting the privileges of white supremacism which they have enjoyed for so long?
My Identities article, 'Reimagining racism: understanding the whiteness and nationhood strategies of British-born South Africans', examines this question by looking at one group of South African Whites: those who were born in Britain and migrated to South Africa. Many did so in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, through a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ scheme which offered them cheap passage, good jobs and comfortable accommodation on arrival. Whereas, at home in Britain, there was rising rejection of the apartheid system in South Africa, this group chose to up sticks and move to a deeply segregated society. How do they explain this, to others and themselves? And how do they now talk about the situation in South Africa today?
Research on racism more generally reveals that ‘denial’ is a common white strategy. Studies across Australia, the Netherlands, Scotland and New Zealand show that, when white people talk about race, denial of racism is a pervasive tactic to avoid charges of being racist (van Dijk 1992; Augoustinos & Every 2007). My Identities article builds on this research but argues that the history of South Africa brings an additional, but significant, context. The overt segregation institutionalised through the apartheid system established a legacy of racism that means that outright denial is not an option open to white South Africans. However, through close examination of the talk of people I interviewed, I show how racialised systems, both past and present, may be reimagined, such that their forms and meanings are recast into alternative narratives.
I found four ‘discourses’, or ways of reimagining, are commonly used. First is temporal reimagination, which holds that racism in the past was not as bad as it was made out to be, in the British press in particular. As a result, in the present, a return to the ‘good old days’ is desired by both Blacks and Whites in South Africa. For example, Moira, in her 60s, explained:
'In some ways [the South African Government] were too good at communicating, because I don’t think that racialism was any worse here, but the mistake was giving it a name: ‘apartheid’. Rather than trying to shovel it under the carpet and say, 'Oh no, it doesn’t exist’, they were honest about it, upfront about it and said, ‘Yes it exists, we know it exists, we’re going to support it and we’re going to give it a name!'
Susan, now in her 70s, agreed, telling me that her helpers:
'Elijah and Christmas say they were a lot better off under the Brittos, the white guys, because then -- well there was law and order then you see. They knew where they stood.'
Second, boundary reimagination maintains that South African politics is ‘nothing to do with me, as I am British’. The racism of other groups (e.g. Afrikaners) was worse, and ongoing racialised systems are a consequence of their beliefs, not ours (the British). For example, Neil, an engineer in his 40s, told me over a beer:
'There’s a lot of corruption because there isn’t the money or resources to give to people. One time I was pulled over by a metro cop and he says 'I’m thinking I’m gonna have some beers tonight — do you have any money?', and it was like … police begging. When I go to the UK and I see the police pull someone over, I feel like that is how it should be done, you know, not like what you see in this country.'
Third, is open acceptance: Yes, racial segregation existed, and still exists. However, this is both accepted and acceptable as it delivers privileges to Whites. Richard, now in his 80s, whom I met at an exclusive country club in a leafy white neighbourhood in Johannesburg, admits:
'Let's be honest about it, I'm not one of those people who will shrink form that part of South Africa's history, it was brilliant! If you come to a country where you've got blue skies and you've got sea and you've got beaches and you've got a wonderful way of life with a maid and everything is quite a zillion times cheaper than the UK, you think this is paradise!!'
Finally, social reimagination holds that social change is both possible and desirable, and new opportunities are opening to white people. Laura, a young British teacher in her 30s was inspired by the following:
'There’s a sense that everybody’s invited to join in the history -- you’re very close to history being made here because it’s in the making. You can taste it in your -- that edge of meeting people. Everybody’s making an effort and moving forwards -- it’s an opportunity -- everyone says the opportunity is here to be grabbed and you’re quite close to the people who are trying to grab the opportunities.'
These different reimaginings of racism demonstrate diversity within British-born South Africans and it is important to recognise the plurality of white positions. However at the same time, a common feature was the lack of any real attempt to reimagine whiteness, and its privileges, and what it might mean to be a citizen of the ‘rainbow nation’.
Augoustinos, M. & D. Every. 2007. The language of ‘race’ and prejudice: a discourse of denial, reason, and liberal-practical politics. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 26: 123-141.
Van Dijk, T. 1992. Discourse and the denial of racism. Discourse and Society 3: 87-118.
Blog post by Pauline Leonard, University of Southampton, UK
Read the full article: Leonard, Pauline. Reimagining racism: understanding the whiteness and nationhood strategies of British-born South Africans. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1637624
The views and opinions expressed on the Identities Blog are solely those of the original blog post authors, and not of the journal, Taylor & Francis Group or the University of Glasgow.