This is an adaptation of an essay that I wrote for a college class on South African whiteness in the post-apartheid era. I've tried to make the language less academic and explain the historical details in greater depth. I used some sociological and anthropological theorists who are hot, and some who are not. Benedict Anderson is given mad props.
Whites in South Africa have always struggled to define themselves as a coherent entity. As the ruling minority, some whites believed it essential that they maintain an appearance of solidarity, an idea that initially did little to stop the bloodshed within South Africa’s white population, manifested most evidently in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. This crisis of fragmented identity forced whites who favored the continuation of a white-dominated regime to create and define a hierarchy based on imagined principles of race, eventually delineated in the National Party’s policy of “apartheid”. In the half-century that followed, many white South Africans embraced their European heritage and used it as an ideological weapon, claiming that the success of Western European colonialism demonstrated the innate superiority of a civilization linked inextricably to their whiteness. This belief lent itself to a fantasy of white supremacy that was an integral part of the national project of creating a dominant white identity, separate from the indigenous Africans and their culture. This fantasy often moored itself on the pre-national history of South African Dutchmen and their evolution into the Boerevolk, a tough breed of farmers and ranchers who defended themselves tooth and nail against foes real and imagined. Finally, apartheid’s unstated goals of black subordination and its need to maintain a fantasy of white unity led to a kind of imagined fraternity among whites that fomented the imagination of a whites-only egalitarian community. The result was a continual redefinition of whiteness through imagination and external inputs.
In apartheid South Africa, whiteness was more than just a passport to favored treatment and a license to subjugate those who did not possess it: the shade of a man’s skin acted as “shorthand" for membership in a vast, international community of nations that led the world in scientific, military, and economic achievement (Steyn 5).Throughout the apartheid era, whites developed and borrowed characterizations that underscored their differences with native Africans and immigrants from other (non-white) parts of the world. Among these, hygiene stands out as a prime example of a perceived difference that served to reinforce racial divides, empowering the national fantasy of a segregated South Africa. Melissa Steyn, an Afrikaner sociologist who wrote about the varying narratives of whites in the post-apartheid era, has some data that reinforces this idea. One of Steyn's survey respondents remarks that whites “care more about their surroundings and keeping it clean than blacks do” (87). Another respondent states that “environmental preservation, cleanliness, punctuality” (92) are important issues for her “Western values”, but not for Africans and their “ethnic values”.
Self-perpetuating myths such as these, along with those of the black predisposition to violence and crime, served not only as justifications for the legal articulation of white supremacy: they also functioned as agents of social control that restricted relations between whites and blacks in non-official spheres of daily interaction. Even the most liberal of South African whites, raised in an atmosphere that propagated such ideas, was prone to have lingering doubts about contact with his black countrymen. As a young, antiracist, social democrat, the writer Rian Malan describes his first sexual experience with a black woman thusly: “I recoiled at the thought of French-kissing her”. Later: “I was quite sure she’d given me the pox” (44). Malan’s story makes evident the persistent power of racial myths, whose power to sustain and reinforce themselves is tremendous in segregated environments and environments of unequal interaction such as Malan’s privileged Jo'Burg upbringing.
The above-quoted survey respondents who discussed hygiene also highlight a score of myths that helped to keep the apartheid dream alive. These white South Africans believe that certain traits are widespread in or unique to European civilization and connect them to the “centres of whiteness, invoking Eurocentric norms as a legitimating field” that they have identified as superior to the African one (Steyn, July 2001 17). In this way, some white South Africans keep their distance from Africa: “My cultural identity appears much stronger than my national identity”, “My culture is Eurocentric”, and “I see myself as Eurocentric in a multiracial, African country” (Steyn 90-91) are attempts at self-definition that point to a generic “European” identity far from the brutality of the Afrikaans or the chaos of the Africans. Likewise, a respect for ecological awareness is an interesting update of the colonial contention that European settlers exploited resources unknown to nomadic Africans and otherwise cared for the land, the modern incarnation of Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”.
The grand idea of British Empire, a majestic civilizing force spread across the globe that guaranteed British subjects privilege over anyone and everyone else, differed greatly from the Afrikaners’ self-perception and definition. Afrikaners fantasized their nation as one split into easily definable groups of “black” and “white”, and apartheid policy attempted to make this "ideal national order" (Hage 68) a reality. The image of a South Africa parceled out into insignificant Bantustans and a dominant white-owned area, far from the contaminating influences of Africa, was similar to the sort of fantasy that drove the earliest white English colonizers to establish models of separation and racial repression based on land ownership, such as the Natives' Land Act of 1913, which allowed native Africans to own only 7 percent of the nation’s land (Steyn 35). This expectation was fantastic in its disregard for the everyday reality of South Africa: white South Africans could see plainly that “the results of African labor were everywhere in evidence” (Steyn xxiii), and few would have argued for the removal of black laborers from white-owned farms, mines, or other productive enterprises. This inherent doctrinal contradiction is nowhere more transparent than in the Boers’ schizophrenic interpretation of the rights of man, that “the right to be ‘white’ was yoked to the rightlessness of ‘nonwhites’” (Steyn 32).
When the Boers’ “rights” were challenged by their English overlords, they rebelled. Indeed, the beginnings of the Boer nation, in the form of the Voortrek, were founded on what Hage defines as the act of a national who “feels they ought to be more empowered” (69)—the acting out of a national fantasy that eventually realized itself in the form of apartheid. The nostalgic conceptualization of the Boerevolk as a “chosen people
” added to this sense of entitlement that defines whiteness even in the New South Africa
: Steyn’s survey respondents complain that “affirmative action handicaps our whites” and “it is a hard life…you must give up everything that you have worked hard for” (73), demonstrating feelings of entitlement so deeply rooted that the old privileges of whiteness are now identified as “rights” or “normal”, though it is difficult to imagine these same respondents complaining about obvious examples of hardship experienced by non-whites in the post-apartheid era, such as the inaccessibility of education or the legal system. These white South Africans redefine their whiteness as an anchor to certain rights and privileges, and when those rights and privileges are denied, their whiteness becomes synonymous with their “hardship”.
Whites’ perceived hardships, then and now, serve the function of a unifying mechanism that works to dissolve white tribal rivalries while deepening the schisms between Europeans and native Africans. Afrikaner nationalists saw a solution to the “native question” in the creation of a “deep, horizontal comradeship” (Anderson 16) that would extend to all whites, regardless of eventual national origin. While Afrikaners were in no way pardoning of their English compatriots’ softness for liberal ideas or the long history of conflict between the two groups, they ultimately saw the world in black and white. The uneasy imagined fraternity that developed as a consequence was one of history’s most curious alliances--the political, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds of Afrikaners and English South Africans differed enormously. This was a community imagined purely on the bases of skin color and power, and a marriage of convenience that had disastrous consequences for South Africa’s native African population. English South Africans provided the economic wherewithal and a link to European and global markets with which Afrikaners might have had a difficult time negotiating. The use of English as a lingua franca among educated South Africans provided them with linguistic currency that opened international markets, and the English administration of mines showed the same capitalist ingenuity by which the British unsustainably exploited both natural resources and indigenous peoples while maintaining a healthy operating margin.
Meanwhile, the Afrikaners organized the political structure and used superior military organization and an invisible nationwide network of secretive “security police” to quash dissent from anti-apartheid South Africans of all colors. The more this relationship is deconstructed, the more evident its imaginary foundations and its inherent unworkability. As Anderson writes, the nation is “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (15). So too is South African whiteness “imagined”: Afrikaans and English lived in a sort of communion that thrived despite their vast differences in perspective.
White South Africans saw themselves constantly redefining their identity throughout the span of their country’s history. Initially a construct that bestowed whites free reign over the colonized and later one of history’s most notorious blunt objects of legal subjugation, South African whiteness has been so often redefined and so profoundly pondered that it has become a central, defining characteristic of many whites, especially Afrikaners. Steyn quotes one Afrikaner who makes this plain: “Whiteness is greatly integral to my culture and identity. The Afrikaner or Boerevolk is known to be a white volk” (87) Another is even more direct: “Whiteness has EVERYTHING to do with my cultural identity” (60). For some Afrikaners, "whiteness" was the key to their history, the defining trait that separated them from the native Africans. Nationalists tapped into the nostalgic fantasy of the Boerevolk as chosen people, victorious conquerors, and tough resistors of British rule to cement their place as the pre-eminent agents for defining whiteness and the political and military leaders of apartheid South Africa, while English relied upon an established international hierarchy of colonialism to create a less scientific, but more confident definition of their own whiteness. These whitenesses melted into each other and reshaped each other as white South Africans interacted and struggled to form a cohesive identity, resulting in a more complete universalist South African whiteness that acted to forge together the identities of South Africans with European heritage.
Whiteness has been an integral part of the white experience in Africa, but the collapse of apartheid in 1994 put South Africans without extreme racist tendencies in a difficult position. As whiteness is no longer a signifier for power, but rather oppression, it has become an increasingly less desirable characteristic, even though whites still enjoy vast economic advantage over the black population. The further evolution of whiteness in South Africa will take a dramatically different course from the colonial and apartheid years, and observing this phenomenon as it happens will be highly relevant to comprehension of the genesis and historical formation of whiteness in South Africa.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, 2001. In Freshman Seminar 48u Coursepack. Comp. Sadhana Bery. Harvard University, Fall Semester 2004.
Fields, Barbara Jeanne. "Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America." New Left Review 181 (May-June 1990).
Hage, Ghassan. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Pluto Press. In Freshman Seminar 48u Coursepack. Comp. Sadhana Bery. Harvard University, Fall Semester 2004.
Malan, Rian. My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns To Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience. New York: Grove Press, 1990.
Steyn, Melissa. "The Burden of Race? 'Whiteness' and 'Blackness' in Modern South Africa". 5 July - 8 July, 2001. In Freshman Seminar 48u Coursepack. Comp. Sadhana Bery. Harvard University, Fall Semester 2004.
Steyn, Melissa. "Whiteness Just Isn't What It Used To Be": White Identity in a Changing South Africa. Albany: State University of New York Press Albany, 2001.