South African Racial Formations

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South African Racial Formations






South Africa;s racial policies during and prior to the apartheid era (1948–1994) have left a lasting legacy that still bedevils post-apartheid society and politics. These policies became notorious for the level of disparity between racial groups, the extent to which assumed racial distinctions were legally enacted, and for the pervasiveness of the social control that governed relations between the groups. As a result, South Africa offers one of the classic examples of the social construction of racial boundaries, and of the use of assumed biological differences to structure every aspect of society. Racial ideology was used as part of a social and political agenda to limit access of native Africans to scarce resources in order to privilege a small group of whites. This approach was so successful for such a long time, and to such a degree, that South Africa;s racial policies before the collapse of apartheid came to epitomize racism as an ideology and racialism as a set of practices. However, the introduction of apartheid in 1948, following the electoral victory of the Afrikaans National Party, was not the beginning of South Africa;s racial formations.


Colonization took a different form in South Africa than it did in other societies, but it was the single overriding factor that helped to create the kind of society in which there was rigid racial division. This division was culturally reproduced over the centuries, and wealth, resources, and political power were structured around it, leading to intense social conflict.

Africa was a trading post for the spice sea routes to the East, first permanently colonized by whites for such purposes in 1652, and it provided an opportunity for settlers to escape war, persecution, or poverty in Europe. Along with colonization came Christian intolerance, with Africans seen as the personification of evil, and European notions of civilization, with Africans being supposedly primitive and culturally inferior. The southern tip of Africa was most suited to European settlement, with the Dutch being the first settlers in the area. They were led by Dutch surgeon and pioneer Jan van Riebeeck (1619– 1677), an iconic figure for white settlers in South Africa, who were known as Trekboers, from the Dutch boer, meaning “farmer,” and trek, meaning “to pull” (in this case farm wagons). They were also known simply as Boers or Afrikaners.

The settlement needed both land and labor. The first need, for land, led to wars of conquest and dispossession of the indigenous population; the second need, for labor, led to the importation of slaves from the Dutch East Indies. Slave ownership and a frontier mentality were central experiences of the lifestyle of the early settlers. The Trekboers were organized as military commando communities as much as farm settlements, and they justified slave ownership on moral grounds. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, one Afrikaner author wrote that black people carried the mark of Cain: It was God that had made them, as scripture says of Cain;s descendants, “drawers of water and hewers of wood.” In effect, they were seen as divinely suited as servants of the white “race.” The writer doubted whether Kaffers (the derogatory term for African peoples) had souls (Reader 1998, p. 481). This did not, however, stop the Boers from engaging in furtive miscegenation, from which came the “colored” community.

The British took the Cape Colony from the Dutch in the early 1800s, first by force and then by treaty. Britain first wanted the Cape merely as a stepping off point for its growing trade routes. Thus, they wanted to minimize further development, and they instructed settlers to keep themselves absolutely separate from Africans, who were, meanwhile, subject to military campaigns by British forces to solidify earlier land dispossession. However, by 1820, Britain started to plant settlers in the Cape, and they quickly established themselves as merchants rather than farmers. British traders ventured from the Cape into Natal, with more military campaigns ensuing to effect British control. But the impact of British policy on the Trekboers was as influential as it was on Africans—putting an end, for example, to Afrikaner slave ownership. Given that slavery was supposedly divinely ordained, Afrikaners perceived the British government;s abolition of slavery as contrary to God;s law and against the natural distinctions of “race” and religion, and it led directly to the Great Trek by Afrikaners into what came to be called the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Their trek into Natal in the hope of an alliance with the Zulu nation against the British resulted in the massacre of many innocent trekkers (including the murder of Piet Retief [1780–1838], the leader of the Great Trek) and the infamous Battle of Blood River. When they reached their new territories, the Trekboers met their need for labor in the same way they had in the Cape, by the seizure of Africans.

However, the discovery of gold and diamonds transformed Afrikaans society out of all recognition. As far as Britain was concerned, the discovery of gold and diamonds in Afrikaner-held territory could not have been more unfortunate, but they soon took it over, annexing first what became known as Griqualand West (for diamonds) and then eventually moving on the Transvaal (for gold). The discovery of gold and diamonds inflamed British colonial administrator Cecil Rhodes;s (1853– 1902) imperial designs for British interests in southern Africa, but it is more important for the profound social changes that followed the development of mining. The mines intensified the shortage of labor, leading to the use of convict labor and the development of the migrant labor system. With migrant labor came the mine compounds, the development of African townships (called, at the time, “locations”) without a sustainable infrastructure as dormitories for workers, and the infamous Pass Laws, which restricted African people;s residence rights and gave the police significant powers to exclude them from white areas. And as the regulation of labor increased, so did the number of offenses committed by workers, leading to the development of crude forms of policing (see Brewer 1994), while simultaneously increasing the supply of convict labor. The polarization of racial attitudes went hand in hand with the implementation of this official racial segregation, which gave twentieth-century apartheid solid roots in British policy in the nineteenth century.

The development of the South African state in 1910, through the union of the provinces of Transvaal, Orange Free State, the Cape, and Natal, was a way of managing cooperatively both Boer and British interests, but for Africans it meant the consolidation of colonial dispossession and inequality. The reconciliation of Boer and Briton under Generals Louis Botha (1862–1919) and Jan Smuts (1870–1950) resulted in a common “native policy,” but the narrower Afrikaner nationalism of people such as General James B. Hertzog (1866–1942), which eventually culminated in an election victory for the National Party in 1948, pushed the country;s racial policies in an even tougher direction. The Natives’ Land Act of 1913 contained the essentials of South Africa;s later apartheid policy, South African Racial Formations

guaranteeing in law the dominance of whites. This system of laws was underpinned by the militarization of policing and other forms of social control, and by a cultural and religious critique that justified inequality and injustice on racial and scriptural grounds biology and the Bible were thus in collusion to support apartheid.


When Afrikaner nationalists came to power in 1948, they built on the former “race” policies of the British. Apartheid (literally meaning “apartness”) evolved over the years as racial distinctions became more finely defined in law to accommodate more and more groupings, and as the degree of social control intensified as the white population came to feel increasingly threatened. It is common to distinguish between early and late periods in the development of apartheid (Posel 1991), with the juncture occurring around 1960 with the development of what the National Party government called “Separate Development.”

The Population Registration Act of 1950 racially classified all South Africans into four categories: White, Asian, Colored, and Native (later called Bantu), with “Natives” eventually subdivided ethnically into various cultural groups, thus merging “race” with ethnicity to compensate for the inadequacies of biology to sufficiently support political distinctions among the African population. Africans were split into Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Sepedi (or North Sotho), Seshoeshoe, Swazi, and Venda. Various proclamations to the act over the years led to further subdivisions of Coloreds. The system was very rigid, for although it was possible for people to move from one group to another if their physical features made it feasible, this was very rare (and often done only after humiliating scrutiny). Various nationalities were made “honorary Whites” (such as Japanese and Koreans) as the government sought political allies and trading partners throughout the world. Population ratios have varied little over the years, however, with Africans comprising around seven out of every ten people, Whites around one and a half, Coloreds one, and Asians about a half.

The whole purpose of this racial classification was to use “race” as the mechanism to allocate resources and land unequally to the privilege of whites. Territorial segregation was enforced by the 1950 Group Areas Act, with black groups confined to designated areas and permitted into so-called White areas only for employment. Forced removals uprooted people from areas where their families had lived for generations if they happened to be in an area that had been designated for another racial group. This segregation was supported by the infamous Pass Laws, which required people to carry documentation proving their right to be in an area otherwise designated for a different racial group.

The 1953 Bantu Education Act segregated the “races” in schooling. Miscegenation was strictly controlled by the 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and various Immorality Acts that made sexual relations between the “races” illegal. The provisions of the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 created “common areas” for each group, which controlled all sorts of possible social interactions. The act led to separate buses (or demarcated spaces on shared buses), toilets, bathing beaches, post offices, shops, health facilities and the like, and even to separate waiting lines for shared services. This social partness epitomized apartheid.

Cultural apartness however, was the least of the purposes of apartheid. Material deprivation coincided with race, space, and territory, as black areas were under-resourced; education, housing, welfare, health, and employment opportunities were unequally distributed; and political power was in white hands. By 1959 various homelands (called Bantustans) were created for the separate development of Africans, who were given parliamentary representation and voting rights, as well as employment, housing, and other social rights, in their “own” areas. This was an even more ruthless attempt at social engineering, as an ambitious policy was introduced to strip Africans of their South African citizenship and force them to become citizens of contrived states. While some “citizens” of these states could legally work in so-called White areas, they often lived in African townships that bordered the white areas or were allowed to live as temporary residents subject to significant restrictions and monitoring. These putative ethnic homelands were controlled, financed, and buttressed by the National Party government and became second-class states with little employment opportunities, inferior schools, and powerless political assemblies. They did not achieve their purpose to stop the tide of people moving to the white areas illegally in search of work.

Illegal encroachment only intensified the policing of racial boundaries in white areas, as repressive measures were reinforced in order to try to maintain the exclusivity of white districts. The 1950 Suppression of Communism Act had such a broad definition that it included many routine forms of opposition. The 1950 Internal Security Act provided for detention without trial of someone not even suspected of a criminal offense, so long as the minister of justice was satisfied that the person threatened public order. Most forms of political organization among blacks were banned under the 1960 Unlawful Organizations Act or amendments to the Riotous Assemblies Act (first introduced in 1914 to control Afrikaner support for Germany in the First World War). The many internal security laws gave almost unfettered power to the police and military. Violent repression, deaths in detention and prison, and indiscriminate harassment and victimization against blacks

became the marks of policing (Brewer 1994). The tragic death of Steve Biko(1946–1977), the Black Consciousness leader, in police custody in 1977 was only one of very many deaths (Brewer 1986, pp. 111–115).


Apartheid;s racial formations brought conflict and violence into the heart of society. Black political opposition has a proud history of nonviolent protest, but such tactics manifestly failed to prevent the gradual exclusion from all representative politics, first for Africans and eventually for all nonwhite groups. Incidents of collective protest occurred, such as those at Sharpeville in 1960, but the banning of the African National Congress shortly afterwards, and the imprisonment or exile of its leaders, including Nelson Mandela, effectively ended political protest in the 1960s, leading to a long quiescent period. Violence remained, however, in specific forms. There was structural violence against black South Africans in the form of extreme social exclusion, poverty, and unemployment; there was state violence reflected in the severe repression of black people; and there was criminal violence in black areas, with high rates of murder, rape and violent assault. The strains and tensions within apartheid and the migrant labor system manifested themselves in high levels of drunkenness, family breakdown, domestic abuse, and violent crime (on the negative effects of migrant labor, see Dunbar, Moodie, and Ndatshe 1994).

The political conflict that ignited in South Africa after the 1976 Soweto uprising, which spread rapidly through the urban townships, produced a different kind of violence. Political violence after 1976 took five forms:(1) an intermittent and low-intensity campaign of insurgency by Umkhonto We Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC; (2) collective unrest in the townships to make them ungovernable; (3) violence from the security forces and their surrogates, at first to confront black protest and subsequently to disrupt transitional negotiations; (4) politically motivated black-on-black violence between the ANC and Chief Buthelezi;s Inkatha movement, later called the Inkatha Freedom Party (Mare and Hamilton 1984); (5) and random black-on-black violence between warlords, criminal gangs, migrants, and hostel dwellers, which was linked to the pathological conditions of apart-heid but also often exploited both by political groups and the security forces and their surrogates. This social dislocation easily transformed into ordinary criminal violence, which rose dramatically as political violence intensified. For example, it is estimated that between 1983 and 1992 there were 15,843 deaths attributable to political violence in South Africa, with two-thirds happening after 1990, but in the same nine-year period there were seven times more nonpolitical murders (Kane-Berman 1993). By 1995, “ordinary” murders had nearly doubled compared to 1991, representing more than the total number of deaths caused by political violence in the decade between 1983 and 1994. Fifty-two people were murdered every day in South Africa in 1995. Indeed, South Africa;s murder rate in 1995 was six times higher than in the United States (du Toit 2001). Thus, apart-heid made South Africa an extremely violent society.


In 1990, South Africa;s president, F. W. de Klerk, began a process of reform that culminated in the release of Nelson Mandela, the removal of the ban of the ANC, and the development of a new constitution ending white-minority rule. The first nonracial elections were held in 1994, and the ANC was voted into power, with Mandela, the Robben Island prisoner of twenty-eight years, becoming the first nonracial president. The reform process up until the de Klerk government had permitted economic liberalization, but only in the context of the maintenance of white political control. De Klerk;s vision was to cede political control of the state in the hope of maintaining white command of the economy; Mandela;s was to avoid complete disintegration so as not to inherit a failed state and economy (Brewer 2003). The ANC jettisoned its socialist rhetoric, pursued pro-Western capitalist economic and fiscal policies, and diligently implemented its tradition of nonracialism, thus relieving white fears of majority rule, while the National Party

gave up the state to become a small minority party without prospect of ever forming the government again.

That the National Party should do this willingly may seem puzzling. However, it did so under extreme external pressure from economic sanctions and diplomatic interventions, although these had always been resisted in the past. The internal pressures were mounting by the end of the 1980s, as the townships were proving ungovernable as a result of violent political protests against apartheid. However, the Sharpeville (1960) and Soweto (1976) protests show that the state had withstood black protest before. For the most part, apartheid collapsed under the contradictions of its own racial policies. There were too few whites to run the economy and state without the need for massive black labor, personnel, and human skills, so apartheid;s strict regulation of the races became counterproductive to the needs of a modern polity and economy. The various liberalizations since 1976 that opened up access to certain resources in certain spaces for certain racial minorities only set up expectations of greater change as a black middle class developed, making white political control itself the main problem.

However, while it was easy for the new ANC government to quickly dismantle the pillars of apart-heid, the extent of discrimination in the past was so immense that economic redistribution has only very slowly addressed the central inequalities. The African population, in particular, is so large and poor that apartheid;s effects will endure long after its abolition. There is also a residue of racism after centuries of racial classification, which has been imprinted on people;s ways of thinking and on their cultural values. The violence that characterized apartheid also still bedevils the “Rainbow Nation,” giving it very high levels of violent crime. That most people nonetheless remain committed to reconciliation and to establishing a new identity as South Africans is testimony to the relatively peaceful way in which apartheid crumbled, to the enduring legacy of the ANC government;s historical commitment to the principles of nonracialism, and to the fact that the African community values political control of the state and majority rule above economic redistribution. This suggests that for all its social segregation and economic privations, apartheid was experienced primarily as a form of political exclusion, and that poverty levels have not diminished the sense of freedom and dignity that followed its destruction.

SEE ALSO African Economic Development; Anti-Apartheid Movement; Apartheid; Black Consciousness; Children Racial Disparities and Status of; HIV and AIDS; Mandela Nelson; Racial Formations; Social Welfare States; White Settler Society


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John D. Brewer

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South African Racial Formations

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South African Racial Formations