Enduring Racism in Small Town South Africa

By Richard Pithouse · 4 Feb 2014

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Picture: WhyHunger
Picture: WhyHunger

The road from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown winds past one luxury game farm after another. John Graham, a British soldier, drove the Xhosa people off this land, the Zuurveld, between 1811 and 1812. His soldiers burnt their homes, destroyed their crops and killed any man that resisted.

It was John Cradock, the governor of the Cape Colony, who had given Graham his orders. Cradock had some experience in these matters. He had crushed anti-colonial rebellions in Ireland and India before being posted to Cape Town. In 1812 he reported to the British cabinet that the inhabitants of the Zuurveld had been forced across the Fish River with ‘a proper degree of terror’.  Just over two hundred years later, and twenty years after the end of apartheid, neither the degree of inequality in Grahamstown, nor the manner in which it is racialised, can be denied.

Racism is rooted in the deep structure of our society. It is also rooted in the ways in which our own country is connected to social and economic forces with a planetary reach. It is deeply etched into everything from the distribution of land, to how our press understands the idea of the ‘international community’ or what counts as academic sophistication in our universities. It is not undone by the simple act of people treating each other with respect. It will not be undone until political and economic power are no longer racialised.

But none of this means that the way in which the flow of day to day bourgeois life in a town like Grahamstown is constantly poisoned by racism is trivial. The assault from everyday racism is relentless. Last week a young white woman working at a sushi restaurant casually and publicly observed to a customer that her electric fly swatter was useful for street children as well as flies. The week before that a student, a young white woman, mentioned to her white doctor that she was moving to Durban. He immediately assured her that he would find her a white doctor in Durban so that she didn’t end up in what his sick mind imagines to be the inherently lecherous hands of an Indian doctor.

Before that an estate agent, bringing a potential buyer to see a rented flat, asked the black woman who answered the door if she could speak to her boss. It didn’t occur to the estate agent that the white man she could see inside the flat was the women’s husband. Buying a second-hand desk at a local shop to furnish the same flat meant that an old white man arrived with two younger black men who he openly racially abused as they struggled to carry the desk up the stairs. In Grahamstown even an act as ordinary as buying a loaf of bread can require an encounter with the sort of moronic view of the world that reads Zuma’s flaws in racial rather than personal and political terms.

The town’s university, Rhodes, has a principled and progressive black leadership but this has not inoculated the institution against everyday racism. A young black woman in her thirties, in the first days of a new job, went to the library for the first time. The librarian flatly refused to believe that she was a staff member, suggesting that she was lying. White colleagues, imagining themselves to be enlightened feminists, often assumed that her father was a domineering man and that the university was a site of new freedom for her. In fact her father, born into poverty, worked very hard to be able to send his daughter to university and, when she got her first degree, advised her against marriage on the grounds that it oppresses women.

Some of her colleagues assumed that she, from a family with two professors on her mother’s side, was new to the university environment and offered their support in the manner that one would speak to a child about adult matters. While taking her scheduled break during the invigilation of an exam a white woman rushed over and berated her in the overbearing and contemptuous manner that white people adopt when they assume the right to police the behaviour of black people. The constant experience of racism has led to her having panic attacks every time she has to return to Grahamstown after the holidays. After the long years of unpaid commitment required to make an academic life she has started looking for jobs, any job that can get her out of a space in which day to day life requires either constant rage or constant mutilation of the self.

Off the record it is not unusual for academics and administrative staff at the university to say the most vile things dressed up in what they imagine to be a weary cosmopolitanism. There was, for instance, the white woman who began a conversation with a white colleague recently arrived from Durban by saying that he must have been so happy to get out of Durban. Stunned that anyone could imagine that life in a provincial backwater like Grahamstown was preferable to Durban he asked her why she held this view. ‘It must have been such a relief to get away from the Indians’ she replied. When he protested she tried to back down and, as what she imagined to be compensation, offered the view that ‘Indians have such a colourful culture’.

Then there was the white man, who thinks he’s a Marxist, who, in a private conversation after a seminar, ascribed corruption in the ANC to Indian people simultaneously reinforcing two colonial stereotypes – one about the cunning Indian, the other about the child like African.

Racism is also written into the public discourse at the university although of course here it is always implicit. It is not unusual for academics to have no sense at all of being intellectuals in Africa or the global South and for Africans to only appear in their research and teaching as a problem, a problem to be investigated with intellectual resources drawn from the white North.

Sometimes it is the people that identify as activists who say or do the most outrageous things on the assumption that identifying as an activist gives them a pass on having to take racism seriously. Human Rights, the Constitution, feminism and socialism are all misused to reinscribe white power and to place it in a relationship to Africa and Africans that is framed in terms of an enlightening pedagogy rather than enduring domination.

Yet despite the ubiquity of everyday racism the biggest controversy on campus in recent years has centred around a grotesque and consistently dishonest attempt to misuse the struggles for the full equality of women and gay people to legitimate the colonial occupation of Palestine. In some cases it is clear that the desire to ally with a central thrust in the ideology of contemporary American imperialism, an often murderous project that continues where Graham and Craddock left off, is rooted in a commitment to asserting the authority and legitimacy of the white West over the rest of the world. Israel, like Zimbabwe, becomes a proxy for debates about South Africa that cannot be openly prosecuted here.

Almost 20 years after apartheid it is clear that neither the Constitution nor lofty political rhetoric are going to excise racism from our society. Racism is being reproduced through the white family where it often has an explicit formulation. It is also being reproduced through some institutions, including those funded by the state, where, although it cannot openly speak its name, it still finds a convivial home. We can’t carry on like this. Racism is going to have to be confronted a lot more directly than it has over the last 20 years.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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firozem Verified user
4 Feb

Distinguishing between Racism and Racialism

This is a great article. But I can't help feeling that it is important to distinguish between racialism (that is people's prejudice and oppressive attitudes) and racism. Racism relates to structural, and above all state actions that perpetuate and reproduce the social relations of exploitation of black people (I use black here in the way that Biko did). The real racism of Grahamstown is illustrated in the racial division of labour, the fact that black people are condemned to live in the 'township' across the river, with poor housing, no infrastructure for water, sanitation, no work, and actions by the police to maintain these communities in a state of repression. It has changed little since 1994. That is not to say that the insulting prejudices and assumptions are not hurtful, but rather to say that racialism can be changed with relative ease given the right political and material conditions. Racism, so intimately linked to the way in which capitalism operates (especially in the peripheries), requires the challenge to the power of capital to reproduce the social conditions that ensure high rates of profit. So the distinction is, I suggest, important.

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4 Feb

Racism and Racialism

Indeed. An excellent point well made. But this article does make this point I think:

"Racism is rooted in the deep structure of our society...It is not undone by the simple act of people treating each other with respect. It will not be undone until political and economic power are no longer racialised."

4 Feb


It's rather comical to have a discrminatory attitude to people of another colour when it's very clear that the so-called Afrikaners (combination of Hollanders, Germans, French-Huguenits, etc;) cannot historically stand the English-speaking (English, Irish, Scots, etc;) people! Getting into exile for me had been to fight against apartheid with its racist "superiority" belief!

4 Feb

Daily Racism does Influence Structural Racism

Great article, I like that it points out the reaction of "constant rage or constant mutilation of the self" as a consequence for those experiencing daily racism/unfair stereotyping. Its so exhausting and demeaning and it does have an impact on the functioning of society and the prevalence and acceptability of structural racism. We are led to distrust each other, to close ourselves off and fear others, to have anxiety about how we are seen by others and how we must position ourselves.

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Cedric de la Harpe
4 Feb

Enduring Racism in Small Town South Africa

Hi Richard, well said.

Things will never change till the South African whites integrate into the Townships and Rural areas. The refusal do do so, albeit fear of the Township, is what entrenches racism, no different to what it was 200 years back.

Really the belief by the white that the black is an inferior being. Our history clearly reflects the attacks on the black community as they showed development that would have freed them from slavery. Apartheid is not dead.

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Makes no Difference
4 Feb

Racism or Racialism: What difference does it make?

Excellent piece. Personally I don't think it makes any difference to the common woman, man, and child. Being seen as a lesser being because you look different is what matters. These terms like "racialism" or "racism" are simply our own academic hygiene. This kind of racism is par for the course; just check out what's happening on the farms, private tourism lodges, etc. where blacks are worked like slaves and paid nuts and punished as slaves.

4 Feb


It is always such a relief when someone has the courage to tell the truth.

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Isaac Mpho Mogotsi
5 Feb

Great Piece

Brilliant. But I am wondering, why are these things taken more seriously when uttered by a white person, when ordinary blacks daily complain about them. Even today, the DA and Helen Zille flatly deny that Cape Town provides similar experiences to SA blacks in abundance. And are these not the same issues former president Thabo Mbeki was raising when he was accused by white liberals like former DA leader Tony Leon of "re-racialising" SA politics? Sounds deja vu to me. I must say. Still, Richard is raising them with great brilliance, from a sympathetic white man's perspective. But not even the brilliance of his written words can adequately and fully capture the deep hurt white racism continues to inflict on black South Africans. The pain is simply unutterable.

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5 Feb

A Brave Article

This is an accurate and very brave article. I am sure that there will be consequence for Mr. Pithouse. The students must make sure that he does not face the backlash alone.

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Rory Verified user
7 Feb

Structural Racism

What I strive to do is accept people as people no matter what their origins might be. Thus the inclusion of irrelevant racial criteria in social norms or standards whether it be in legislation or by common practice is complete anathema to me. If someone has a problem it will be particular to that person and needs to be addressed on that basis. Automatically applying a racial categorisation as the first step in seeking a solution to the problem is actually unnecessary and just perpetuates racist thinking. It might be politically acceptable, as it historically always has been in SA, but it is socially disastrous. We never learn do we?

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terence grant
10 Feb


Wow! Next some idiot like myself is going to suggest that poor people are usually black or coloured and that it therefore is racist that Cape Times (which until recently had a white editor, a white news-editor and a white letters-editor) is catering for the top end of the market, which is predominantly white. Do we really need to speak to each other; to debate issues in the company of people from different walks of life? Can't we just play sport with them and go our own way?

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Sakkie Verified user
11 Feb

Racism In Small Town South Africa

Fair comment as far as it goes. It fails to reflect on the lost opportunities since whites surrendered political power, and the enduring disastrous effect of race-based politics in that small town. So, for example, when white hegemony was dislodged at local government level, and jobs for (black) pals became the new racial order, working class white local government employees, who may have been racist but had some qualification to effect service delivery, were moved on because of their race, and replaced with others who had no such qualification but met the new race criterion. The result of the new race-based order is that service delivery, especially to those who had so little for so long, has deteriorated. And for reasons of race. And, while those with the means (mostly white) invest in their own water tanks, pumps and generators, because they can, those intended to benefit most from the new order suffer new deprivation, because of race. The situation is infinitely more complex than this article suggests. And even more tragic.

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12 Feb

Racism Catalputed and Perpetrated

Well contextualised and captivating article. An Australian asked for my opinion on the future of our country based on the explicit dissatisfaction and seemingly unruly nature of protests. "The world is watching". Anyway my reply was that I believe in the resilience of South Africans. We have grown and yet so much work still lies ahead. What is more captivating about this article is that it captures the frustration, normally viewed as victim mentality from blacks. A perspective not generally accepted by some white SAfricans. When we start to stop turning a blind eye and being more conscious about our ill-conduct against humanity is when re-awakening begins. Thank you sir for risking your career with this article.