On Not Reducing Racism to Apartheid

By Richard Pithouse · 22 Jan 2015

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Picture: The Sonorans
Picture: The Sonorans

We would be more effective at dealing with the endemic racism in our society if we didn’t relentlessly speak in a manner that reduces racism to apartheid and ‘apartheid tendencies’. The reason for this is not because historical trauma should be repressed and its consequences in the present naturalised. On the contrary it is because the development of an adequate understanding of how our society came to be as it is requires us to speak a lot more about both colonialism and neo-colonialism, and to take both phenomena seriously as powerful forces on the global stage that, from Ferguson to Paris and Johannesburg, continue to shape the present.

Apart from the occasional buffoon like Steve Hofmeyr, and the noxious trolls that waste their lives, such as they are, on the comments sections of the online media, very few people will publicly defend apartheid in 2015. But as we all know racism remains a malignant force everywhere from our universities to the streets of suburban Cape Town. One reason for this is that it is perfectly possible to oppose apartheid, to see it as a crude and embarrassing anachronism, and to think, speak and act in ways that reinscribe racism.

Although racism has retained some constant features since the seventeenth century it is also a dynamic phenomenon. There has, for instance, been a shift in the legitimation of the racism permissible in polite society from biology to culture. In political terms colonial rule was largely replaced by the rule of European and American controlled financial institutions during the second half of the last century, backed up with an American invasion where necessary. In Western Europe Muslims have often replaced Jews as an imagined threat to what used to be conceived as a Christian way of life and is now frequently thought of as a Judeo-Christian way of life.

If we are not attentive to the ways in which racism mutates over time and we focus the bulk of our opposition to racism on its outmoded forms then its forms that are most dangerous, because they are authorised by contemporary forms of power, will not be recognised and opposed with sufficient clarity and force. Racism is not just the Ku Klux Klan, Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa. It doesn’t only come in a white hood, a fascist uninform or khaki. It also wears a suit or Manolo Blahniks. It speaks English, and French, as well as Afrikaans. It is abundantly evident in The Daily Mail, Walt Disney films for children, the World Bank and, in some cases, certain kinds of academic consensus in the most prestigious universities in the world.

In Europe today no one in polite society will offer their support to a teenage fascist from the backstreets of Leipzig or deny the mass murder of European Jewry in the first half of the 1940s. But it is acceptable to respond to the unconscionable murders that recently rocked Paris in a manner that assumes that France is part of a morally superior civilization and that erases France’s brutal colonial history, the massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961, the day to day racism experienced by the descendants of immigrants from North and West Africa or enduring French support for imperialism, such as, for instance, the refusal to allow Haitians to run their own country as they see fit.

There is a similar situation in the United States. There are no longer laws instituting segregation, there is a consensus that precludes the expression of certain forms of racism and celebrates a distorted image of Martin Luther King. But none of this precludes support for forms of de facto segregation, the murder, with impunity, of black men, the acutely racialized nature of the criminal justice system or imperialism wrecking devastation, with bombs and torture, around the world. In the United States, as in France, contemporary mainstream opinion takes the view that, as the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill put it in 1859, "Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians."

The Second World War was an important moment in the evolution of racism. After the war the open expression of racism, especially as a set of biological prejudices, lost much of its credibility and there was a shift towards an abstract affirmation of universal equality via the language of human rights. When India won independence in 1947 it was clear that colonialism would not endure indefinitely. But it was precisely at this moment, in 1948, that apartheid was instituted in South Africa and the state of Israel was declared. Although these two developments, both of which entrenched racism as a matter of law, went against the grain of the way things were going, the explicit racism that endured in English speaking settler colonies meant that the overt racism of apartheid was not an isolated phenomenon.

Places like the Deep South in the United States or South Africa and Australia, in which there was an overt commitment to white supremacy, instituted in law, were seen as peripheral, provincial and backward but they were still tolerated. Transnational white solidarity trumped the developing sense that overt racism, especially when inscribed into law, was illegitimate and indefensible. The United States sustained legal segregation until 1964 and the White Australia policy only started to be undone in 1966. The last lynching in the United States happened in 1968.

It was the civil rights struggle in the United States and anti-colonial movements across Africa that began to put an end to legislated forms of segregation and colonialism in the 1960s. From this point on apartheid came to be seen, along with white supremacy in Rhodesia, as irredeemably backward on the global stage. Metropolitan elites began to take a greater distance from their colonial cousins. The contingencies of the Cold War bought apartheid some time, but the game was up.

But, crucially, in the United States, and on the global stage too, the attainment of equality in principle in the 1960s did not translate into the attainment of equality in practice. Some of the language of racism changed – for instance European domination of African affairs was now a matter of ‘development’ – but racialized domination endured. Today the sort of racism that is present in, say, American sitcoms or philosophical discourses about the inherent ethical nobility of Europe, is rooted in the long history of colonial racism and functions to legitimate the enduring denial of equality in practice.

If we are to develop an adequate understanding of how our society came to be the way that it is, we can’t speak as if apartheid, imaged as an embarrassing provincial mistake in the broader context of enlightened whiteness, is the only cause of our problems. On the contrary we need to take, very seriously, the reality that apartheid was just one iteration in a long and global history of racism that continues to shape the present. We need to take the long history of colonial domination before apartheid and the neo-colonial power relations that have endured after apartheid in South Africa, and on the global stage, seriously. We need to take seriously the different value that, in 2015 is accorded to black life and white life in the United States, or to the lives of people in the Congo, Gaza or Mexico and (white) people in France.

Today it is easy to dismiss apartheid, or the Ventersdorp brandy and coke fascist, and to project racism onto the past, or onto people that appear to caricature that past in the present, while denying the presence of racism in ways of speaking and exercising power that are socially authorised in the contemporary world. Contemporary forms of racism do sometimes repeat the language and postures of the past. But they have no legitimacy on the public stage and are easily recognised and opposed. However contemporary racism also speaks an international language – perhaps with a French or American accent; a language that is not seen as provincial and backward, a language that is authorised at Harvard and in the Daily Mail. This can enable a whole set of authorised discourses - such as opposition to crime, support for the environment, human rights, feminism, commitment to excellence, philosophical rigour and economic rationality - to be misused for racist purposes. This makes the work of opposing racism more complex than the easy work of confronting the brandy and coke fascist.

Many white South Africans seem to assume that the end of apartheid, imagined as a temporary anomaly consequent to a backward form of Afrikaner nationalism, has meant the end of racism. This is often taken to mean that white South Africans are now able to rejoin a community of international whiteness. This space is often imagined, in an enduring colonial trope, as a space of enlightenment that offers a unique and precious gift to the world. When white South Africans see themselves as having a special connection to global whiteness they often succumb to the narcissistic fantasy that their presence in this society, in Africa, constitutes a unique and precious gift. This makes a sociality premised on actual rather than abstract equality impossible.

If white South Africans don’t give up their investment in global whiteness – and an identification with what they imagine to be the inherent moral superiority of the West or the First World, they will, while scorning the brandy and coke fascist, continue to modernise rather than root out their racism.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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27 Jan


Strange that Dr Richard Pithouse gives an overview of racism and omits black racism.

Not only black against white (the famous "race card" of the ZANC) but the racism against foreigners. And then there is the African racism of Amin, Mugabe, the Rwandan Genocide, etc, etc.

This is not to say "white racism" is better or worse than "black racism" only that both exists and, I suspect, have similar causes. Denying the existence of both is, well, racist.

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4 Feb


The Professor teaches at Rhodes, which is very much dominated by black academics. He has to say something to fit in with his socila circle. It's a shame his column is filled with stereotypes and black domination jingoism.

11 Feb

Racism White Supremacy

Strange that you are ignoring that the only reason why Mugabe and Rwanda genocide happened is because of European colonialism, imperialism, transatlantic slave trade, biological warfare, racism...years of divide and rule tactics all atrocities committed against humanity by white rule when you give an overview of what you inaccurately deem as 'black racism'. How do you manage to ignore any of that history?

Racism White Supremacy is a system of advantage based on race. Prejudice is a different thing.
'Reverse Racism' is a myth, watch 'Aamer Rahman (Fear of a Brown Planet) - Reverse Racism'

28 Jan

Blacks Always the Victims

Of course blacks are never racist and are always innocent and always the victim.

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OpenEvan Verified user
29 Jan

Spot On!

Once again a superb article by Richard. If only the herd will heed its direction.

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IanJ Verified user
29 Jan

What Is the Answer Then?

What is the answer then? We are all prejudiced. Against different creeds, gender, age, cultures, ages, vocations. It is the human nature. or rather it has become our nature but it is more of a sickness and I would suggest our true nature, in a philosophical sense is the opposite. If I can speak in a spiritual sense (I know academics may poo poo this) our true nature is that we are in essence, one. Duality (or, a sense, that we are divided, different) is an illusion and as we slowly evolve we move close to realising we are non-dual.

So, we need to be able to recognise that we have grown since apartheid (If we take the general mean of our society). We have to be able to say, “that was racism, it was Institutionalised, socially ratified racism and it was ugly”. 25 years later we need to be able to see that, yes, we are still massively prejudiced in many ways but it’s different. It’s growing, It is nascent, but yes, we are making progress, slowly.
It is so important to recognise that and (I would suggest) give it a new name. If you just say. “hell, nothing has changed we are so racist it’s just more modern and nuanced” then we just put ourselves right back were we were. If we keep saying nothing has changed we also just recycle the same rhetoric and continue to polarise ourselves along lines of skin colour.

You can talk about whiteness, sure, but I want to see the conversation stop lingering along lines of colour. Prejudice is worldwide. Xenophobia is exactly the same phenomenon, so this conversation is not really about whiteness, it’s about human fear around difference.

I don’t think it is some high brow academic reasoning on our vantage point on “whiteness” that is going to move us all forward. It is perhaps, rather a daily practice in recognising that we are all prejudiced but we have infinte capacity to grow and learn to embrace and understand that difference is not to be feared.

Accept that you have prejudice. Try to spot it. Keep an eye on it. Be aware of it. Look for commonalities. When you see yourself close, react. Stop, pause and open yourself instead. Forgive, love embrace. Understand that everyone you encounter is a mirror.

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31 Jan

Leftist Loony Bin

Brainwashed leftist loonies are the worst people in the world.

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4 Feb


An excellent analysis. But I fear that white South Africans are not the only one's living here who are invested in the fantasy of the "inherent moral superiority of the West". These ideas are deeply embedded in our culture and many internalise it.

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Patt Akriel
4 Feb

Thought Provoking

Very thought provoking paper. In this time of encountering extreme racism in SA (21 years after all racist laws were abolished), it has left me at times confused, shocked, angry and sad. This article (and many others) which seem to search for an understanding or explanation of the resurfacing of hostile racist behavior, tends to encourage white S''s to be less defensive, and attempt to keep an open mind in examining what is currently taking place (at minimum), at the same time it offers the thinking that perhaps Apartheid is not the problem any more, and that there is a global problem that needs to be addressed.

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4 Feb

Oh Come On

There is probably too many generalizations in this article for me to take anything of use away from it. What am I going to do with stuff like "global whiteness" and the "Ventersdorp brandy and coke fascist".

There is also a wide scatter of different subjects in the article that I think were used for the purpose of cherry picking. Your reference to Charlie Hebdo in relation to French colonialism and Algerian immigrants was particularly shoddy.

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Dr Lance Heath
6 Feb


I found the article lucid and helpful. Understanding neo-colonialism seems to be a very important concept for us to wrap our heads around. I wonder though if it might not be best to start replacing the word "white" with the word "West(ern)"?

I think the most useful (for me) line in the article was: "opposition to crime, support for the environment, human rights, feminism, commitment to excellence, philosophical rigour and economic rationality - to be misused for racist purposes." I liked the fact that examples were made explicit.

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