What is at the root of white anxiety in post-apartheid South Africa?

As South Africa proves itself to be an unsustainable society, its foundational contradictions unravel and explode into crisis or conflict, drastic change — be it the demise of the ANC or the return of violent nationalism to formal politics  — is inevitable. 

Reading news of debates over the apartheid-era flag, a racist incident at the university of Stellenbosch and reflecting on how difficult it is for the mind to accept radical change, I recalled a conversation I had years ago with a good friend. 

Anxious to graduate from university and frantically nervous about the future, my friend admitted she had plans to emigrate to New Zealand or Australia. She would teach at a reputable, well-paying former Model C school, amass a comfortable amount of savings and hopefully within five to seven years of working, she’d become one of many South African professionals living abroad. 

When I asked why she wanted to leave, she supplied the common reasons: the daily terror of crime, infrequent service delivery, cities stained by crumbling infrastructure, the scarcity of jobs. These are all rational and sympathetic reasons to emigrate; if one has the financial capacity, combined with an opportunity overseas, why not? 

“And…” slightly lowering her voice and her eyes, somewhat shamefully avoiding contact with mine, she said “I don’t know how much of a future white people have in this country. If I have kids, I feel like things would be better for them in another country”. 

It was a reluctant but loaded admission on her part. Her words were loaded for numerous but fascinating reasons. It was a rare instance in which a relatively apolitical white person spoke of themselves and other white people in explicitly racialised terms.

No one could deny the instability within South Africa makes emigrating attractive. Generally, white citizens obtain better educational resources and job opportunities, live in the safest neighbourhoods and have the greatest access to leisure, luxury and opulence. So initially I failed to understand what threat awaited in the future, specifically for white people. 

My confusion faded and I soon realised my friend was expressing an old but increasingly popular anxiety some white people have about their position and status post-apartheid. It is anxiety bred by the fear that change to the dominant social, political and economic relations will threaten their position and status within society. 

My friend’s anxiety is mirrored by those who deem affirmative action to be a kind of reverse racism, always promoting incompetent blacks and oppressing competent whites. 

It is a paranoid anxiety alive in the minds of white people who think any and all discussion of racism or the legacy of racism is an attempt to shame or condemn white people for the “sin” of their whiteness. The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) campaign to keep critical race theory out of schools is an amusing if not pitiful instance of such paranoid anxiety. 

It is an anxiety that can evolve into visceral fear and eventually compel violence. One witnessed this transformation during the July unrest last year. Initially seeking to protect their communities, by the second day of looting predominantly white vigilante groups in Durban began denying black residents access to their neighbourhoods, indiscriminately shot at crowds of rioters with live ammunition and used the threat of violence to harass black residents.

Before apartheid’s death, white settlers were constantly reassured of their superiority. The world they inhabited was designed to corroborate the lie of white supremacy.Pastors preached apartheid was ordained by God. Teachers thought that black people were primitive and the country was underdeveloped before the arrival of white men. 

For decades propaganda masquerading as scientific research maintained white supremacy was a reflection of biological reality. 

The segregation of all public and private spaces meant that most white settlers viewed black people as a permanent and alien underclass, only useful insofar as they could serve white society, intellectually incapable of anything but servitude.

Arrogance is birthed by delusion. Unsurprisingly South Africans must routinely bear witness to white arrogance. Recently, a white student at the University of Stellenbosch was suspended for breaking into a black student’s dormitory and urinating on his belongings. The repulsive incident was recorded and when his actions were questioned, the student replied, “This is what we do to black boys.”  

It was a racist attack on another person’s dignity but should one be surprised by such casual cruelty when the class position of most white South Africans shields them from accountability or self-reflection?

Indeed there were rebels among the settlers; authors, union leaders, theologians, poets, teachers, musicians, academics and numerous figures who summoned the moral fortitude to fight white domination while often sacrificing their own well-being. However, overall, the mood within the white community before 1994 was one of conformity to the social order. 

Sociologist Bernard Magubane once described the contradiction at the heart of settler-colonialism: the desire to exploit African labour but not desiring to share the colony, its riches or spaces, with Africans. Apartheid was an attempt to solve this contradiction by creating a thoroughly segregated society, along a racial hierarchy. 

The turn to democracy, although undoubtedly a victory for the country’s oppressed millions, did not flatten the contradiction established by settler-colonialism. 

Afrikaner nationalism is a relic of history and those who stubbornly latch on to it, or any white supremacist ideology, are an ineffective political minority that lack legitimacy in the eyes of most of the country’s citizens. As a political project, it is dead.

But since 1994, cheap African labour remains an essential component of our model of economic production. Capitalism, in its grand commodification of life, does the work of apartheid “spatial planning”, rapidly building new barriers between rich and poor. The ANC government, wedded to a free-market economy, chooses to manage poverty and unemployment, rather than eradicate those issues. The uncritical elevation of reconciliation did the ideological work of justifying a post-apartheid born out of coerced compromise. 

Alongside the burgeoning but small black elite and a precarious black middle class, it has been white South Africans who have been the greatest beneficiaries of the post-apartheid order. This is the fundamental reason why white anxiety and arrogance, which manifest as racist speech or action, persist into the present. The economic relations which ensured white settlers had access to a higher quality of life have largely remained. The bubble of suburban comfort did not burst when they became citizens. 

Three years since that conversation with my friend, the state of the country has become dire and I can’t help but wonder how white citizens continue to envision their place and future in this country. 

I’m not white and even if I were, white South Africans are not a dull monolith of people trapped in unchanging biases and identical opinions or uniform ideological outlooks. Empirical sources on the experiences and outlooks of white citizens inform us that there is a great diversity of thought within the white community, but data is scarce nonetheless. 

What we do have to guide our brief exploration are the actions and professed ideologies of political organisations, which act, explicitly or deceptively, in pursuit of what they imagine to be the interests of white people. 

AfriForum is an example, once again entangled in a morally dubious legal battle. Steadfast in what I can only assume to be reverence for the symbols of white nationalism, and deceptively framing their efforts as an attempt to protect free speech, the vanguard of Afrikaner interests was recently in the supreme court of appeal attempting to overturn a 2019 ruling of the equality court that found that gratuitous display of the apartheid-era flag qualified as hate speech.

AfriForum, the IRR, the Democratic Alliance’s recent policy positions and the urinating racist seem to represent the dissatisfied, anxious and arrogant. It is a loud minority that does not reflect the outlooks of the wider white community. Focus groups reveal that although the diversity of political positions exists within white South Africa, many white citizens are opposed to or uninterested in policies or legislation that would improve the lives of the black majority. 

Ultimately, imploring white people to become fierce anti-racists or expecting racism to disappear with time is not particularly productive towards improving life for the vast majority of poor South Africans. The configuration of the economy incubates racist ideology in elite spaces and allows racists to act and hatefully speak with general impunity. 

The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policy of the M&G

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Andile Zulu
Andile Zulu is a political essayist who runs the Born Free Blues blog.

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