(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
There are racist hallucinations that run unbroken through the centuries, but racism is also a dynamic phenomenon. The ways in which people are divided into races, the ideas projected onto these races and the mechanisms by which race is economically, politically and socially operationalised are all malleable. Racism updates and renews itself. It finds new guises.
To understand racism, we need to understand both its enduring fictions and how they run into the present along old grooves, changing form like mercury as they go. In South Africa important changes are happening in the public sphere strung between white-dominated nodes in the media, a set of similarly white-dominated NGOs and research institutes that seek to use this media to advance their political projects, and a group of public white figures.
Perhaps the most significant of these changes is the now fully recovered and overweening sense of moral superiority by many white protagonists in this largely white public sphere. This sense of moral superiority, as absolute as that of a colonial missionary, is directed towards both social and political issues in South Africa and geopolitical issues that affect white people, with the latter seeming to occasion its most frenzied expression.
The renewed sense of moral superiority prefers to speak in the name of “classical liberalism” or “the West” rather than whiteness but is sometimes willing to use old and crude forms of colonial language, such as directly describing racialised geopolitical issues as a clash between “civilisation” and “barbarism”.
There is no way for a white person to use this sort of language to discuss a conflict between people racialised as white and people racialised as being other than white without drawing from the foundational logic of racism.
It is true that neither liberalism nor the West, as a place or a project, can be reduced to whiteness and that there are leading partisans of both projects who are not white. It is also true that both liberalism and the West have included important white dissidents, including anti-racists, some of them militant.
But at the same time neither liberalism nor the West as political projects and political identities can be disentangled from whiteness. This is not just because they both have their roots in Europe and have historically largely been projects of white people. It is also because they both constituted themselves against a racially determined outside, towards which the most egregious forms of racially organised oppression, including genocide, enslavement and colonialism, were perpetrated on a planetary scale.
To speak of liberalism, “classical”or otherwise, and the West as if they are wholly and plainly virtuous, and always have been, is to wilfully erase an ongoing history of racialised conquest, dispossession and mass murder in a manner that can only be an alibi for racism.
There seem to be two primary sources for this renewed sense of moral superiority. One is the turn to the right across the wider white world in response to an accumulating challenge to racism. Ideas drawn from this turn to the right in parts of the world such as North America, Australia and Western Europe are imported into South Africa.
For instance, attempts to incite panic about a wholly fictive understanding of critical race theory follow developments elsewhere, most notably the United States. This is also true of the often bizarre claims to discern Marxist logic or even Marxist conspiracy behind everything from Black Lives Matter to the concept of settler colonialism, “wokism” and the brief and now passé academic enthusiasm for postmodern theory, which was developed with the explicit aim of opposing Marxist ideas.
The contortions of history, logic and decency required to legitimate the ongoing mass murder of civilians in Gaza — along with the wholesale destruction of its infrastructure including homes, hospitals, schools, universities, mosques and churches — are also imported from the wider white world.
As with the bulk of the Western media it is striking that, in sharp contradistinction to the frenzied interest in Ukraine and Israel, wars in countries such as Yemen and Ethiopia are of very little interest. It is also striking that this frenzy has at times overtaken evidence, with the result that people who present themselves, their political tradition and their cultural affiliation as the pinnacle and measure of reason confidently make statements for which there is no public evidence. A current example of this is the repeated assertion as fact that the South African government decided to take Israel to the International Court of Justice because the ANC was paid to do so by Iran.
A second primary source for this new sense of moral superiority is the collapse of the ANC into a kleptocratic project under Jacob Zuma and its worsening failures of governance.
Thirty years ago, many public-facing white intellectuals working in the media, NGOs and elsewhere felt a need to perform some sort of humility regarding the horrors of racism in South Africa. This was, in part, a result of the moral authority of the ANC.
But, since then, the monomaniacal focus on corruption in the white-dominated part of the public sphere, which has seldom been accompanied by a similarly enthusiastic critique of enduring racial inequalities, has steadily enabled a restoration of open white arrogance.
Of course, this could only happen because existing white racism enabled the degeneration of the ANC to be misread in racial terms.
Something very similar happened in the United States after the end of slavery when black governance in the South was relentlessly lampooned in the press and its many successful aspects ignored in favour of a relentless focus on corruption. This eventually enabled a restoration of white power.
Circumstances in South Africa today are very different, but the brazen push by white donors to manipulate electoral politics from above is an attempt to restore a significant degree of white influence over society.
But the performance of white humility after apartheid, which was sometimes sincere, was not only a result of the moral authority then enjoyed by the ANC. It was also because the majority of white people had been implicated in an outmoded form of racism, a form of racism that by the late 1970s and 1980s had begun to place them outside of the norms of liberalism and the West.
Open forms of racism had become less acceptable after World War II and the successful anti-colonial movements that followed. Nonetheless, it continued in certain parts of the white world, such as the South in the US, Australia and white South Africa. But the Civil Rights Act was passed in the US in 1964 and the White Australia policy abandoned in 1973.
By the 1980s many white South Africans experienced a strong sense of shame about their participation in what had become an outmoded form of racism. But now that it is possible for white South Africans to participate in an international and contemporary form of a reassertion of the moral superiority of liberalism and the West, an assertion of superiority that is always at least tacitly even if not wholly racial, that shame has been shed.
Another aspect of the renewed sense of moral superiority among some white protagonists in public life is a return to the sort of Manichaean paranoia in which there are always only two choices, one of which is wholly virtuous and the other evil. In this logic one is either with Israel or Hamas, the West or Russia, and liberal freedoms or authoritarianism.
This is a mutilation of history, thought and ethics. There are moral and political situations in which a refusal to take a side is a disavowal of ethical and political responsibility but one can, of course, be opposed to the Israeli state and Hamas, to Nato and Putin and oppose liberalism in the name of greater freedoms, freedoms extended to all, including the victims of the liberal West, whose lives and aspirations continue to be laid to waste.
The only measure of decent politics is a universal commitment to human dignity, equality, well-being and freedom. Neither liberalism nor the West have any credible claim to have affirmed or to currently affirm any of these values for everyone. The renewed sense of moral superiority among a good number of white people in our public sphere, a sense of moral superiority implicitly tied up with whiteness, needs to be contested.
Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut.