‘Race’* is an overused concept in South African discourses that frequently hides more than it reveals. Therefore, it remains imperative to scrutinise the particular historical context in which ‘race’ is wielded. When we discern how ‘race’ is applied to maintain or expand power, we can resist attempted reactivations of the apartheid template and disrupt ‘whiteness’ as a project of privilege.

A recent example of the operations of ‘whiteness’ came in the form of an allegation by Pieter Mulder, leader of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), in his reply to the State of the Nation address in Parliament on 15 February. He insisted that a group that he calls ‘Bantu-speakers’ did not historically live across the whole of South Africa.

He added: “The Bantu-speakers moved from the equator down while the whites moved from the Cape up to meet one another at the Kei River. There were no Bantu-speakers in the Western Cape and north-western Cape. These parts make up 40% of South Africa’s land surface. There also are differences of opinion about the influence of the Difaqane over land ownership.”

President Jacob Zuma criticised Mulder in his retort in Parliament, as did numerous pundits, including in a debate on SAfm radio in which I participated. During that debate, FF+ MP Corné Mulder not only defended his brother Pieter’s position but also declared himself an ‘African’. Pieter Mulder repeated this claim to ‘Africanness’ in a subsequent newspaper article.

Added to that, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe contributed to the debate the argument that the ‘Khoisan’ are also to be regarded as ‘Africans’. By rendering the ‘Khoisan’ ‘African’, he could argue that ‘Africans’ did live across the whole of South Africa during pre-colonial times. The use of ‘African’ in ANC parlance is typically racialised by being reserved for all ‘black’ people except ‘coloureds’ and ‘Indians’. Mantashe’s expansion of the category by implication still excludes ‘white’ people.

My contribution to the radio debate was as follows: apart perhaps from the ‘Khoisan’, we can at best argue that South Africans today are the descendants of successive waves of immigrants, starting with arrivals of people from the rest of the continent from the 4th century AD onwards.

The systems of colonialism and apartheid forcibly ended the relatively free movement of people who were colonised. Therefore, even if it were true that few people in pre-colonial times moved from present-day Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape and south-western parts of the Northern Cape, migrations could have expanded to those areas were it not for colonial interference.

But this is all in the realm of speculation. What we do know is that the pillage of land by colonialists, culminating in the Bantustan system of Verwoerdian apartheid, left people racialised as ‘black others’ with access to only a tiny percentage of land.

This patent injustice has to be redressed, which is broadly the objective of the post-apartheid government’s land reform plans – plans that have mostly failed thus far, as again acknowledged by Zuma in the State of the Nation address.

The more relevant question that we should ask ourselves is why Mulder should be raising this argument now, at this particular juncture in time.

His argument is predicated upon elision: it does not mention how it happened that certain migrations were halted in what is today the Eastern Cape. This manoeuvre attempts to erase colonialism and its effects. The causes of the concentration of people marked ‘black’ in northern, eastern and south-eastern ‘homelands’ through forced removals are also erased, as well as the consequences of declaring the Cape a ‘coloured labour preference zone’ in 1955.

Having elided these crucial historical events, he then implants the Christian National Education version of history: ‘white’ and ‘black’ ‘meeting at the Kei River’; the ‘Difaqane’ emptying out the land of its inhabitants just in time for colonialists to claim it.

The innocuous-sounding ‘meeting at the Kei River’ obfuscates the nine anti-colonial wars that the ‘Xhosa’ and ‘Khoi’ fought against the ‘Boers’ and the ‘British’ in that region. The ‘Difaqane’ myth enables the imposition of the Afrikaner nationalist version of Australia’s ‘terra nullius’ (‘empty land’) justification for colonial plunder.

But these erasures serve to hide yet another omission: that the people driving colonial and apartheid land expropriation deployed racialisation to position themselves as ‘white’ and therefore ‘superior’ and possessing an automatic claim to land.

By rendering not only colonialism and apartheid invisible but also ‘whiteness’, Mulder’s argument furthers the denialism which has been fundamental to the preservation of South African ‘whiteness’ after 1994. Denial of the sources of ‘white’ privilege serves to legitimise such privilege while delegitimising ‘black’ claims of redress. Mulder brandished denialism because Zuma proposed a re-look at the terms of redress.

But what then to make of the Mulder brothers’ assertion that they are ‘African’? Pieter Mulder rejects the ANC’s categorisation of ‘blacks in general and Africans in particular’. He tries to undermine the ANC use of ‘African’ with his so-called ‘academic’ term ‘Bantu-speakers’.

I would agree that the ANC categorisation is problematic, not least because of how it relies on the apartheid template of racialisation, only adjusted for reasons of political opportunism. For example, does Mantashe’s inclusion of the ‘Khoisan’ in the racialised category ‘African’ also include ‘coloured’ South Africans who count slaves among their forebears? Or are we witnessing another attempt at an ahistorical purging of unwanted (foreign) others from an identity (‘Khoisan’) to allow its embracing for political ends?

Philosopher Judith Butler reminds us: “One seeks to preserve oneself against the injuriousness of the other but if one was successful at walling oneself of from injury one would become inhuman.” This observation resonates with the South African experience, where inhumanity was the result of apartheid’s walling-off.

Reflecting on contemporary conditions, wielding ‘African’ as a new category of ‘racial’ exclusion elaborates on the apartheid pattern and is a move that should be rejected. However, simultaneously, claims to ‘African’ inclusion are rendered spurious when based on ‘white’ denial, such as that spun by Mulder.

Undoing the racialisation of apartheid and colonialism demands that we break with the apartheid template, whether in the form of racial exclusivism or the maintenance of ‘whiteness’.

South Africans would do well to note Butler’s admonition: ” … my own language must break up and yield if I am to know you. You are what I gain through this disorientation and loss. This is how the human being comes into being, again and again, as that which we have yet to know.”

‘Breaking language up’ means resisting both reinventions of the apartheid template and those strategies aimed at propping up ‘whiteness’.

*All references to ‘race’ and ‘racial’ categories such as ‘African’, ‘white’ and ‘Khoisan’ are placed in quotation marks in this blog entry as reminders of their constructed and contested status.
**This blog first appeared on the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s SA Reconciliation Barometer blog Vol 10 (April 2012)


Christi van der Westhuizen

Christi van der Westhuizen

Dr Christi van der Westhuizen is an award-winning political columnist and the author of the book Working Democracy: Perspectives on South Africa's Parliament at 20 Years, available for download...

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