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The South Africa we do not want to know

There is a real South Africa. There is a fictional South Africa. Perhaps there is one in-between. This is a country, not a nation as Christine Qunta persuasively argues in her new book, which got its political independence – not real freedom – 22 years ago. Until the latest and newest African country – South Sudan which got its political independence 5 years ago – South Africa was the late bloomer in Africa. The euphoria that characterized the gaining of political independence has dissipated. There are occasional moments of ecstasy and frequent moments of depression.

This is a (our) country – the ‘post-apartheid South Africa’ as it has become popularly, but questionably, known – whose reality underwhelms and its fiction overwhelms. What is South Africa in the context of 1994? Some argue that post-apartheid is an inappropriate description of the country as we currently experience it. Others feel that democratic – as in democratic South Africa – is a misnomer. The journalist and author Naomi Klein characterized ours as a ‘democracy born in chains’. The fiction might very well be that South Africa is great; that this is a new country – alive with possibilities – a rainbow nation. The reality is epitomized by the paradoxes and contradictions that describe South Africa 22 years since political independence as I discuss in my new book.

Among the key issues is that the political economy of present day South Africa is a compromise between the African majority rule and the white minority that holds greater economic power. The racism and white supremacy that the country endures cannot be divorced from this reality, hence FW de Klerk (the last apartheid President of South Africa), can say that the apartheid regime was only “morally repugnant in a qualified way”. Linked to this are brainwash and the damage that the minds of black South Africans have gone through. Both global white capital and white business in South Africa still have an upper hand while the political leadership and the masses of Africans bicker. The 350 years of apartheid colonialism – and the over 500 years of colonialism and imperialism that rudely interrupted progress in Africa – have done a thorough job, not only in relegating the majority to the periphery but to instill self-hatred, ignorance, arrogance and vindictiveness among the majority Africans.

Because the government is increasingly losing credibility, white people have acquired another ticket to disrespect the majority with impunity. And indeed the majority allows this, because whiteness is viewed as sacrosanct. The system was configured in such a way that even today the majority spends more time worrying about white people, and their white justice/law against their white crimes. Many Africans have been so preoccupied with the Oscar Pistorius case, as an example. When Sindisiwe Manqele was incarcerated for 12 years, possibly for defending herself, the silence among Africans was deafening for instance: most Africans find themselves in a helpless psychosocial ‘space’ which clouds them and pay undue attention to wrong things instead of self-advancement and playing part in taking South Africa forward, among other important things. Most Africans go to white churches where white priests tell them that Africans are subhuman. Most Africans adore whiteness, as Caribbean scholar and intellectual activist Ama Mazama says, and to the extent that we dream of white Jesus Christ.

The country has a long way to go, if we are to face the reality. Mabogo More, one of the greatest Fanonians of our time, has been on point that there has not been decolonization in South Africa because “decolonization entails the re-appropriation and return of national territory (country) to its original indigenous people and freedom from oppressive regime.” He further argues that “without decolonization in the form of land reparations, reconciliation is impossible”. Indeed, reconciliation has been a façade as many have argued. Without effective socioeconomic transformation (including systematic restitutionary, restructuring measures and, more importantly, equitable sharing of resources), we must forget about ever becoming a nation as I argue in my new book.

To take us forward, we must address one of the fundamental issues which we seem to ignore or avoid: what has informed the policies and associated initiatives for the kind of the society that the liberation movement envisaged? Could it be that the theorization by the liberation project had blind spots? Put differently, were the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) theory, the Colonialism of a Special Type (CST) thesis and such sound bases through which a new South Africa was to be born? What about the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)? And now the National Development Plan (NDP)? It has become patently clear that the first stage of the NDR remains far from being completed, and there are no signs of moving to the second stage (i.e. socialism). So much has been said about the TRC: what is clear is that reconciliation has not taken place. As far as CODESA is concerned, it is important to acknowledge the context that brought about the political settlement we have had to embrace. The work of the TRC too was shaped by a particular context which we cannot wish away. However, that said, white privilege looms large. And the NDP is oblivious of this obvious reality.

Given the various policy positions that guided the liberation project, a question arises as to whether the Bill of Rights in the Africans’ Claims or the Freedom Charter or the 1996 Constitution or some other theoretical framework should have formed the basis of the ‘new’ South Africa and or what should inform our development approach going forward. Norma Chaloult and Yves Chaloult as well as Peter Hudson, among others, argued that the CST thesis was not an appropriate characterization of South Africa even in the 1950s/1960s. In addition, Nicholas Visser argued that the CST thesis would easily impress any person with little knowledge about South Africa because it obscures rather than explains the South African conundrum. Writing about the TRC in 2000, the Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani argued that the use of a Latin American (TRC) commission’s design was problematic because “the Latin American analogy obscured the colonial nature of the South African context: the link between conquest and dispossession, between racialized power and racialized privilege, between perpetrator and beneficiary”. It is therefore, perhaps, a better or more accurate characterization that South Africa is [was] a settler colony.

Besides the challenge of global capitalism and ubiquitous racism, as a starting South Africa requires a profound restructuring of state-capital relations – a new vision for the economy is critical. At the centre of any initiative to redressing the historical injustice or to ensure inclusive justice has to be a thorough understanding of the ramifications of apartheid colonialism. And, by implication, fundamental reconfiguration of societal relations is overdue.

So much for the new South Africa, where fiction thrives!


  • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.


  1. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 14 July 2016

    I have a bit of a problem with the gross exaggeration and the contradictions within this article. It is not a very good reflection of reality. It is like the author took every bad news article, rolled them into one and painted the entire country with the toxic mix.

    South Africa is an incredibly young democracy. We have voted FIVE times. For such an inexperienced bunch, we have made huge strides in becoming more politically aware and less tolerant of political shenanigans. In many ways, we are far more democracy savvy than many ‘older’ countries.

    YES, we have issues – as does every other country. YES, we should be further ahead – the ‘can do better’ on the report card. YES, our leadership is lacking – welcome to democracy. YES, land is an issue – it would be nice to know how much of an issue. If they ever finished the land audit, which was started almost 20 years ago, we may do! YES, racism exists on all sides – it is difficult to pull together when politicians, media and “intellectuals” keep pulling us apart.

    South Africa, today, is better than it was. Where it will be, 22 years from now, is up to us. We cannot change the past and we cannot keep crying about it either. What we can do is learn from it and do better. I am incredibly proud of how our country has grown and feel humbled to have witnessed that growth. It isn’t all doom and gloom.


    Please show me any socialist country that has succeeded ? Cuba (more communist that social) complete failure, the only good thing they have is education, Venezuela bankrupt completely, Russia (also communist) only when they changed to capitalism did they prosper, China (also communist) same as Russia on the brink of financial collapse then they took capitalist values and look now within 20 years it will be number 1 in world.
    Socialism or communism cannot work and has been proven, why will somebody who is working 20 hours a day now to better his family and life keep working 20 hours when someone else who sits and does nothing gets exactly what i am getting ? That is also a big problem is the whole of Africa is the point of competition, as soon as some competition comes in the established companies (Mafia’s like SA taxi’s) will intimidate, abuse violently and even kill because they cannot take competition. The African mentality is “if i cant have then nobody can” and that’s why the whole of Africa is a failure, the white mentality is “i will do better than you because i am better than you” that is a very obnoxious and cocky way too think but that is why the the world is so advanced, imagine nobody took on the world and said i will change it, imagine Bill Gates said nah i don’t want to work because my government will pay me, Steve Jobs said no work today lets just sit and do nothing, we all will still be stuck in europe and africa living in huts in the bush, change is good, competition is good, capitalism is the best out of all ideologies because it forces advancement, if you fall behind you will be left behind and thats exactly what happened and is happening to Africa.

  3. Jonathan Haze Jonathan Haze 14 July 2016

    It was apartheid colonialism that created a country to which Africans, from long independent states, would flock to in refuge. If there had been no apartheid colonialism, the chaos and corruption that now characterises government, municipalities and all state owned enterprises would have occurred centuries ago.

    Do you ever ask yourself why, when Theresa May drives to 10 Downing Street for the first time, she requires only 3 vehicles? As opposed to Zuma, who requires 40 when going anywhere? Do you ever spend one millisecond on wondering why the masses keep voting for the people who steal from them? Is this all part of your “development approach”?

    I am afraid there is an unbridgeable gap between predominant global thought and whatever goes on in your brain.

  4. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 14 July 2016

    Huge amount of anger and racial prejudice in this article. Just one example:

    “Most Africans go to white churches where white priests tell them that Africans are subhuman.”

    Come now. I would call it racism but apparently that’s not allowed.

    “So much for the new South Africa, where fiction thrives!” Ahhh this story is being written by the ZANC and his bunch of thieves. Any possible solution can only happen if the country is not teetering on the edge of economic downfall, DIRECTLY attributed to the current ANC.

    Yes if thevlegacy of apartheid is our rotten foundation in this country, then the ANC is burning down the building above it. Yes the foundation needs to be dealt with, but if we don’t put out the fire, there will be nothing left to fix. And before you think that might be a good thing, history has shown us it is the poor and disadvantaged that tend to pay the highest price in such situations.

  5. david david 14 July 2016

    How to say a lot without saying anything.

    I am surprised that a professor is not able to put forward a more substantive article

    As for the ominous ending “fundamental reconfiguration of societal relations is overdue”

    He is as bad as the politicians, why did he not give voice to his ideas on how to fix the matter.

    Articles like this just confirm that I am making the right choice in planning leaving SA

  6. Mabonakude Lihlolokhozi Mabonakude Lihlolokhozi 14 July 2016

    I cannot agree with you more. Which is why I have always said that the fixation with the Nkandla excesses, for example, is a pitiful detour in the journey of black redemption in South Africa. Of course, we do want accountability. We want integrity of those in leadership, etc. But the #zumamustfall and similar choruses only provide more space for the consolidation of capitalist/colonialist structures, and neoliberals only wish they could laugh louder!!!!!!!!

  7. PierreAyc PierreAyc 15 July 2016

    The problem with this paper, Mr Gumede, is if one hasn’t read your books or those of the people you refer to, one cannot understand your point. Try making it a bit more didactic, so one can understand where you mean to go.

  8. Jaap Folmer Jaap Folmer 17 July 2016

    ”..the over 500 years of colonialism and imperialism that rudely interrupted progress in Africa..”

    Is this why that other country you mentioned, South Sudan, has made so much more progress -whatever that is- than South Africa? After all, its exposure to these 500 years of colonialism en imperialism has been pretty minimal. The same thing goes for its neighbor Ethiopia.

    The problem with such arguments is always that whoever lives in the past usually does not have much of a future. Especially if that is a distorted, part demonized, part idealized past. This is perhaps the worst legacy of the colonial/apartheid past: it serves as a limitless alibi and excuse for the sins of the present.

    Zimbabwe is a glaring example of this. Its utter destruction and despair is due to Mugabe, not Ian Smith, whatever Smith’s fault may have been. If Africans want a better future they need to look past their skin color at the truth.

  9. Moorosi Moorosi 19 July 2016

    White arrogance, privilege, and racist undertones will continue unabated as long as white sensitivities and fears are prioritised over dignity of black South Africans. This prioritisation stems from our land dispossession which was further entrenched by CODESA and the negotiated settlement of the early 90’s. Without reclamation of all stolen land in Azania, any intervention that seeks to address the socio-economic challenges facing us will continue to fail as this will be another futile exercise that does not tamper with property relations. Indeed, the author gives a correct diagnosis and analysis of the the crisis when he says “…Because the government is increasingly losing credibility, white people have acquired another ticket to disrespect the majority with impunity. And indeed the majority allows this, because whiteness is viewed as sacrosanct…”. The only South Africa that the current status quo wants drilled our heads is the fictional ‘Rainbow Nation’ narrative which is an illusion because there is no colour black in the rainbow. That is, we are continuously brainwashed with the illusion of inclusion when South Africa continues to be a settler colony that caters for everyone but the black majority. And please save your breath on the lazy argument on Zimbabwe ‘do you want us to end up like Zimbabwe?’, because the answer to that is very simple; Of course we want to be like Zimbabwe, we want our land back and all that lies beneath it!

  10. Edgar Ondati Edgar Ondati 19 July 2016

    I’m writing this from Kenya, and it saddens me to admit that Africans rarely learn lessons from each other. We thump our chests at independence from “sacrosanct” white overlords and yet rarely Instrospect much on the societies we create, the leaders we are/have, the values we uphold. Why won’t south africans learn from their neighbours? why do you want to burn your country simply to prove that you can? who wins ? All I can say is your poor will lose, but guess what? Soon enough, so will your rich. South africa has the opportunity to build a great nation, albeit not from scratch, the ANC could have shown what a paragon of african democracy could look like. COULD, that is what remains now. All is not lost, however, but i’m sure these sacrosanct “white people” the world over are waiting for you south africans to burn down your country and they’ll collectively sigh… “See! they can’t do anything right”

  11. Chris Mojela Chris Mojela 19 July 2016

    Exactly what is beyond skin color?

    I mean is is through skin color that the country was designed and structured
    It is through skin colour that the bread of this country was shared.
    It is with skin colour that the history of this country was written.

    When we look at the past and point out what happened, we are not using it as an excuse but rather we use it to anchor our analysis. We as African understand the importance of understanding history. It is a fact that before the settler arrived we did not think think about race/racism these are Eurocentric words and the same as the inferiority/superiority.
    Thus when we say whites caused the destruction of this country we are not blaming but pointing put the source of Africa and the whole world’s problem.
    Our white-counter-parts are absolutely disagreeable to live with. Everywhere they have went they caused trouble. There is not even a single place which they went to and brought peace, they are the source of racial violence which they started amongst themselves and spread it through the whole world.

    And as for Zimbabw, it6 is suffering because of sanctions which were imposed on them after they purged whiteness and took back the land. And this is a route which all countries have gone through to free themselves and South Africa still need to go that route. It owrked for the Chinese, Japanese and the Cubans to name a few and it will work for us Africans.

    Peace to African and War to our enemies

  12. Chris Mojela Chris Mojela 19 July 2016

    I agree with what this article posits when it comes to the problem of this country however, The article hasn’t really gone where others haven’t gone or said anything new.
    Perhaps the primary challenge is that this article refuses to acknowledge what the solution is, which is what our Great Ancestors such as The Great Hendrick Clarke, The Great Sobukwe suggested. Perhaps we haven’t studied History enough. Perhaps we haven’t observed ourselves enough…If we have to come up with solutions then let us start with studying history, like one African scholar once said:

    “History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.”

    Historical speaking, all countries which managed to free themselves from Western Imperialism achieved this by over-throwing their liberal governments and replacing it with a government that represents the needs of the natives and chasing out whites. China, Japan and Cuba are good examples of this.

    The problem whit S.Africa is that this country is that it is too white, even the Black people and leaders of this country are totally engulfed by this whiteness.

    I believe it is Dr Chinweizu that speaks with proper depth about what the solutions of S.Africa and Africa in general should be.

    If we don’t build a United States of Africa soon then we risk getting exterminated from the face of this earth permanently.

  13. PierreAyc PierreAyc 19 July 2016

    Don’t you feel the the Nkandla “excesses” reveal a corrupt-to-the-core elite whose purpose is to become the bosses in the smae good old capitalist-colonial system? Don’t you see that it is Black capitalists who got miners shot in Marikana, and Black police who executed their orders? And that now the man who gave the order is the VP of the South African Republic?
    It is totally illogical to call racists people who fight corruption, just because you ahve o problem with corruption as long as it is Black people running it… Neoliberalism is the ANC’s credo ever since GEAR, the ANC elites are more greedy than any Western neoliberal elites, but you’d rather keep them than fight them…
    It is people like you who make it impossible to have progress and to get rid of capitalist-colonial structure. People like you who help the Ramaphosas and Sexwale exploit war and genocide in Congo so their mining companies can make them richer at the expense of African people. And people like you who protect colonial-capitalism out of being stuck in colonial race-based thinking.
    Biko wrote: “being Black is a matter of where you stand in the capitalist-colonial system of domination”. It doesn’t mean Blacks were ever bound to be at the bottom. It means that Blackness is not a matter of skin-colour, but a matter of political ideology and a matter of what you do in favour or against the domination system. It meant then that impimpi was as White as a Verwoerd. It means now that Black shareholders abusing their economic and political power and benefiting from cheap labour are White colonialists.
    In other words, if you are serious about taking down the capitalist-colonial system of domination, you should be calling Zuma a White colonialist. And There you are, protecting him and saying it isn’t much of a problem to have colonial capitalism as long as those on top are Black. You are a disgrace to the cause, because you can’t help believing in skin colour, exactly like colonial-capitalists taught you to believe…

  14. Mabonakude Lihlolokhozi Mabonakude Lihlolokhozi 20 July 2016

    I like your argument, Michael. You have given me something to think about.

  15. Mabonakude Lihlolokhozi Mabonakude Lihlolokhozi 20 July 2016

    It is a lie that the man who is now Veep gave those orders! It is a lie! It was never proven in a Court of Law. Your Court of Public Opinion is simply that!

  16. Piet Vorster Piet Vorster 22 July 2016

    There are measures in place to claim back “your” land, the land claims commission is waiting eagerly for you to lodge your claim.

  17. Piet Vorster Piet Vorster 22 July 2016

    So are you advocating ” chasing out whites”, because we all know where that will lead to.

  18. Mauritz Kloppers Mauritz Kloppers 22 July 2016

    about you stop using the terms “white people” and “whiteness” to
    constantly bring across a negative image, which is where you crossed the
    line to racist behaviour. If you stop being ignorant you will see there
    are many differences in this “white people”
    group of yours. Differences in background, language, culture, and yes
    even vast differences in attitudes towards current socio-economical
    issues. If you continue attacking white people as a group, “white
    people” will continue defending as a group. If you have issue with a
    subset of this group you hate so much, how about you take a more
    targeted approach, and you will see other “white people” will agree and
    support you more.

  19. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 22 July 2016

    I have not heard much from Zimbabwe recently, are the general population still enjoying their unemployment, aid rations, and bloodshed at election times?
    Surely South Africa’s ambitions should aim slightly higher than the Zimbabwe disaster you refer to.

  20. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 22 July 2016

    Sorry Chris, I think you have been brainwashed. In you version of history, did African tribes war, did people die, were resources like grazing land, cattle, and slaves taken? Did this happen before the white man arrived on African shores?

  21. david david 28 July 2016

    Rinse please.
    I am so tired of white this, white that.
    I get it I am not welcome in the country where I was born and to be honest it doesnt bother me.
    Just dont screw it up for those who remain.

  22. The Public Speaking Guy The Public Speaking Guy 18 August 2016

    What will it lead to, Oom Peit?

  23. The Public Speaking Guy The Public Speaking Guy 18 August 2016

    Prof Gumede, you have articulated the problem in an understandable manner, hence the excitement from our colleagues born of imperialists and colonialists! For as long as the thought that Alexandra exists because of Sandton prevails, Alexandra will never be good enough even for the people of Alexandra.

    What would help the people of Alexandria thou, is to go about their business outside the visibility of Sandtonians, because once they start articulating a better Alexandra for themselves in the full view of everyone, even the idea that they are thinking of bettering themselves will attract the kind of affection you are receiving here Prof, but then again, what would be the purpose of such platforms if not to test the sensitivity ot white priviledge to black fundamentalism. #Asijiki

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