from Africa in Transition

Identity Politics in South Africa

January 24, 2017

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the 1994 transition to “non-racial democracy,” traditionally eschewed identity politics. Though its electoral support was overwhelmingly Black, the party recruited its leadership from all races, which included many Whites and Asians. Nelson Mandela’s emphasis on racial reconciliation was very much in the spirit of the ANC. He particularly emphasized that there was place for Whites in post-apartheid South Africa. Famously, he attended a rugby championship match, the subject of the film Invictus. (Rugby is a White, mostly Afrikaner sport).

As problems of black poverty remain seemingly intractable, black identity politics is on the upswing. Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters argues for the wholesale expropriation of white land. Within the ANC, especially under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, the party has become more ‘African,’ even more Zulu, in character. (Zulu speakers are the largest linguistic group in South Africa.) The new generation of ANC leaders appears to include a smaller percentage of non-blacks. In some areas, ANC local governments have replaced Afrikaner or Dutch place names with those from African origin. At historically white universities, black students have demonstrated successfully for the removal of statues and other symbols from the past, and for the replacement of Afrikaans by English as the language of instruction. Some also call for the replacement of “colonial” curricula with a “liberation” one.

Perhaps inevitably, there is a white, especially Afrikaner, backlash. Eve Fairbanks profiles the explosive growth of AfriForum, a movement dedicated to white, especially Afrikaner, advocacy. AfriForum’s primary concerns are on alleged attacks of white farmers, the preservation of the Afrikaans language (especially in historically white educational institutions), and the preservation of Afrikaner names for locations and institutions.

In a country with perhaps the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world, with the second highest GINI coefficient in the world, the emergence of identity politics was probably inevitable. The process was probably accelerated by the decline of the ANC and the identification of its leadership with corruption.

However, in a highly fractured society such as South Africa, identity politics can hurt the poorest and most vulnerable. Whites control the economy and most of the nation’s wealth, and wealthy Whites can retreat into gated communities and private schools. The police function in the wealthy suburbs of Johannesburg already has, in effect, been privatized. These security companies provide a level of community safety lacking in black townships. It is to be hoped that identity politics does not lead to the wholesale withdrawal of Whites from hitherto public institutions, such as traditionally Afrikaans speaking high schools and universities.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

South Africa

Civil Society

Heads of State and Government

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