from Africa in Transition

Symbols of Race Relations in the United States and South Africa

South African cricket fans with an apartheid era flag watch the last day of the first test match against New Zealand in South Africa, November 21, 2000. This flag was reportedly flown at recent Black Monday protests in South Africa. Juda Ngwenya/Reuters

November 3, 2017

South African cricket fans with an apartheid era flag watch the last day of the first test match against New Zealand in South Africa, November 21, 2000. This flag was reportedly flown at recent Black Monday protests in South Africa. Juda Ngwenya/Reuters
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South Africa and the United States share certain similarities. Both are non-racial democracies with a history of white exploitation of indigenous and black peoples. The historical symbols related to that exploitation can be both contentious and divisive. For example, student protests in South Africa led to the removal of the statute of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the grounds of the University of Cape Town. In the United States, the Confederate battle flag has recently become the symbol of modern white supremacy. What to do about state flags that incorporate Confederate symbols—the flags of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi still do this—and monuments to Confederate heroes erected on public property can become a major issue. In the gubernatorial campaign now underway in Virginia, the issue is statues to Confederate heroes; some Democrats oppose retaining them while most Republicans favor keeping them. President Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, has weighed into the debate with a defense of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. 

In South Africa, the latest issue is the national flag of the apartheid era. Its alleged appearance at a “Black Monday” demonstration against violent crime and the alleged killing of white farmers by blacks has been condemned by the governing African National Congress (ANC) as “divisive.” (It is not clear whether the demonstrators in fact used the apartheid flag; media photographs of it are, apparently, several years old.) 

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It is widely believed within the South African white community that white farmers are disproportionately the targets of murder. There is now a “white lives matter” movement that protests the killing of white farmers and it rallies behind apartheid-era symbols. For the ANC, protests focused on the grievances of a racial group is anathema, especially of whites, who remain as a whole multiple times richer than other racial groups in South Africa. ANC spokesmen point out that black farmers as well as white farmers are killed and that the government has a strategy targeted at these crimes. Interestingly, the party has made a point to emphasize that "all lives" matter rather than just white lives, consistent with its stated goal of creating a "non-racial society" following apartheid. Protests focused on white farmers, from the perspective of the ANC, are just more examples of whites demanding privileged treatment. 

Changes in the murder rate over time and the racial mix of victims are difficult to ascertain with precision, though some conclusions can still be drawn. A researcher at the credible Institute for Security Studies’ crime and justice hub has concluded that whites as a whole (not just farmers) are less likely to be murdered than blacks or ‘coloureds’—those of mixed heritage who consider themselves a separate race. Further, a study of murder dockets in 2009 showed that the victims were black in 86.9 percent of the cases and white in only 1.8 percent of the cases, though whites made up 8.85 percent of the population at the time.

As in the United States, in South Africa contention over flags and statutes will not go away soon, reflecting profound differences over the understandings of the past, as well as the present. Apartheid and Jim Crow, and their antecedents, have much in common and overlapped in various forms for hundreds of years. In both countries, as William Faulkner said, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 
 

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Race and Ethnicity

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