South Africa’s Contemporary Relationship to Racism

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In the words of the well-known white South African academic, Samantha Vice; “South Africa is a strange and morally tangled place to live in” (323). While it can be agreed that for a nation like South Africa, there is a liberating sense of restorative power that has been cultivated since the ending of apartheid. What remains is the fact that South Africa has a deeply complex relationship to its past. Dislocation and contradiction are inherent themes when it comes to contemporary South Africa and its history.  Even though the downfall of apartheid ultimately orchestrated the formulation of situations that eliminated physical segregation and increased close contact amongst South Africans, this has not necessarily translated to greater racial integration.  Unequal power relations continue to be a major issue in South Africa. The racial hierarchy in which white privilege dominates and is above blackness is still a very prevalent notion in South Africa.

The globalized notion of Black Lives Matter serves as a relevant component for a discussion on the contemporary racial situation in South Africa. Black Lives Matter Solidarity SA is a South African activist movement that was formed by South Africans in response to the catastrophic racial upheavals that took place in the United States of America in 2020. The racial upheavals peaked after the death of a Black American named George Floyd, who was murdered at the hands of armed police officers. On the 14th of June 2020, BLM Solidarity SA made the active initiative to enter South Africa in the international fight for justice aimed at bringing awareness around the fact that indeed, Black lives do matter. The South African activists demonstrated South African solidarity with Black Americans as they held a vigil at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg where the movements lead organizer, Thandiwe Ntshinga, passionately expressed to News24 reporters what Black Lives Matter Solidarity SA represented and why it was so important for South Africans to support the movement. Ntshinga’s declaration went as follows, “For us, black trauma is borderless. The African Americans I know supported the struggle in apartheid – they understood black suffering; their suffering is our suffering” (Maphanga) Given South Africa’s brutal history with apartheid, it isnclear how Black South Africans could easily empathize with the struggles faced by Black Americans. In addition, there is an underlying sense of duty for Black South Africans to stand in solidarity with Black Americans because Black Americans were amongst the strongest voices that pushed for sanctions against the apartheid regime.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement in the USA can be understood as being a recent marvel, with its origins dating back to 2013 as a response to the exoneration of Black American Trayvon Martin’s killer. It is important for people to understand the concerns that the movement addresses are not unique to the US. Particularly, the movement is relevant to South Africa because the issues identified by the movement are intrinsic and deeply embedded in the country’s own racial history. As a result, these are issues that overtly and continuously impact the contemporary racial situation in South Africa. Indisputably, South Africa’s present-day issues of corruption, segregation and racial discrimination towards Black people are issues that have their roots in colonialism and slavery. This is a painful and pitiful reality that has been adopted by humankind in general and certainly has been the ever-present white elephant plaguing South Africa and its history. It cannot be argued that in South Africa, the lives of Black people have been debased– treated as worthless, unfairly exposed to police brutality, torment, and humiliation.

Unfortunately, in South Africa, Black lives continue to be devalued and undermined. A very recent and striking incident of police brutality took place in April 2020, when South African soldiers were employed to enforce and regulate lockdown restrictions in Johannesburg. They took it upon themselves to violently beat a citizen named Collins Khosa to death in his own backyard. Khosa’s life partner confirmed to media reporters that she was distraught and traumatized by the barbaric occurrence and that she had been in the house while the violent beating occurred. The soldiers justified their actions by presenting claims that Khosa had violated lockdown regulations. This altercation further emphasizes that the issues of police brutality and ill treatment of Black lives are issues that are not exclusive to America; it cannot be disputed that the similarities between the unsettling stories of Collins Khosa and the killing of American George Floyd are evident and infuriating. In South Africa, Black people are naturally the target of systemic injustice and the implicit manifestations of Apartheid continue to plague Black townships and settlements, thus relegating many Blacks to the peripheries of privilege. Many Black South Africans are subjected to conditions that are misrepresentative of their worth; the color of their skin continues to be an obstruction to a comfortable standard of living. Despite the majority of South Africa’s political leadership being Black, these leaders have been slow to tend to the plight of Black injustice and inequality. South Africa’s political leaders live luxuriously with not enough care towards those who supported their campaigns.

A psychological sense of white supremacy still reigns; whiteness tends to be associated with a dominant and privileged status, while Blackness is reinforced as being subservient and accommodating to whiteness. Evidently, whiteness tends to continuously benefit more than blackness when it comes to racial interactions. Academic writer Louise Vincent points out that; “While contact may undermine blatantly racist practices and overt racial conflict, racialized patterns of reasoning continue to exist, often unnoticed and unchallenged” (1426).  At the core of the matter is the issue that there is a latent assumption that race is a biological component that inextricably contributes to certain social behaviors and that these are inherent qualities. This is a problematic assumption because it generally overlooks the historical influence of past oppression and psychological damage inflicted onto certain individuals in society, particularly Black South Africans. Most notable is the fact that such assumptions have contributed towards the perpetuation of unconscious privileging of whiteness in South Africa, despite the demise of apartheid. It is still a common notion that in South Africa most people living below the poverty line and informal settlements are Black people. Furthermore, racial stereotypes and Eurocentric ideals perpetuate a narrative of black inferiority and discrimination towards Black people in certain workspace as well as model C schools. For South Africa, racism seems to be an issue that is embedded in the culture. Racial discourse offers forms of personality arrangement with all social characters.

Another racial issue faced by South Africa is the issue of Xenophobia and Afrophobia. This issue perpetuates a greater, more problematic notion of ‘anti-blackness’ throughout the country; it contradicts the country’s post-apartheid ideal of being a progressive and non-discriminative pinnacle of a ‘Rainbow Nation’ on the African continent. The issues of Xenophobia and Afrophobia are particularly concerning because these issues perpetuate colonialist ideals and generate a notion of isolation for South Africa from other African countries by creating an ‘us vs them’ mentality. Whether it’s due to desensitization or something else, it cannot be ignored that there is a level of complacency in South Africa when it comes to the valuing of Black lives. In South Africa the issues of Black injustice, Xenophobia and anti-blackness are not addressed with the same eagerness and abhor as the murdering of African American lives. This is an issue that needs to be overcome and worked on with the utmost urgency. All Black lives matter.

The unfortunate notion of anti-Blackness remains a pestering issue throughout South Africa. In September of 2020, the issues of anti-blackness and Afrophobia were once again brought to the forefront when a racist beauty advertisement reinforcing colonial ideas made headlines in South African media. The advertisement presented by Clicks (a South African pharmacy) was intended to promote hair products; unfortunately, the message that the advertisement reinforced was harmful, insensitive and racist in its depiction of Black hair being portrayed as abnormal when compared to white hair. The racist advertisement featured photographs of a Black women wearing their natural hair and the photos were accompanied by captions that read; “dry & damaged” and “frizzy & dull”. In addition, the advert featured photographs of white women wearing their natural hair with captions describing their hair as “normal” and “fine & flat”. The advertisement offended many South Africans and ignited widespread anger, as many considered it unjustifiable, reckless and irresponsible for the pharmacy to overtly promote Eurocentric ideals of beauty in the face a nation still grieving the afflictions of its excruciatingly racist past.

Many South Africans were quick to respond to the racist advertisement, sparking a major widespread outrage people took to social media to voice anger towards the company. Crowds of protestors also gathered outside various Clicks outlets across the country urging that the company be boycotted due to its racial discrimination, ignorance, and blatant reinforcement of colonial ideals. The issue goes deeper than merely being an issue of hair; the advertisement promoted sentiments dating back to colonialism in which Black people were dehumanized and treated as abnormal in relation to whites, who were depicted as superior and representative of the highest standard of beauty. Keeping this in mind, it would be extremely ignorant and irresponsible to dismiss the issue as being just a mere ‘hair issue’; the issue goes deeper than that. The advertisement promoted anti-blackness and undermined the human dignity of Black South Africans. The fact that such a blatantly racist advertisement was able to be published in the modern-day South Africa long after the demise of apartheid highlights concerns regarding the issue of why Black lives seem to not matter in South Africa and how Black people continue to experience disrespect and unfair treatment in a country that is predominately populated by Black people.

When describing her position as a white South African in contemporary South Africa, Samantha Vice, a renowned South Africa academic and professor at Witwatersrand University, asserted that her privilege as a white woman in the New South Africa is still a deeply felt reality of the culture. She asserted that; “While I am not an Afrikaner and so have escaped the taint that identity brings with it, I am a white South African, undeniably a product of the Apartheid system and undeniably still benefiting from it” (323). In spite of the endeavors of lawmakers and open relation officials to convince its citizens something else, South Africa is still an obviously divided and suspicious country. All South Africans are required to believe in the progressive notion of the country being a ‘Rainbow Nation’ deserving of much pride from its citizens. Former exiles are encouraged to return to the ‘new South Africa’ and fit into the progressive phenomenon that early post-Apartheid days made possible for people to accept and believe in. Still, it simply cannot be ignored that the country’s prominent history of overwhelming corruption and barbarism is still heavily felt.  Its impacts are evident in everyday life; within the country’s obvious destitution, the wrongdoing and criminal activity that has affected citizens daily, the overt poverty, homelessness, the racial isolation, and discrimination that exists in living spaces and work environments.

The eradication of racism altogether is a complex notion for a strange and contradictory country like South Africa. Ultimately, Vice made a strong argument by raising the point that, for South Africa, an important part of overcoming the issue of racism would lie in absolving the inherently learned identification by individuals with a specific political product (323). It is imperative that South Africa work towards the objective of formulating a psychologically integrated social model in which blackness is not continuously identified and affiliated through a lens of subjugation while whiteness is affiliated with privilege. This is difficult for South Africa particularly because, in South Africa, racial identity continues to be a concept pervaded by antecedents of either privilege or subjugation.



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Mbali Hlubi is a 23-year-old South African native who was born and raised in Benoni, Gauteng. She graduated from Rhodes University where she majored in English Honors with a minor in Philosophy. She is passionate about music, public speaking, literature and creative visual art. Mbali loves traveling and has been to four different continents. She particularly enjoyed her time in South Carolina where she did a study abroad exchange program at Furman University.

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