South Africa's Liberal Whites Face a Racial ReckoningBreaking News
tags: racism, South Africa, apartheid, Afrikaners
About the author: Eve Fairbanks is a writer based in Virginia. Her first book is The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa's Racial Reckoning, from which this essay was adapted.
When i first arrived in South Africa, in 2009, it still felt as if a storm had just swept through. For most of the 20th century, the country was the world’s most fastidiously organized white-supremacist state. And then, in one election, in 1994, it became the first modern nation where people of color who’d been dispossessed for centuries would make the laws, run the economy, write the news, decide what history to teach—and wield political dominance over a substantial white minority. Unlike in other postcolonial African countries, white South Africans—about 15 percent of the population—were suddenly governed by the people whom they and their forebears had oppressed.
Over the decade I lived in South Africa, I became fascinated by this white minority, particularly its members who considered themselves progressive. They reminded me of my liberal peers in America, who had an apparently self-assured enthusiasm about the coming of a so-called majority-minority nation. As with white South Africans who had celebrated the end of apartheid, their enthusiasm often belied, just beneath the surface, a striking degree of fear, bewilderment, disillusionment, and dread.
The story of white settlement in South Africa has uncanny parallels with U.S. history. In the late 1600s, a group of predominantly Dutch-descended settlers started arriving by boat from Europe. After a century and a half working on semifeudal wine estates under the command of the Dutch and then the British, a band of them, now known as Afrikaners, decided to assert a new pioneer identity. Thousands set out for the interior in ox wagons. Their guiding dream, they declared in a newspaper-printed manifesto, was to uphold “the just principles of liberty.” On the frontier, they set up a host of small, independent republics with constitutions modeled on America’s. Many believed that they had been sent by God to tame a new world—Africa’s own version of Manifest Destiny.
After taking the reins of the government of South Africa—which amalgamated the Afrikaner republics and several British colonies—in the mid-20th century, white leaders began to legalize segregation under the term apartheid. They sent emissaries to the U.S. to study the Jim Crow South, which they used as a model for their own regime. Hermann Giliomee, a historian of the Afrikaners, told me that when the South Africans saw Alabama’s segregated buses and colleges, “they thought to themselves, Eureka!”
Apartheid completely partitioned South Africa by race and reserved the best jobs and land for white people. The system endured until the 1990s, when, thanks to a sustained effort by the African National Congress (ANC), it crumbled. Sometimes I like to tell people that South Africa, very loosely, collapses hundreds of years of American history—from the antebellum period, through the end of Jim Crow, and well into our future—into about 50. For being such a tragedy, apartheid seemed to have a miraculous conclusion—a rapid and peaceful end that spared even the defeated oppressors.
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