I have been writing a piece comparing whiteness and race relations in the United States of America and South Africa. Almost all theoretical writings on whiteness originate in the US. This is the theoretical toolbox we use when writing about whiteness in South Africa. However, I find that there are considerable pitfalls when we try to do so.
Let me just analyze one such pitfall, and arguably the most important one. In South Africa, Africans have always been a majority. The white colonial masters were always a minority who had to rely on the suppression and cooperation of the majority. Even at the height of dominance, control was rather tenuous. Today, as Africans make inroads into many areas of South African life in which they are a minority, they do so from a numerical and political position of strength. In contrast, on the Northamerican continent, the descendants of African slaves are a minority that struggles to be accepted as equal. In this quest, they are very much dependent on the white majority. Inclusion into the mainstream is a slow process and remains arduous.
Dynamics of relations and the politics of race proceed along different avenues. In Northamerica, it seems to me that affirmative action cannot be discussed beyond the two camps, either for or against. What should be serious discussion about how people live together degenerates into political bickering, replete with suspicion and grand-standing.
In contrast, the South African public debate on affirmative action and race shows intriguing levels of maturity. Over the last week, public commentators and newspaper editors discussed the effects of racial politics without the usual labels of reactionary, right wing and so on bandied about but by the most ideological and narrow-minded commentators. The aversion to enforced racial apartheid awareness leaves many with a deep suspicion of racial arguments and politics. Indeed, this is ground for hope that something new will come out of South Africa, despite the continuing legacy of apartheid.