Mandela’s Non-Racialism

We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

                                    —  Nelson Mandela, Presidential Inaugural Address, 1994

The Issue

Section 1 of Chapter 1 of South Africa’s democratic constitution proclaims “non-racialism” as a founding value.  Nelson Mandela did not invent the idea, but he did make sure it was featured in the constitution. Meant less as a description of South African reality than an ideal, non-racialism was a promise about the future and a measure of the progress that remains to be made in the country.  But what was the promise of “non-racialism”?  Was it, as white skeptics suspected, a ruse all along?  Was it, as Africanists accuse, a sell-out designed to accommodate privileged whites to democracy at the expense of Africans?   Was it something in-between or, more hopefully, something different from what its critics allege?


Mandela’s basic definition of non-racialism was straightforward and familiar.  Non-racialism was the universalist and conventional liberal demand for equality under law and in citizenship.  Mandela required, therefore, that race be rendered immaterial: in the constitution, law, and formal political institutions—no small ambition given the backdrop.  Non-racialism meant reversing the trajectory of South African history, politics, economy, society, and culture; but the benefits were worth the effort.  South Africa got democracy, international acclaim, and the hope of a bright future, and it escaped the oppression of apartheid, international condemnation, and the prospect of racial apocalypse.  Mandela hoped, however, for more.  Equality in law and citizenship for Mandela was both an end in itself and the springboard to higher ends.

Minimally, non-racialism proscribes official racialism.  But granting that non-racialism means equality under the law, what does it say about the role race would play in South African politics?  Non-racialism means establishing colorblind state institutions; but refusing to represent race formally in official institutions does not necessarily prevent race from playing an informal role in politics. Non-racialism, in other words, leaves ample room for mobilizing, exploiting, and manipulating racial identities, solidarities, and resentments.  Mandela himself, of course, refused to appeal to racial fears, hatred, and prejudice.  But he did affirm racial solidarities (he headed the African National Congress) and did not aspire to outgrow racial consciousness.  What, then, was the non-racial state to do besides ignoring officially the significance of race in the name of democratic equality?

Maximally, Mandela’s political practice was aimed at achieving two additional benefits.  First, he wanted South Africans to become one nation bound together under a common identity and by a sense of shared destiny.  But because Mandela could not assume that a united people would spring spontaneously from shared cultural identities, the new people had to be made.  Acting through the color blind state, non-racialism would construct the non-racial nation.  But if Mandela’s non-racial state was to carry the burden of unifying South Africa’s several races and many ethnicities into a single people that would not be identified or defined by race, the new state would have to be non-racial in a substantive, and not merely nominal way.  Mandela’s aspirations to build the non-racial people, therefore, entailed practicing genuinely non-racial politics, even though he had no means of preventing the ANC from resorting to racialist politics and even though he dallied with “positive” racialism himself.

Second, Mandela wanted to de-racialize the economy.  Dreams of a non-racial people were sincere and comforting, but they would not amount to much as long as South Africa’s extreme inequality and deep poverty endured.  What could it mean to talk of South Africans as belonging to one nation made up of mutuality and interdependence if half of the population lived in dire want and the top fraction in luxury?  And how could non-racialism thrive given that these injustices originated in racism?  While South Africa’s upper and middle classes have become blacker, they remain disproportionately white.  Meanwhile, the poor remain overwhelmingly African (and Coloured), belying promises of unity and common destiny.  While Africanists conclude that racial empowerment is the route to African prosperity, the logic of Mandela’s thought points in a different direction.  The objective is alleviating poverty and inequality, not racializing the state.

Non-racialism is not, in other words, merely the courtesy of according to whites the dignity that white supremacy had denied to blacks, of not turning the tables on the former oppressors.[1]  The non-racial state, nation, and economy must walk hand-in-hand if real freedom is to be reached.  Making that point from the dock in his 1962 trial (not a venue conducive to feel-good politics), Mandela articulated the core of non-racialism.  The ANC, he declared, “believed that all people, irrespective of the colour of their skins, all people whose home is South Africa and who believe in the principles of democracy and of equality of men should be treated as Africans; that all South Africans are entitled to live a free life on the basis of fullest equality of the rights and opportunities in every field, of full democratic rights, with a direct say in the affairs of the Government.”[2] Non-racialism and democracy are two sides of the same coin.


Defining Racism and Racialism

Nelson Mandela is revered as the personification of grace.  His deep humanity and generosity of spirit are credited with guiding South Africa from the horrors of apartheid to the promised land of democracy. Certainly, credit is due to Mandela’s character for setting the example of forgiving, reconciling, and unifying; but his political choices are explained also by his political commitments.  Throughout his political life, Mandela operated with an understanding—an evolving but, ultimately, a theoretically consistent one—of what he meant by “race,” where he thought race came from, where race should not matter, and where it may matter.  Although the terms of his thought often remained implicit, making them explicit unveils a principled political thinker. Befitting a political activist, the details of Mandela’s politics of race developed in response to changing political circumstances and accumulated experience.  But they also were informed by coherent principles of what he called “non-racial democracy.”  Mandela insisted on writing non-racial principles into South Africa’s democratic constitution; on that point he was uncompromising.  But did Mandela’s “non-racialism” mean that “race” does not exist, that it should not exist (which presupposes, of course, that it does exist), or something more modest, more classically liberal?  Under Mandela’s non-racial regime, would it be possible that race could reign in some spheres but not in others?  If so, how was acceptable racialism to be differentiated from unacceptable racialism?  And what distinguished “non-racialism” from forthright rejection of racism?  If Mandela had no truck with racism, why did he bother calling his politics “non-racial”?  What was the purchase of rejecting “racialism” in addition to “racism”?

Racism is defined in many ways.  But if the goal is to get at differences with “racialism,” it helps to identify racism as the assertion by one group of people (usually whites) of their human superiority over other groups on the basis of differences in their “races.” Setting out from the proposition that one race is “better” than others, racists demand that the “worthier” group be installed over the “inferior” to manifest objectively and externally the differences that originate in race.  Supremacy in power attests to superiority in worth, and subordinating the lesser group confirms its inferiority.  For racists, in other words, hierarchies reflect rather than cause racial inequalities.  Political and economic privileges merely accord whites their due, which they deserved before they were manifested in institutions.  Clearly, Mandela rejected racist domination.  But if apartheid was racism institutionalized, why did Mandela talk about “non-racialism”?

The answer is that apartheid was both racist and racialist.  Where racists demand that superiority be translated into supremacy and inferiority into subordination, racialists adopt a different agenda.  They do not necessarily demand inequality (although they often practice it).  But they necessarily do demand recognition of difference.  For both racialists and racists, races are hubs of human society, but racialists derive what seems to be a less offensive conclusion from the centrality of race to human society.  Instead of having to assert that one race is better than another, racialists may assert that each race has its own ways, cultures, values, and solidarities, much like nations.  Wanting different things, races quarrel and clash if they are lumped together in the same political institutions, and their conflicts are worsened because values are associated with races, preventing them from agreeing on common standards and authorities for adjudicating their differences.  Better, racialists argue, to keep races apart.  Like nations, races belong in countries of their own; and, if intermixing makes it impossible to separate them territorially into different states, races require official recognition in political institutions.  The old American segregationist demand of “separate but equal” was racist in intent, but it was racialist in sentiment.  It obscured the demand for supremacy in the fog of false equality.

Apartheid South Africa, of course, was systematically racist in practice.  But in ideology and political organization it was racialist.  Apartheid was committed not only to the racist domination over blacks, but also to the racialist separation of blacks from whites (and of blacks from each other).  Casting the oppression of “separate development” as conventional nationalism, apartheid ideology refuted—on racialist grounds—any charge that its denial of equality to Africans constituted racism.  Africans, it maintained, were denied equality in citizenship not because they were inferior, as racists would have it, but because they were different, foreign, as racialists would say.  After all, Africans had homeland states of their own where they belonged, or so Nationalist politicians habitually proclaimed. Nobody expected South Africa to accord equal rights to Austrians, so why to the Xhosa?

Racialism, therefore, carried a specific opprobrium for Mandela.  White racism, as he often noted, was grounded neither in nature nor social convention, but in state power; and state power was organized by racialism, which made racialism the linchpin of apartheid.  Mandela’s demand for non-racialism was aimed, therefore, at the political and ideological foundations of apartheid.  It required the apartheid state to shed its explicitly racial definition as the state of the white nation by opening citizenship equally to all South Africans without regard to race.  In demanding the de-racializing of both state and citizens, his non-racialism meant to cut the legs from racism.  By contrast to the white supremacist state, Mandela’s “non-racial” state had no “color” itself and was colorblind when viewing citizens.  His words at from the 1962 trial once more are illuminating: “We were inspired by the idea of bringing into being a democratic republic where all South Africans will enjoy human rights without the slightest discrimination; where African and non-African would be able to live together in peace, sharing a common nationality and a common loyalty to this country, which is our homeland.”[3]  Of course, it is one thing to officially propound the colorblind oneness of people in law, but it is another to achieve it in reality.


Race and Nation in Non-Racialism

Thus far, the idea of non-racialism sounds conventionally liberal. It prohibited states from having racial identities and conceived of citizenship as independent of race.  In this, Mandela’s colorblind, non-racialism resembled Europe’s liberal solution to the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Faced with terrible devastation and the specter of incessant warfare as states sought to spread—or protect—their religions, Europe began in the middle of the seventeenth century to grope toward the solution of religious toleration.  Over time, Protestants and Catholics became indistinguishable in the law as Europeans made religion a matter of personal conscience, not of state interest.  States deemed religion as beyond their purview.  In effect, religion was privatized.

Liberal societies separate church from state, but they do not seek to outlaw or abolish religions.  Indeed, the self-same principles that prohibit states from acting on behalf of or contrary to specific religions also—because the state is “blind” to religion—permit believers to use their faith to influence state policies (rather like a one-way mirror).  The liberal state may not cite the teachings of the Catholic Church when, for example, setting its polices on abortion, but it must allow Catholics animated by those teachings to act as citizens.  Privatizing religion, in other words, separates state from church, but it leaves standing the right and ability of citizens to make both personal and political choices on the basis of their religious convictions.  The American state may not recognize the special claims of Judaism as a religious faith; but it may respond to the urgings of Jews to support the state of Israel diplomatically.

The liberal model of privatizing religion dovetails neatly with “non-racialism,” a distinctly South African term that dated to the Cape Colony in the nineteenth century.  When coined, the “Cape non-racial franchise” used tests of property and education to restrict the ballot in elections to the colony’s parliament.  Although these restrictions were inflected with race in that they were measures of “white” civilization, the tests were “non-racial” in that they were not denominated racially.  If blacks met them, then they were “civilized.”  Under the “non-racial” franchise, some men of mixed race and a smattering of African men were permitted to vote. Subsequently, the term “non-racial” was revived by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in the 1920s, but it was redefined.  Acting under the instructions of the Comintern, Communists demanded universal, colorblind suffrage, with the intention of turning South Africa into a “Native Republic.”  If the vote were to be allocated universally without regard to race, the CPSA reckoned, the normal workings of majority rule government would produce a government controlled by Africans.  Then, Africans could infuse democratic forms with racial content (much as the overwhelmingly white franchise of the time infused government with the racial interests and sensibilities of whites), before eventually jettisoning bourgeois rule and proceeding to the second stage of the revolution by establishing socialism.  The third main iteration of non-racialism issued from Mandela’s generation in the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) in the early years of apartheid.  The ANCYL called for de-racializing politics through the colorblind franchise, to the obvious benefit of the African majority.  When the mainstays of the ANCYL graduated to lead the ANC in the mid-50s, the ANC likewise raised non-racial democracy into a cardinal political value.[4]

Mandela infused South African definitions of non-racialism with the lessons drawn from the European treatment of religion by seeking the abolition of the official, legal status of race.  But much as liberal societies must allow religious convictions to influence politics as long as they are expressed through institutions that remain formally neutral to religions, so Mandela’s non-racial state may be infused with racial politics.  As long as racialism is not institutionalized officially, the non-racial state must tolerate it.  Because quintessentially liberal, Mandela’s non-racialism permits informally what it must prohibit formally.  Consequently, the racialism of the majority may take the cover of non-racial democracy.

Neither in his writings, nor in his practice, did Mandela ever offer a solution to the problem.  He rejected racial segregation, separate development, and racial hierarchies, but he accepted that race has value. He routinely referred to “my people,” and he meant Africans.  It never occurred to Mandela that non-racialism obligated him to conceal his sense of specific solidarity with other Africans or to conceive of South Africans abstractly, as apart from their race. Announcing that he held his “African heritage dearly”[5] and expecting others to feel the same about theirs, Mandela made a point of respecting the tribal (or ethnic) and racial backgrounds of all South Africans. He celebrated his Xhosa heritage, he took pride in his father’s role as a hereditary councilor to the chief, he acknowledged his debt to his elders for the lessons they imparted about governing and leadership, and he identified with “[his] own kith and kin.”[6]  Nevertheless, Mandela learned from his experiences after settling in Johannesburg in the 1940s to sublimate his original Xhosa identity into the African identity that was then burgeoning.  Although he retained personal and cultural allegiances to his tribal traditions, Mandela declared, for political purposes, his loyalty to Africans: “It was this desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life.”[7]  His non-racialism did not, in other words, prevent Mandela from “seeing” the fact of race or his duty to his race.  Mandela’s duty, as he makes explicit in his autobiography, “was to [his] people as a whole.”[8]

Mandela, feeling his personal identity was steeped in tribe and his political loyalty in race, took the point a step further. He distrusted those South Africans, including some of his comrades, who lacked his sense of roots.  The elderly Mandela recalled his meetings with Communists when he first became involved in political struggle: “I was impressed by the members of the Communist Party.  To see whites who were totally divested of colour consciousness was a new experience to me. [I]t was interesting.”  If Mandela regarded race as a problem that was to be overcome, or merely as an attachment that was to be embraced or dropped according to personal preference, he would praise white Communists for rejecting racial privilege and then move on.  But he takes the insight in the opposite direction.  It was “interesting” for Communists to divest themselves of color consciousness, he reflects in Conversations with Myself, but “I wouldn’t say it was liberating.  And that is why I attacked the communists . . .   I thought Marxism was something that actually was subjecting us to a foreign ideology.”[9] A lifetime later, in other words, Mandela attributed his disagreements with Communists not to their views on class, economy, democracy, or scientific socialism, but to their indifference to the distinctively South African mix of color and culture—both politically and personally.  Their indifference to inherited cultural traditions was for him “foreign” to what it means to be South African.  Thus even though he rejected racism categorically, Mandela did not contemplate South Africa without racial consciousness.

If non-racialism did not mandate Mandela to ignore race when he assessed other South Africans and permitted stronger bonds with some South Africans than with others because of race, non-racialism nevertheless did prescribe a spirit of rapprochement and generosity. All South Africans were affirmed as full members in democratic South Africa: “[T]o be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects the freedom of others.”[10] Embracing Africans did not mean excluding non-Africans. If Africans were to follow the example of white supremacy by privileging their racial solidarities over attachments to the South African people, then Africans would forfeit their freedom too: “I know as well as I know anything that the oppressors must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed”.[11]  While attributable to his personal grace and humanity, Mandela’s inclusiveness also reflected his political principles.  Mandela ministered to the cultural identities of all South Africans because he appreciated that they were held dearly and he respected those holding them. But he could afford to affirm all cultural identities, including those of whites, because he rejected the racialist precept that derives fundamental political allegiances from culture. Because he separated the cultural from the political, Mandela could embrace all of South Africa’s cultural identities without ratifying rival political allegiances.

Conventionally, liberals conceive of nations as ethnic groups that, having become conscious of themselves as nations, demand the rights and prerogatives that are due nations.  But liberals are uncomfortable with where their ideas about the origins of nations might lead.  If ethnic groups produce nations and ethnic groups originate in perceptions of common descent and blood, then liberal conceptions almost inevitably head toward exclusionary conceptions of the most sovereign political identities.  Consequently, liberals muddy their causality by substituting culture for ethnicity.  They have cultures, which often are euphemisms for ethnic groups, defining, fleshing out, and softening the identities that are at the heart of nations.  Once sanitized, liberals then institutionalize “cultural identities” as nations. It is eloquent, therefore, that Mandela (along with much of his generation of the ANC) took a different and, potentially, more radically inclusive track.  Rather than attributing causal power to racial cultures, Mandela and his cohort vested the politically decisive power to construct identities in political struggle and the state.  Mandela’s non-racialism could celebrate cultural identities, therefore, precisely because the state is the substructure that gives substance to and upholds the nation.  In other words, Mandela needs the non-racial state to create the non-racial nation.

Mandela effectively broadened the CPSA’s definition of non-racialism.  Where in the 1920s the CPSA took for granted that Africans would graft their culture onto the state, Africanizing the state and then socializing the economy.  Mandela envisioned a common citizenship that would expand membership in the nation by incorporating South Africa’s various cultural identities.  The logic of Mandela’s idea derived from the ANCYL in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  It recognized that “Africans” were born into and reared in tribes, not into races, but the ANCYL’s creed, as Mandela remarked, was “the creation of one nation out of many tribes.”[12] While tribes were seen as elemental, the African race had to be created. Unlike standard nationalists, therefore, the ANC never posited its nation as eternal and primordial.  Instead of being given “spontaneously” by culture, the African nation for the ANCYL of Mandela’s early years in Johannesburg had to be constructed deliberately and politically if it was to supplant tribes in the affections of Africans. The job of the nationalist organization, of the ANC, was to create the African nation.  As the theorist of nationalism, Ernest Gellner, puts it, nationalism “invents nations where they do not exist.”[13]

Before apartheid was instituted in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the ANC debated whether the African nation was the amalgamation of integral tribes, as if a confederation, or whether it circumvented tribes by integrating Africans directly.  As Mandela summarized the ANCYL’s position: “We were not different people with separate languages; we were one people, with different tongues.”[14] The ANCYL’s effort to surpass tribes, or more precisely, to elevate the African nation for political purposes over the tribe, was assisted by the experience of white supremacy. The violence, land confiscations, coerced labor, disenfranchisements, and daily humiliations that issued from the white state had the unintended effects of forging race into the dominant political identity for Africans and of hoisting it above the cultural identity of tribe.  Mandela drew the lesson: “To be an African in South Africa means that one is politicised from the moment of one’s birth, whether one acknowledges it or not.  An African child is born in an Africans Only hospital, taken home in an Africans Only bus, lives in an Africans Only area, and attends Africans Only schools, if he attends school at all.”[15] Individuals may remain committed to tribal traditions for sentimental reasons, but apartheid raised race above tribe:  “I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did”.[16]

Mandela’s later non-racialism expanded the logic of his early ANCYL politics. Just as for the ANCYL of the 1940s and 1950s the injustices of the racist state and the political struggles against it created the African nation, which eclipsed older allegiances, so for the ANC of Mandela’s maturity the non-racial nation (theoretically at least) eclipsed the African nation because of struggles for and experiences in the democratic state. In both cases, the more parochial identity is superseded for political purposes, and in both cases the medium of change is political struggle and experiences of legal regimes, not cultural evolution.  As Africans became Africans through apartheid’s racialism, so South Africans would become non-racial first by building and then by experiencing the reality of the new non-racial state.   South Africans would remain African, Indian, Coloured, or white, but these all would become ways of being South African.  Non-racial South Africa would have black and white South Africans, but not South African blacks and South African whites.

An irresolvable problem, therefore, threaded through Mandela’s thinking and political legacy.  His vision of the non-racial nation required the state to be more than nominally non-racial. If the state is to nurture non-racial South Africans, it must interpellate and encourage them as South Africans, not reinforce their racial particularity through a “non-racialism” that is merely perfunctory.  Mandela did make important exceptions to the official non-recognition of race for affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).  Because they were designed to make economic elites more representative racially, these policies necessarily register race for the purpose of redressing racial inequalities.  But notwithstanding the objections from some whites that they amount to the rejection of non-racial liberalism, BEE and affirmative action were meant as exceptions to the rule.  The greater problem for Mandela’s ideal of non-racialism was the value he conferred on racial feelings.  First, he took them as a precious part of the identities of South Africans; then, he had to blunt their impact on the activity of the state if he was to turn the non-racial state into the engine driving the new non-racial nation—and he had to draw the sting from race without impairing the ANC’s electoral prospects. The contradiction in Mandela’s non-racialism is that, in respecting racial feelings, he preserved them for political mobilization.

It is a canon of democracy that citizens may act on the basis of “private” identities and solidarities.  Although committed to the full equality of South Africans of all races, Mandela’s non-racialism, therefore, exposed South African politics to the danger of tacit, unofficial racialism. Parties could not be prevented from constructing a political majority on the basis of race, or even be compelled to honor non-racial niceties. Non-racialism must allow de facto what it must rule out de jure. To the extent the government succumbs to the temptation of racialism, it violates the promises the constitution makes to all South Africans, especially racial minorities, about full inclusion, and ditches the project of constructing the non-racial nation.


The Racialism in Non-Racialism

Mandela’s non-racialism is liberal in how it treats the rights, powers, and prerogatives of races and nations, but not in how it conceives of the origins of races and nations.  Although drawing from the historical experience of South Africans, it resembles the power politics tradition in sociology exemplified by Max Weber and Charles Tilly.  Weber and Tilly, instead of having cultural entities produce nations that then express themselves in states, have states making nations.[17] Their “national” identities grow from encounters with state power that usually, but not always, align identities with the need of states for legitimacy, as was the case for whites under apartheid.  But even though Weber and Tilly postulate that states usually mold identities in service of state power, they clearly open the possibility that those disenfranchised from the state would form “national” identities in opposition to state power on the basis of their disenfranchisement. In other words, national identities may grow through resistance to state power, as happened with Africans in South Africa.

Reflecting this experience, Mandela’s nation does not originate in ethnicity, culture, or even race, and then, through the process of nationalist struggle awaken to demand the political rights and prerogatives that twentieth-century politics accorded to nations. Mandela’s African nation, in other words, was made negatively through struggle against the state and his non-racial democractic nation was to be made positively through the state.[18] Neither nation was made “spontaneously” by culture. As the ANCYL of Mandela’s youth had derived Africanness less from the cultural affinities of Africans than from their shared confrontation with white domination, thus tying racial identities to political and economic experiences and resistance,[19] so the older Mandela thought that constituting the new state would produce the different experiences of power, enfranchisement, and economy that would yield the new nation. Extrapolating from the example of apartheid’s racializing of  whites and blacks by racializing state and law, Mandela projected that substituting non-racial law for racial law would materialize universal citizenship and, in time, build common identities.  Instead of serving as the repository of the old, Mandela’s non-racial state would give birth to the new. Changing the practices of power changes national consciousness.  Mandela’s ambitions hinged, therefore, on the state making good faith efforts to keep race out of politics and policies.

Consequently, Mandela was caught in an inescapable dilemma.  Non-racialism is democracy, but in empowering citizens to act on preferences and priorities of their choice, democracy may subvert non-racial inclusion. If citizens choose to racialize politics, it is hard to stop them.  South Africa’s constitution declares non-racial values and prohibits racial tests, but democracy necessarily opens opportunities for racialism, providing that it is expressed informally, unofficially, and implicitly.  As the United State constitution does not prohibit, and cannot prevent, Catholics from factoring their views on abortion into their votes for president, so the South African constitution does not regulate the role of racial feelings in political choices. As illustrated by Mandela’s presidency, sincere non-racialists are duty-bound to demonstrate respect for minorities.  But Mandela only could set the example; he could not prevent his successors from playing on racialism for their own purposes.

Non-racial political institutions, in refusing to inflate the representation of ethnic and racial minorities, empower electoral majorities to govern regardless of their racial composition. If it can corner the African vote, therefore, the ANC may govern without the co-operation of parties that represent minorities. The demand for free elections to non-racial political institutions, in other words, advances the political advantage of the ANC as well as democratic principles. Seeing itself as the representative of the African people, the ANC reckoned that the principle of majority rule would yield the reality of ANC government.  But Mandela neglected this codicil to his non-racialism, with an important implication. Because the colorblind constitution ignores incentives for racial voting, it does not balance them institutionally. Paradoxically, then, non-racialism may produce its opposite.  Non-racial institutions may reward racial politics.

The critique of many whites of Mandela’s non-racialism is that “non-racial” elections amount to racial censuses.[20] The large African majority is fixed by race, and exerts itself in each and every election without having to be assembled and re-assembled one election at a time. The raw demographic fact of the African majority, therefore, combines with non-racial institutions to consign the white, Coloured, and Asian minorities to political irrelevance.  The counterpoint to Mandela’s non-racialism fails, however, for two reasons. First, democratic South Africa is capitalist, business is a source of power in capitalist societies, and South African businesses mostly are owned and controlled by whites, albeit decreasingly.  The ANC and Africans cannot be all-powerful as long as the economy is capitalist, both because whites hold economic power and because capital acts on interests and exerts a logic that are independent of identity.  Even if Africans do control the state, they would not control the economy—and the economy is a source of political power. Second, the African majority is not given automatically by demography.  Just because Africans constitute the majority racially does not mean they necessarily constitute the majority electorally.  Tribe, class, region, ideology, or any number of factors might split the racial “majority.” Something must convert the racial majority into a political majority and then cement it.

Ironically, what cemented the racial majority into the political majority was the bargain that ended apartheid. The apartheid state could not defeat the broad coalition of township organizations, “non-racial” labor unions, and black youth that rebelled in the 1980s.  But the mass movement could not defeat the repressive and administrative power of the apartheid state either.  Asthe deadlock dragged on, South African businesses paid a rising price. Deteriorating political conditions caused shrinking profits, high inflation, and frequent strikes, and exposed apartheid as incapable of articulating a framework for resolving the crisis in the political economy.  In response, South Africa’s large, highly concentrated, and vastly influential monopolies began exploring whether the ANC, in the event it were to become the government, would protect the system of capitalism and the special needs of monopolies.  The ANC’s answers swayed the monopolies, the monopolies defected from the apartheid coalition, and the deadlock between apartheid and the mass movement broke.

In exchange for acquiescing to a conventional democratic system that would be based on the principle of one-adult, one-vote, one-value and that would not bless racial minorities with special powers and vetoes, monopolies got the commitments they demanded from the ANC.  Reflecting the balance of power when it was negotiated, the bargain entrenched property rights (including those acquired through apartheid); it affirmed markets in principle but did little to make them competitive in practice; it guaranteed an independent reserve bank; and it recognized the specific economic needs of business, which culminated in the neo-liberal policies that were instituted soon after the ANC assumed office.  The deal was clinched with appeals to black identity in the form of Black Economic Empowerment: the very proposal for legitimating South African capitalism that the monopolies had been peddling since the mid-80s.[21]

The concessions exacted by business prevented Mandela’s non-racial vision from being realized economically.  The black middle classes are still continuing to grow and the state is boosting new black economic elites.  But Mandela’s objective was not to promote African middle and upper classes while turning attention from the problems of the poor.  While committed to promoting racially representative economic elites, he wanted urgently to narrow inequalities and to eliminate poverty.  In his inaugural address, after all, he followed the call to “act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world” with the call for “work, bread, water and salt for all.” In tying the economic objectives to the objective of building the new united South African people, Mandela signaled that the economy was not to be transformed on a racial basis.  The non-racial state and the non-racial economy were for Mandela interdependent; neither stood without assistance from the other. The tragedy of Mandela’s vision is that the very same deal that delivered South Africa from apartheid by sustaining South Africa’s basic economic structure inadvertently undid the non-racial vision.

Attempts to de-racialize the economy—for example, the Reconstruction and Development Programme, which was essentially the ANC’s election platform for the 1994 election—were frustrated by the undertakings the ANC made to property rights, markets, and neo-liberal policies.  In 2006, after twelve years of ANC government, economic inequality had increased.  The gini coefficient, the standard measure of inequality, rose from .57 in 1995, about the highest in the world, to .63 in 2009.  The income share that is held by the top 10% of the population grew from 45% to 52%.  Commensurately, the income share of the poorest 20% shrank from 3.6% to 2.7% and the share of the next poorest 20% shrank from 6% to 4.6%.  Not only have the poorer and the poorest been squeezed since the advent of democracy, but the middle 20% of the population has lost ground too.  Its earnings slipped from 10% to 8% of national income.  Compensating for these losses, the government initiated transfer programs.  Accordingly, the percentage of the population living on $1.25 or less per day has shrunk from 21% to 14% and the percentage living on $2.00 or less from 40% to 31%.[22]  But, these countermeasures notwithstanding, the failure to reduce poverty much and inequality at all inevitably compromises non-racial politics.  As the commitments to redistribution floundered, the ANC was sent searching for new strategies for winning popular support, particularly once Mandela retired. Inadvertently, the economic terms that conciliated monopolies to democratic government also gave the ANC reason to re-racialize South African politics.


The Non-Racial Economy and the Non-Racial Nation

The best arguments for Mandela’s non-racialism are those against it.  “Liberals” complain that Mandela’s non-racialism is illusory, that the ANC used to talk a good game but that its rhetoric, strategies, bases of support, and ploys betray the racialism that lurked behind the facade of non-racialism.  Africanists such as Thabo Mbeki and Julius Malema accuse non-racialists of favoring racial reconciliation over transformation, of protecting the privileges whites hoarded from apartheid in the name of non-racialism.  Reversing the liberal charge, Africanists blame non-racialism for blunting transformation.  They do make one essential point.  Economic inequality and poverty are pervasive, unjust, and associated with race.  But they disagree with Mandela on the pivotal issue.  Where Mandela believed that the non-racial state and non-racial economy complete each other, as equality in one reinforces equality in the other, Africanists counter that the non-racial state shields the economic privileges of whites.  It follows for Africanists that Africanizing the state would Africanize the economy to the benefit of all Africans (and not just the economic elites they would create).

The Africanist argument fails too.  Africanization neither necessarily harms the monopolies nor necessarily helps the poor. Africanists of all stripes equate the interests of “members” of the race with those of the “race” itself.  Since the end of apartheid, African middle and upper classes have grown substantially, raising the mean income of Africans (which is good) and widening economic inequality among Africans dramatically (which is inevitable).  The percentage of Africans living in poverty has declined significantly but not dramatically.  The blind spot for Africanists is that continuing widespread poverty is not inconsistent with economic strategies that prioritize racial empowerment over reducing poverty and narrowing economic inequality.

Africanists maintain that empowering African elites benefits the African poor.  Ignoring the obvious problem that racially empowered elites develop distinct class interests of their own and might use their influence to pursue these newfound interests to the detriment of those they claim to represent, Africanists take for granted that racial solidarities cause racial elites to advance the priorities of more vulnerable Africans.  But even if racial elites do remember the poor, their commitment to constructing African economic elites elevates their interests over those of the poor.  Originally, racial elites were justified as servants of the people.  Then, through the magic of racialism, the relationship is reversed.  Because the general interests of the race trump the particular interests of individual “members” of the race, actual people must sacrifice for the good of the race—for, in other words, the elites that ostensibly represent the race.  The interests of the black poor, therefore, are suspended to the advantage of black elites—in the name, of course, of the real interests of the poor.

Racialization sidelines the interests of the poor in another way too.  Democracy should help the African poor by allowing them to demand the attention of government.  In exchange for votes, elected officials respond to citizens.  But racializing politics downgrades the importance of achieving economic gains.  If the post-Mandela ANC can win elections on the basis of racial solidarities and memories, and if the ANC enters into alliance with the monopoly sector of business, whose structural power now is augmented by the influence of black economic elites inside the ANC, then pressure on the ANC to deliver material improvements to the poor diminishes. With racialism staving off economic demands from the poor, the ANC can concentrate on reassuring those with economic power.

Contrary to the fears of white liberals and the promises of Africanists, then, the foremost victims of the ANC’s racialism are poor Africans.  The proof is that, in spite of minimal improvements in the poverty rate under ANC government, the ANC’s margin of victory in national elections has not suffered (from 63% in 1994 to 66% in 1999 to 70% in 2004 to 66% in 2009).  More perversely, racialism preserves economic grievances for exploiting.  Stagnation for the poor majority of Africans becomes grist for more racialism.  The poor are translated into racialist demands, and then are forgotten.


Why Non-Racialism Endures as a Value

What has Mandela’s non-racialism amounted to?  Has it accomplished common citizenship, fostered common national identity, and equalized economic opportunities?  The record is mixed.  Racial apocalypse was avoided, constitutional government prevails, the economy grows, and the ideal of inclusive citizenship contributes to normalizing South African politics.  But poverty endures, economic inequalities are widening even as economic elites are being Africanized, and the ANC is resorting to racialist political tactics and strategies.  While the reality falls short of the ideal, the more realistic questions are, politically, whether South Africa is moving toward or away from Mandela’s ideal and, theoretically, whether common citizenship really can inspire common identities.  Is Mandela’s ideal feasible?

The answer to the theoretical question is that the hypothesis has not been tested.  The idea that collective identities derive from political practices and experiences of state power gets ample support from South African history.  Mandela can explain the supremely important fact of twentieth-century South African politics that racial identities surpassed “tribal” ones for Africans and “ethnic” ones for whites. Hoping to extend the logic to incubate the universal nation, Mandela planned on using equal citizenship in the non-racial state to grow the non-racial nation.  He had few other options. Without the common nation, Mandela recognized, South Africa would remain mired in racialism and racism, and cultural differences meant South Africa was without alternative sources for universal identities.  But even though Mandela’s hopes are disappointed by widespread and frequent recourse to de facto racialism by subsequent governments, his views about the origins of nationalist identities have not been invalidated.  Mandela’s dream of one South African nation united in purpose rested on the premise that the state would be committed sincerely to non-racialism.  If the premise does not obtain because the colorblind state is effectively racialist, then Mandela’s logic may hold in principle yet fail in practice.

Politically, the racialism of Mandela’s successors substantiates his warnings.  Of course, there is no knowing whether the government would have lessened poverty substantially if it had not dabbled in African racialism.  Allaying poverty and reducing economic inequality are difficult, and governments often fail in spite of their best efforts.  But the prospects of relieving poverty and narrowing inequalities diminish when government de-emphasizes the importance of distributing wealth downward by favoring the interests of racial elites.  In vesting the fate of the race in “its” elites, racialists ride on the shoulders of a class whose economic interests align more closely with those of monopolies than with the African poor. The strategy of Africanizing elites does respond, however, to the ANC’s need for new, non-redistributive appeals for winning popular support after it lost the charisma of Mandela.  With the power of capital entrenched through the deal that ended apartheid and reinforced through BEE, the new dispensation alters the racial complexion of South African monopolies but does not change their practices.  Recruited and integrated into the existing corporate structures in South Africa, black economic elites bolster the structure of monopoly capitalism.

The deal ending apartheid compromised Mandela’s vision of non-racialism.  The society inherited by the democratic government was highly unequal, the inequality was highly racialized, and poverty was vast and racialized too, which encouraged the ANC to opt for perfunctory definitions of non-racialism.  As past meanings of non-racialism had evolved in response to changes in South Africa’s political context, so non-racialism now is being re-defined to straddle the shortfall between transformative promises and disappointing realities. Mandela meant non-racialism to work differently.  The unified nation would lure political parties from representing racial groups into satisfying popular demands.  If parties are rewarded for responding effectively to the poverty that burdens most South Africans and are punished for responding ineffectively, government becomes accountable.  Mandela’s non-racial state and non-racial economy, in other words, depend on each other. If democracy is emancipated from racial politics, it opens the state to addressing the concerns of the people; but if democracy remains associated with racialism, the poor lose the opportunity for political redress.  Racialism represents the alternative to, not the condition of, transformation.

Why, if they have come to be honored in their breach by his successors, do Mandela’s views on non-racialism matter?   The answer is that they provide the standard for measuring the achievements and shortcomings of South Africa’s democracy.  While cherishing race as central to his identity and to the South African tapestry, and while affirming through his charm and persona the belonging of all South Africans, Mandela’s non-racialism did preserve race for political mobilization.  Fully committed to the cause of democratic freedom and economic equality in South Africa, without regard to race, ethnicity, or tribe, Mandela was loath to exploit the racialist opportunities his principled non-racialism necessarily preserves.  The paradox of non-racialism is that, while the temptation to resort to racialism might be resisted in pursuit of national, democratic, and egalitarian projects, it cannot be eliminated.

Mandela’s new South African nation was to be built through the inclusive state, accountable democratic institutions, and more equitable living standards.  The persistence of racialism, therefore, registers the shortfalls in building democracy, establishing inclusive communities, and defeating poverty.  The more dependent the state becomes on racialism, the less substantial are its democratic and economic achievements.  The recourse to racialism taken by his successors as president, paradoxically, vindicates Mandela’s central insight into non-racialism—it is what democracy looks like in South Africa.

[1] The word “black” is used compositely to refer to all those South Africans who were denied full equality on the basis of race under apartheid.  The word “African” is used to refer to those and the descendants of those who were classified as “black” (or “Native” or “Bantu”).

[2] Nelson Mandela, “Statements in Court,” October 22 and November 7, 1962, in eds. Thomas Karis and Gail M. Gerhardt, Challenge and Violence, 1953-1964, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, Stanford California, 1977, pp. 728-735.

[3] Nelson Mandela, “Statements in Court,” October 22 and November 7, 1962, in eds. Thomas Karis and Gail M. Gerhardt, Challenge and Violence, 1953-1964, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, Stanford California, 1977, pp. 728-735.

[4] Michael MacDonald, Why Race Matters in South Africa, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2006, pp. 92-123.


 [6] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Back Bay Books, Boston, 1995, p.  84

[7] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Back Bay Books, Boston, 1995, p. 624.

[8] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk, 89.

[9] Nelson Mandela, Conversations with Myself, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010, p. 44.  Italics in original.

[10] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk, 624.

[11] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk, 624.

[12] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk, 93.

[13] Ernest Gellner, Thought and Change, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1964, p. 168.

[14] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk 84.

[15] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Back Bay Books, Boston, 1995, p. 95.

[16] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 624.

[17]Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 900-1992, Blackwell, Cambridge MA and Oxford, United Kingdom, 1992, 114-17. Charles Tilly, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe, Charles Tilly, “Reflections on the History of European State-Making”, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1975, pp. 78-9.  Max Weber Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Berkeley: University of California Press, DATE), 385-398 & 921-26.

[18] E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and nationalism since 1780: Programme, myth, reality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, DATE), 9-13.

[19] Steve Biko makes a similar point more explicitly.  Steve Biko (ed. Aelred Stubbs C. R.), I Write What I Like: Selected Writings, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

[20] Donald L. Horowitz, A Democratic South Africa?: Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society, University of California Press, Berkeley California, 1991.

[21] Gavin Relly, “The Costs of Divestment”, Foreign Policy 63 (Summer, 1986).

[22] World Development Indicators, accessed 21 December 2012.  These are the most recent figures compiled in the World Development Indicators.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1