Reluctant Democrats

Whites and Democracy in South Africa

Roger Southall

Apartheid symbolized the determination of a white minority to hang on to power in defiance of the wishes of a black majority. By the early 1980s, there were widespread predictions that South Africa would become engulfed in an ugly and violent racial war. However, in May 1994, four years of negotiations between the NP government and the African National Congress (ANC) ended with South Africa’s transition to democracy, with Nelson Mandela becoming the country’s first black president.

Part One of Whites and Democracy, principally concerned with how and why the transition to democracy came about, offers a focus on how whites responded to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), South Africa’s institutional device for dealing with ‘the legacy of the past’. As evidenced by a vast literature on the Commission, apartheid-era politicians and securocrats largely evaded pressures to account to the TRC for crimes against humanity, and their reluctance to comply was matched by a wider reluctance of ‘ordinary’ whites to accept either individual or collective responsibility for past racial oppression. However, my treatment warns against glib condemnation of whites, for reckonings of the past in divided societies are rarely accomplished easily or swiftly. By drawing on discussions in focus groups which I conducted among whites around South Africa in 2019, I demonstrate how a decade after its work was completed, whites now look on the profound issues of political and moral responsibility the TRC sought to address in a wide variety of ways. While there is no unambiguous ‘white view’ of the past, most whites are today quite prepared to admit the moral wrongness of apartheid. Nonetheless, it remains easy for most to deflect the blame for apartheid’s oppressions on the political and security elite, even while many worry about whites’ quotidian complicity in apartheid. 

Part Two probes how whites – many of whom were hostile to change – have adjusted to democracy. Many were fearful that the arrival of a black majority government would result in a dramatic reduction in their personal security, standards of living, and long-term prospects of happiness and well-being. However, as I demonstrate in an early chapter, the transitional constitution addressed their major worries. Apart from endorsing their political rights as individuals, it assuaged their major concerns about property rights, schooling, and language, and offered no immediate threat to their domination of the economy, even though it was clear they were going to have to confront black demands for racial redress.  While it was clear that institutionalized white privilege was destined to come to an end, whites’ material interests were not brought under significant threat. While this disposed them to accept democracy, it did not necessarily make them enthusiastic about it. 

As a collective, whites accepted democracy believing no better alternative was on offer. Today, however, most share a conviction that the fabric of democracy has deteriorated substantially since the presidency of the widely revered Mandela, and most ascribe responsibility for this to the ANC. As a result, many are tempted by a sense of victimhood, and feel themselves subject to ‘reverse racism’. Despite this, whites are largely committed to staying in South Africa rather than emigrating, although as my chapter on ‘Afrikaners after Apartheid’ demonstrates, there are varied ways of responding to democracy, from withdrawal into largely mono-racial ‘gated communities’ through to vigorous participation in political parties or civil society organizations which pursue minority interests. I argue further, from an array of electoral and other data, that although they largely remain conservative, whites engage in the ‘politics of representation’ in much the same way as black South Africans. Indeed, if anything, whites are somewhat keener voters than their fellow citizens. Against this, I characterize the broad thrust of their political engagements as largely defensive of their continuing de facto privilege. 

I recognized in launching into this project that it was unlikely to win me any friends. After all, history has not treated the track record of whites in Africa kindly, and they are rarely regarded as worthy of sympathy. However, whereas whites have now largely withdrawn from elsewhere on the continent, they remain a significant and powerful minority in South Africa. As such, they demand attention, not least because, as I conclude in my book, the good news is that South Africa’s whites recognize that there is no going back to apartheid. They may be ‘reluctant democrats’, but democrats they are, and they accept democracy as serving their best interest. In a world full of conflict and misery, that is a message worth sharing. 

Three decades on from 1994, there is still white in the South African rainbow, and that must be counted as an unexpected success.   


9781847013743, paperback,
March 2024
James Currey
£25.99 / $37.95

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February 2022
James Currey
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ROGER SOUTHALL is Emeritus Professor in Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand and Professorial Research Associate, Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS. His books include Liberation Movements in Power: Party and State in Southern Africa (2013) and The New Black Middle Class in South Africa (2016).