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Whites and Democracy in South Africa


Professor Southall, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the African Griot! Can you please begin by giving an overview of your new book Whites and Democracy in South Africa.

The book is centred round the question of how whites have responded politically to the arrival of democracy in South Africa. For many years before the democratic transition, there were predictions that South Africa was embarked upon a racial conflict of such enormity that it would end in a devastating  civil war. In the event, South Africa defied these predictions. Anti-colonial struggles and Cold War confrontations involved war and conflict throughout the wider Southern African region, but ultimately the opposing elites in South Africa negotiated a relatively peaceful (albeit turbulent) settlement, for which we should continue to be grateful. It was a very close-run thing. Yet this posed the question of how whites in South Africa would react? Would they continue to fight? Would they flee? Or would they, somehow or other, after centuries of racial domination, adjust? Answering those questions is what this book is about.

My book takes an historical perspective, overviewing the changing patterns of racial domination before 1994, yet its major probing concerns how whites reacted to the change away from white minority rule. Much more than just enabling a universal franchise and changing the coloration of parliament and the government was involved. Top of the pile in the immediate years of democracy was how whites would wrestle with questions of historical guilt and accountability, so necessarily, how whites engaged with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission becomes a key question, which I address in chapters dealing with ‘then’ and ‘now’. On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the responses given by focus group participants to the continuing questions raised by the TRC in the present era.

In the second part of the book, white attitudes to living in contemporary South Africa are discussed. In considerable part, this builds upon an earlier literature, notably Melissa Steyn’s book ‘Whiteness just isn’t what it used to be’: White Identity in a Changing South Africa (2001), although my book is more focussed on white adjustments to specifically political change than hers was. Unsurprisingly, there is a fair amount of ‘white whingeing’, but at the same time, there is a matching positivity, and I argue that while white political attitudes tend to be defensive, they are not so very different from those of black South Africans over a wide range of issues. Of course, as I argue in my chapter on ‘Afrikaners after Apartheid’, there has been a wide range of political responses by whites to the enormous changes that have taken place, but my overall conclusion is that given where South Africa has come from, the country has not done as many critics say in addressing the legacies of white racism.

Whites and Democracy in South Africa

£65 / $99
February 2022
James Currey

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£39 / $59.40

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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).

African Sun Media: South Africa