South Africa Throughout Its History South Africa Research Paper

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South Africa

Throughout its history, South Africa has had a tumultuous relationship with ethnic and racial identity and discrimination, and is still grappling with the reverberating effects of colonialism and apartheid. Furthermore, while colonialism and the apartheid era are the most obvious sources of ethnic and racial strife in South Africa, the effects of these historical forces on the country are far more complex than a cursory examination would lead one to believe, as structural and cultural factors have exacerbated inequality and discrimination in ways that do not align with a tempting but altogether unproductive black-white binary that so often characterizes considerations of ethnic or racial issues. Thus, while colonialism and apartheid did violently insert new racial identities and structural, legal inequalities into South African culture, they also served to exacerbate preexisting divisions between the ethnic groups already present. Therefore, examining the role of ethnicity and ethnic conflict in the creation of contemporary South African society revealed the extent to which the country is only now coming to terms with its legacy of inequality through a process of democratization in a kind of inverse of the American experience, due to the fact that South Africa has struggled to effectively incorporate its majority ethnic and racial populations into a government and national identity previously controlled by a minority.

The first step in understanding how one of the starkest examples of late-twentieth century institutionalized racism has begun "a dramatic process of negotiated peace and democratic elections [...] which gives hope for an end to generations of state-sanctioned injustice, violence, egregious labour practices and even, potentially, illogical borders" is to examine the history of South Africa, and specifically the way in which history itself has been reclaimed and democratized so that it remains accessible and relatable to all of the disparate ethnic and racial groups living in the country (Epprecht, 19995, p. 323). Attempting to examine South African ethnic history in this way protects this study from falling prey to "certain blind spots or preferences [that] have characterized historians regardless of good intentions," because "among those committed to the struggles against apartheid, for instance, research has tended to concentrate on the period since the "mineral revolution" of the 1870s," and in these histories of racial capitalism and the potential for resistance, "nuance and African agency tend to be sacrificed to the need to draw macro-structures and forces" while neglecting the history of conflict prior to the colonial period (Epprecht, 1995, p. 323). Thus, by following Epprecht's lead and beginning this discussion of South Africa's ethnic and racial struggles with an eye towards "shedding light upon the provenance and nature of "tribalism" and patriarchy in southern Africa before the mineral revolution," this study "also contribute[s] to contemporary debates over democratic change" (Epprecht, 1995, p. 323).

Prior to colonization, the two dominant ethnic groups in the region that would eventually become South Africa were the Zulu and Basotho, and any consideration of South Africa's culture as a product of ethnic and racial struggles must begin with a demolition of assumptions regarding "Africans' purported "tribal" nature" and "peasant backwardness," concepts which have previously been deployed in order to "exonerate whites both of any role in "black-on-black" violence and of any guilt in dispossessing Africans from the land," because the brutality and violence of the mfecane over the course of the early to mid-nineteenth century was attributed solely to a kind of tribal conflict claimed as inherent to African ethnic groups (Epprecht, 1995, p. 324). In this ultimately racist conception of African ethnic history, the rise of the Zulu kingdom is regarded as a kind of ahistorical event, independent of the evidence for "precolonial state-building and class formation within African societies [which] are more accurately understood as African responses to forces which long pre-dated the rise of the Zulu" (Epprecht, 1995, p. 325). The ethnic conflict which arose between the Zulu and Basotho groups in the nineteenth century, then, must be regarded not as the "natural" product of rival ethnicities, but rather the consequence of rapidly expanding white racial ideology and activity, demonstrating how fully ethnic and racial struggles have been intertwined in South Africa's history.

As mentioned previously, this close connection between the racist subjugation of South Africa and the subsequent native ethnic strife actually served to reinforce and justify white colonial behavior, because the institution of apartheid and the theft of land and property from blacks was deemed acceptable due to the fact that the apologists of racial politics and conquest were essentially able to say "the Zulus did it first!" (Epprecht, 1995, p. 324). One may briefly examine the region of Natal in order to see how the use of the Zulu Kingdom's rise to power and expansion as a justification for white oppression was a fallacious ideological construction, because Natal, a predominantly Zulu region, was actually one of the first provinces to experience the repressive pass laws requiring black Africans to carry pass books authorizing them to travel through predominantly white areas and "which later came to symbolize racial oppression in SA" (Matheba, 2000, p. 134). Furthermore, "experiments about the forced removal of blacks from predominantly white settlements were first tried" in Natal, demonstrating how the expansion of the Zulu people into predominantly Basotho areas and the ensuing violence was a direct result of white racial ideology, which in turn served to reinforce and justify that ideology. In this way, one may see how ethnic differences were effectively used to help enact racially oriented goals, in the same way that any oppressive or authoritarian rule seeks to artificially divide the populace so as to preclude the organization and cooperation necessary to mobilize effective resistance.

The horrors of colonialism, the slave trade, and apartheid need not be enumerated here, which is not to discount these atrocities or to otherwise claim that their effects ended when they did (as is so often erroneously said of racism in the United States following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s), but rather to focus on how the lingering effects of racial discrimination (and the subsequent ethnic conflict) have been dealt with in the post-apartheid era. This is necessary because the post-apartheid construction of South Africa includes not only a return to relative autonomy and self-determination for blacks, but also a reevaluation of the role of white South Africans that seeks to successfully integrate previously distinct racial and ethnic groups into a contiguous South African nation without unduly "forgetting" the region's history of racial violence. This successful integration is an ongoing and tumultuous process, because as "apartheid [has become] the 'other' of the New South Africa" and "Afrikaners are perceived to be in need of 'rehabilitation,'" the ease with which "white people experience their social space as culturally neutral and individually determined," and thus view themselves as "outside" of race has been disrupted due to the fact that South Africa in the post-apartheid era consciously recognizes its black majority (Steyn, 2004, p. 143-144). This is not to say that post-apartheid South Africa has seen a direct inversion of this process, such that the "assumptions, belief systems, value structures and institutional and discursive options" that previously characterized the assumption of white racial neutrality have simply been replaced with a notion of black racial neutrality, but rather to acknowledge a somewhat unique phenomena among nations attempting to escape from a racially organized political and social system (Steyn, 2004, p. 144). To see why South Africa represents such a unique situation in regards to the overcoming of racist politics and cultural structures, one may compare it to the experience of the United States following the Civil War, and somewhat more importantly, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Despite the often preeminent status given to the Civil War in American histories, the end of legal slavery in the United States did not represent the same kind of ideological and political shift seen in South Africa's transition from apartheid, because an America form of apartheid has continued to this day, first officially, and then unofficially as the underlying structures reinforcing racial injustice remain even after overt racism has largely (but not entirely) gone out of fashion. The passage of the fifteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution during the Reconstruction era granted blacks the right to vote, but this was largely nominal, as the institution of Jim Crow laws and the notion of "separate-but-equal" essentially maintained apartheid, with the subjugation of blacks simply taking on a more bureaucratic form (and even then, this bureaucratic and systematic racism ultimately served to implicitly justify and excuse the continued physical subjugation and intimidation of blacks). Even the Civil Rights movement did not wholly do away with these problems, because whereas in the case of South Africa the end of apartheid meant the "othering" of apartheid as well by explicitly and continually highlighting its despicable nature, the passage of the various Civil Rights Acts over the course of the twentieth century and the overturning of "separate-but-equal" were only begrudgingly accepted by large swaths of the population. In…[continue]

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