Race and Racialism in the Rainbow Nation

Written by: Saskia Alais/ Edited by: Jake Dickson

Afcon 2013: Disappointment for South Africa - Africa Top Sports

When Nelson Mandela assumed the South African Presidency in May 1994, he sounded the final death knell of apartheid, a system of legalised racial segregation that, for more than five decades, had stripped non-Whites of their socio-economic rights and consigned indigenous Blacks to the bottom of the racial hierarchy. Many political observers were quick to voice their predictions that Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC), which had campaigned on the back of the slogan “a better life for all” would follow the example of other post-colonial African economies by excluding White South Africans from political power. However, despite the ANC inheriting a state where the painful transition from White minority rule to a multicultural democracy exposed the huge disparity in wealth and services between White and Black communities, Mandela was quick to assure his people that South Africa would be a ‘a society in which all South Africans, both Black and White, will be able to walk tall’ knowing they were protected and represented in the ‘rainbow nation.’ Fast forward twenty-five years and Mandela’s promise of racial inclusion has come under fire in recent months given the global Black Lives Matter movement that has exposed how the racial hierarchies created under apartheid continue to plague the country. This forces us to question whether it is ever possible for a racial state to transition to a democracy, or if the inauguration of Mandela merely represented a subtle shift in South Africa’s racial orientation.

Apartheid was first implemented in South Africa in 1948, under the directions of the National Party, led by its Prime Minister Daniël François Malan. Apartheid which was informed by baasskap (White supremacy) that claimed Whites belonged to a superior race, transformed the country into a racial state in which a person’s ethnicity determined the educational, housing, and employment opportunities they were afforded. The state implemented a rigid system of racial classifications made up of Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Coloureds – a term used to refer to any person of mixed Black and European heritage. Every citizen was designated a race according to the state’s arbitrary criteria that included hair texture, the shape and size of one’s nose and skin colour. These racial classifications not only served to keep non-Whites marginalised and subordinate but through legal measures such as the Population Registration Act that compelled citizens to live only in areas with members of the same racial group, they ensured that a socio-political wedge was drawn between Blacks and Coloureds – South Africa’s two largest non-White ethnic groups. 

The state allowed members of the Coloured community to benefit from their closer proximity to Whiteness, that meant they did not have to carry passes, could live in any part of the country they chose and were able to access superior employment, educational and housing opportunities. However, these privileges enabled Coloureds to be strategically positioned as the buffer group. This allowed the state to direct hostility, which stemmed predominately from indigenous Blacks, away from the White supremacist government and directly onto members of the Coloured community. Furthermore, the existence of “Pass-Whites” that enabled some Coloured individuals to obtain legal reclassification by the state from Coloured to White in addition to the establishment of a separate and unequal chambers of parliament in the 1980s to represent Coloureds, that formally elevated this group above Blacks, helped to fuel anti-Black and anti-Coloured racism. For Black people were soon conditioned to treat Coloureds with the same suspicion and resentment that they reserved for Whites, who were held to be responsible for ‘repressing their rights’ and maintaining the system of apartheid.  

One of the consequences of the apartheid government’s strategy of ‘divide and rule’ was that it gave way to the establishment of a distinct Coloured identity, who were said to occupy the ‘racial middle’ being neither White nor Black. Some members of the Black community, contemptuously referred to Coloureds as being “mixed-breeds” with no nationhood, land, or culture of their own and who owed their elevated social status solely on the grounds of their lighter skin complexion. In contrast and in response to anti-Black racism perpetuated by both Whites and Coloureds, the Black community portrayed themselves as ‘proud, pure-breeds, with history, culture, and identity’ going back centuries. This construction of a racialised Coloured identity that promoted perceived differences between these two racial groups whilst obscuring their similarities had severe implications for future Black and Coloured race relations in South Africa. 

However, if we accept that prior to the dismantlement of Apartheid, that Coloureds served a useful function for the state, as the state by pandering to their desire for racial relative privilege also ensured the maintenance of the racial regime. How did the nature of the Coloured community’s racial privilege change when Mandela assumed political power? While Mandela made clear during his inauguration speech that racism and ethnic reprisals would not be tolerated during his administration, on closer inspection can we assume that his government’s vision of a rainbow nation visualised space for only Black and White South Africans? The ANC has never been shy in expressing its commitment to reversing the economic policies of the previous apartheid administrations. Which by limiting South Africans’ access to educational and employment opportunities based solely on the grounds of race and skin colour, that compelled citizens to live racially structured lives, racialised poverty, making it self-perpetuating and intergenerational. Their adoption of a strategy of Black economic empowerment may have appealed to its core Black African support base, but quickly alienated members of the Coloured community who were resistant to competing with the Black majority for the same type of housing, jobs, and education. Such resentment played a key role in the 1994 electoral success of the Afrikaner National Party (ANP) in the Cape Province, who appealed to the large, Coloured population, highlighting the threat of ‘black usurpation of Coloured people’s jobs and social spaces’ if the ANC candidates managed to gain seats.  

In contemporary South Africa many Coloureds continue to assert that they were ‘not White enough under apartheid’ and now they are ‘not Black enough under the ANC’ accusing South Africa’s Black-led government of being institutionally racist against Coloured people. Such divisions are apparent in their voting patterns with Coloureds tending to support the Democratic Alliance party, that succeeded the ANP, and which draws it support from 80 per cent of White South Africans, while Blacks, on average, tend to lend their overwhelming support to the ANC. While it would be easy to assume that the Coloured community merely resent the loss of their racial privilege and the elevation of Blacks who they were once conditioned to perceive as their social inferiors, perhaps in an effort to normalise Black privilege, South Africa has continued to reproduce the same conditions of racial exclusion practiced by previous apartheid governments but on a subtler level. 

Critics opposed to this theory point out that if South Africa is still racialist why is it that White South Africans continue to monopolize the economy. The ANC may have empowered Black citizens more so than their Coloured counterparts, but in 2019, Whites still constituted 67 per cent of top management positions in all sectors compared to 14 per cent of Blacks, who make up nearly 80 per cent of the economically active population. Moreover, only 3 per cent of the biggest firms are controlled by Blacks, leading South Africa’s labour minister, Mildred Oliphant, to comment that “a White, male-dominant organisational culture still prevails”. Perhaps the reason for this was that when South Africa transitioned to a ‘democracy’, Black government officials still perceived members of the White group as useful because of their ‘skills, technology, and money’ and saw Asians as necessary again on the grounds of their ‘skills and business acumen.’ However, ingrained stereotypes concerning Coloured people’s ‘foreignness’ and perceived lack of value may have played a part in the state creating not so much a new social structure underpinned by racial equality, but merely a reorganisation of the nation’s traditional racial hierarchy in which Coloureds are now consigned to the bottom. In contrast, Blacks occupy a peculiar and vulnerable position, being situated in the racial middle ground in which they can be said to pander to Whiteness in order to protect the advantages acquired under the rainbow nation. At the same time as some members have risen to the top of the racial hierarchy, securing senior government roles, even though this hasn’t equated to subsequent economic and social gains for the majority of Black South Africans, many of whom live under the poverty line. 

Today the South African government may better reflect the ‘rainbow nation’ than previous governments did, but de facto racial segregation and competition still exist. While the increase in complaints levelled by Coloureds against the state’s security forces invites us to assess whether Blacks are venting decades of misplaced ‘frustrations and aggression’ on Coloureds due to the humiliation and betrayal they endured under apartheid. The government’s shift away from explaining socio-economic disparities on social class and family structure rather than race can be taken as an indication that if the state is trying to normalise Black privilege at the expense of the Coloured community, then the dismissal of institutional racism to explain unequal social outcomes gives them free reign to structure the racial opportunities of social and economic advancement. However, racialised policies that curtail the opportunities provided to Coloureds and produce conditions in which they are racially profiled and criminalised may like previous administrations destabilise the very order they are attempting to produce. 


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Image 1 – AFCON 2013: Disappointment for South Africa [online]. Africa Top Sports. Available from: Accessed on: 17 March 2021.


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