The economics of whiteness – Post- Apartheid democracy & Apartheid Futures

The land is oursThe South African accent is a peculiar thing – well not South African South African, we do have 11 constitutionally recognized languages. I mean the accent I, and many other 1980s kids who were part of the generation of young Black children entering former “whites only” schools in Post-Apartheid South Africa, have.

In London, I am thought to be Australian, once I was thought to be a working class private school educated Londoner. In the U.S I’m thought to be British – but I generally do not trust American geographical knowledge. I think the person heard a “not American accent and placed it in the only other place of relevance they knew”.

Whilst traveling through East Africa I was often thought of as well off. In Kenya where I somehow got mistaken for a Kenyan – I can only answer so many questions about South African Afrophobia –  I was thought to be a highly educated local activist.  At home I am just part of the many coconuts who are sometimes viewed with contempt because of my presumed “better than thou” attitude.

Proximity to whiteness as economic proximity

In all these areas my accent allows me the ability, however brief, to automatically be viewed as highly educated and/or well-off – I am not, all my travels have been financed through my former employers. My ability to mimic an aspect of whiteness – my accent –  allows me access to particular forms of privilege. It is this assumed privilege, rooted in perceptions of whiteness I want to interrogate. My argument is simply this. In order to answer the question of the land, South Africa will have to interrogate the conversion of whiteness into economic access.

Colonialism was not only about race but about economic advantage

the legacy of Colonialism is not mere racial categorizations. It was also the legal transference and regulation, through Apartheid of whiteness as property. By property I mean the literal conversion of whiteness into an access card allowing economic mobility  to white South Africans through the simultaneous exclusion of Black South African. The economic access provided by whiteness this is what our present constitutional democracy needs to address and undo.

In his book, The Land is Ours, the Peoples’ Advocate, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi tracks the foundations of South African constitutionalism. “Excavating the past from the ruins of Empire” he finds its roots in the Black intellectual legal thought which sought to challenge and undo the marginalising effects of colonialism and Apartheid.

In Part I of his book he traces how the land was lost – or more bluntly was stolen – from the indigenous peoples. Throughout this part of the book I kept wondering “why don’t you just say it!!!”, It’s right there!!  Although Advocate Ngcukaitobi does a beautiful job tracing the anti-Blackness central pillar of colonialism. The book fails to unpack how the taking resulted in the conversion of whiteness, a racial identity into a property interest or into an economic access card which persists and sustains the continued economic disparity.

What would have been the possibilities had the book dealt with the convergence of whiteness into an economic resource? How would the book have dealt with the relative privilege its subjects enjoyed due to their proximity to whiteness.  The founding fathers of Black constitutionalism were only able to engage and challenge the colonial and Apartheid systems because they were embedded within it. Their engagement and revolt against the system was contingent on their ability to engage with the system in the ways it could understand them. Simply put what they did was a result of the various forms of proprietory whiteness they had acquired. It would’ve allowed us to interrogate the ways in which Black people have to mimic whiteness in order to gain economic access.

Whiteness, or in the case of his historical subjects, the ability of Black persons to mimic forms of whiteness results in access and economic mobility founded on the colonial mobilisation of educational systems which sought to create a population of noble-savages. The true goal of colonialism, as Ngcukaitobi notes, was not total obliteration of the native population, this would have eliminated the cheap labour they needed to mine gold, clean their houses, raise their children and wash their laundry. Rather the goal of colonialism was the conversion the ‘natives’ into a malleable work force which understood instructions and were resigned to working as indentured servants.

Living in a Post-Apartheid democracy with Apartheid futures

Apartheid not only conferred legal recognition to the social racial relations which colonialism had already established but sought to infuse whiteness with a legal legitimacy. It is this legitimacy which has created “invisible” networks of privilege which allow white South Africans to a network of advantages not open to Black South Africans. In other words, Apartheid ensured a continued proprietory interest is invested whiteness – the ability of whiteness to allow automatic economic access and mobility to its owners – white people – was recognized and cemented into law.

Thus Black  access to economic mobility is premised on mimicking whiteness in important ways. And this is what the historical subjects in Ncukaitobi’s book had, the ability to leverage their access to whiteness for justice. It doesn’t change the historical accounts in the book, but might perhaps have changed how we view the continued work of the constitution in present day South Africa.

The economic access granted by our mimicry of whiteness impacts our experiences today, it even impacts on our ability to access the legal system. Everyday social interactions become exhausting mitigations of racial violence. It evident in how the waiter treats you differently in the company of your white friends, it is evident in how Black children who attend former “whites only” schools have better chances at educational and economic mobility. It is evident in how a Black person’s accent allows them to become the “trusted Black” in corporate spaces. Whiteness means access. Of course there are limits to this access. It is evident in who is able to head to the courts to claim rights and who we are represented by – hello Afriforum!!

As a Black South African today, and even the historical subjects of Adv Ngcukaitobi attest, there are limits to what y(our) ability – as a Black people– can allow us access to. Its limitations range from individual exclusion – obtaining an apartment in Cape Town to systematic exclusions against the heavy burdens of Black disadvantage or Black tax.

I cannot help but wonder what would the implications had Advocate Ngcukaitobi’s book dealt with this conversion of whiteness into a proprietory interest manifesting in continued economic exclusion I wonder how the book would’ve asked us to examine our current democratic present and the role of the constitution within it.



CI Harris “Whiteness as property ” (1993) Harvard Law Review