Institutionalised white supremacy is a way of life in South Africa. Depending on where one is located or which institution one is associated with, different versions of this lifestyle manifest themselves different.
Take for instance the University of Free State (UFS). The university was a ‘whites only’ university under the apartheid South Africa. Fourteen years after the demise of the apartheid regime, the university still has race segregated students residences. Not only that, a video leaked to the media recently shows UFS white students:
“…forcing five black hostel cleaners to down beers, take part in races and eat a stew into which one of the students urinated. One of the students announces on the video: ‘That, at the end of the day, is what we think of integration.’ (Blaine, 2008).”
Some commentators would have us believe that this is an isolated incidence, carried out by foolish students who do not know any better.
Firstly, the UFS and its racist policies and its racist white students live in a country where white males continue to dominate management and empowering positions in business, social and cultural institutions. According to the Human Sciences and Research Council study, opportunities for whites are abundant, and it is easier for whites to get credit, start a business, find a job and make more money in their lifetime than it is for the average black person in South Africa. Furthermore, the study shows that , even with Affirmative action and Black economic empowerment programmes in place, blacks do not control more than 4% of Johannesburg Securities Exchange, even though the stock market had boomed with a 50 per cent increase in market capitalisation to R2.500 billion at the end of 2004.
This is the socio-economic environment that allows institutions such as the UFS and white privilege to exist in post-apartheid South Africa.
However, the dominant theme that characterises the socio-economic debate in the liberal left is that South Africa is moving away from racial Apartheid to class Apartheid. Patrick Bond, a political economist based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, captured the views of many when he penned an essay entitled “From Racial to Class Apartheid: South Africa’s Frustrating Decade of Freedom”.In that essay, Bond’s premise is that South Africa has witnessed the replacement of racial apartheid with what is increasingly referred to as class apartheid.
Echoing Bond, Devan Pillay, a South African sociologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, contends that the primary political question of our time has to be the class question – the question of poverty and socio-economic inequality. In their book, ‘Class, Race and Inequality in South Africa’, Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass argue along similar lines. They write that at the end of apartheid, the primary basis of inequality shifted from race to class.
“By the end of the apartheid era, South African households were rich or poor according primarily to the number and earnings of wage earners, and earnings in turn depended overwhelmingly on education and skill. Privileges could be reproduced on the basis of class rather than race (Seekings and Nattrass, 2006: p. 300).”
What Seekings and Nattrass are clearly oblivious to is the fact that due to the cumulative effects of longstanding racial discrimination and oppression, which resulted to direct barriers to black capital formation, the white households are far more likely to inherit or otherwise benefit from family wealth than black households (Wise, 2005). Looked at from this angle, one is able to explain the socio-economic developments in post-apartheid South Africa more adequately than the empty claim that South Africa is moving away from race to class apartheid.
What is remarkable, however, is that there seems to be a confusion regarding how a market-based economy operates. According to Albert (2006), a market-based economy will use the existing expectations of community members, such as the racist expectations that whites are superior and more competent than blacks, to enforce, and, where possible, to enlarge its own economic hierarchies of exploitation.
The UFS and its racist policies and its racist white students understand this logic. The only reason that the UFS is under the media spotlight is simply because they carried out this well understood but unstated principle in an obvious and crude manner.
Other institutions (the ones with liberal leanings) have a much more sophisticated way of carrying out white supremacists agenda. And you can be sure that these liberal institutions do not like it when universities such as the UFS compel society at large to scrutinise society’s race relations.