Unfinished Revolution: Interviews with White South Africans

by Project Censored

Written by Bonnie Joy Massey

Considered “one of the cruelest forms of institutional racism ever devised” (Marx 1992:x), South Africa’s system of forced racial segregation or apartheid from 1948 to 1994 resulted in extreme inequality for its non-White citizens. Laws and policies enforced unequal distribution of food, education, work, and medical care among other resources as well as abolishing access to civic or political participation. In 2010, as an American graduate student in South Africa I was exposed for the first time to the country’s violent history and recent move towards democracy.

The eighties were a turbulent time for South Africa, which experienced a “culture of revolt”: large waves of civil disobedience, violence, the disappearance of citizens and the incarceration and murder of civil rights leaders. Now twenty years after the country became a democracy, I became curious about the effect this transition had on the lives of South Africans today. This is important, as current attitudes “may be critically related to the long-term prospects for a stable democracy in South Africa” (Duckitt and Mphuthing 1998:811). Nelson Mandela envisioned the future of South Africa as a unified, equitable “rainbow nation” of all races. If the country is going to make progress toward this dream, citizens must come to a common understanding about past injustices and agree on the best way to move forward.

I imagined that the lives of South African citizens had been drastically affected by the recent changes in the country’s structure, government and policies. I set out to discover the way White South Africans born during apartheid spoke about this societal shift and how it has impacted their day-to-day lives. I interviewed five men and six women over the age of forty from diverse backgrounds. I was naïve and consciously ignorant as a twenty-something Californian woman completely new to this culture—an outsider. However, the majority of South Africans I interviewed were warm and friendly people, willing to share past experiences and thoughts with me. Whether over a pot of rooibos tea or a pack of cigarettes, we found it easy to chat about music, food, relationships and more.

During the interviews I was struck by the differences between each individual’s explanation of the historical events, their own interpretation of knowledge, and truth. South African author, Anthony Marx writes that, “History is born of the subjective interpretations of specific experiences. That is not to say that people are free to act as they wish, for material constraints do impinge. But people respond to such constraints and try to learn from them” (1998:xi-xii). One’s experience of the political struggle in South Africa is seen through various lenses, each affected by his or her racial classification in the apartheid system. I examined my transcribed interviews with a fine-tooth comb, searching for common themes amidst the emotions and stories within the seemingly relative constructions of reality.

As I progressed in my research I quickly found that I was wrong in assuming that these White South Africans had experienced extreme change in their daily lives. Throughout the history of apartheid, a power struggle existed between Blacks and Whites having profound effects on the social system. I discovered that little had changed in this regard following the transition to democracy. Many concerns from the past continued to remain. There seemed to be few, if any, self-identified changes in White South African identities, practices and thoughts since democratization. However, there was a shift in individuals’ definition of the country’s social problems and the reasoning behind their beliefs. Sadly, some South Africans continue to blame other racialized groups for their own uncomfortable predicament of extreme poverty and societal unrest.

White South Africans have very different experiences depending on their political and social perspectives. There exist many progressive White South Africans who are actively fighting for the human rights and equality of all persons. These progressive activists have experienced stigma in the past and present, facing ostracization from other Whites. However, conservative Whites often hold onto their segregated lifestyle, still fearful of the Black population and supportive of separatist social policies. While these conservatives may support integration in theory, they oppose it in practice.

The guilt Whites possessed during apartheid continues to manifest itself today through various coping mechanisms. Many Whites appear to dismiss the severity of the existing injustice, outright deny the inequality that existed between races during apartheid and ignore the link between the apartheid system and poverty in Black South Africa today. However, some Whites admit that the situation could have been handled differently, but still claim intentions and hearts were in the correct place even if the system of the apartheid system was systematically unfair and the outcome was less than desired.

While discussing the past, numerous Whites put forth excuses for the country’s inequality, stressing how they truly had believed in the supposed benefits of apartheid. They explain how they thought that providing a separatist system was best for the development of non-Whites within the country. They denied any participation or responsibility in active discrimination, yet still philosophically believe in the separation of people based upon the color of their skin and continue to engage in discriminatory behavior and self-segregate.

One interviewee, Michael, saw himself as powerless against apartheid and explained that it was a social constraint pushed on him against his will, which he could do nothing about. Yet, he related to the logic of the apartheid system and claimed that its downfall was that it was not carried out properly:

It was forced on us, that was how they thought it should be. It was normal… saying it’s the only way of developing. You could develop these people quicker without the interference of the competition for work or anything. [Having to] compete with the White guy, you see it would have pushed them back.

He explained how he although apartheid was not bad, it “wasn’t ideal.” Later on he tried to clarify this idea and said that “apartheid was bad but it was really good in theory.” He explained the logic of a beneficial “separate development regime” which tried to “help” out the less “developed” population of South Africa. To do this he saw it necessary that the government encourage the Black population in the lifestyle of the White population by forcing them into isolation. He spoke of how the system of apartheid actually gave “good paying jobs” in Cape Town to those who lived in “underdeveloped” areas, without forcing them to compete with White people:

Separate development was the idea that you take this group that was disadvantaged, [and you] don’t put them in the mainstream. You see it would have pushed them back. [You] give them separate development then eventually you put them together. You could develop these people quicker without the interference of the competition for work or anything. It was time to get them on the same paths as the White guys without pushing them to compete. Apartheid was bad but it was really good in theory. The theory was right, I still believe it. So the theory wasn’t bad.

A cognitive dissonance still exists within the White community—they are unsure of what their new place is within the changes of the country. Some are reexamining their White identity and feeling guilt for the advantage of having white skin. Many, finally feeling their minority status in South Africa, cling to the past values held during apartheid. They are frightened of the idea of loss of culture and power and do their best to maintain privilege in the economical and cultural realm, since they no longer have power in the political realm. Individualism is championed and affirmative action is often rejected and dismissed as unnecessary. Unfortunately, this helps to rationalize further exclusion of millions of poor people within the institutions of South Africa.

Similar to the United States, overt discrimination no longer is as acceptable as it was during apartheid, but race relations continue to hold conflict. Color-blind racism is very common, with an individual blaming culture instead of biology for inequality. Some believe that it is not skin color that causes the still-occurring racial separation in modern South Africa, but the persistence of Africans’ cultural heritage. When asked how race relations could improve, another interviewee, Alicia, said that Blacks needed to adapt to what she characterized as “our” or the White’s “lifestyle.” She complained that unlike American Blacks, African Blacks have poor hygiene:

I don’t think they are very used to personal cleanliness and [sighs and laughs] things like that. They smell really, really bad. When you walk into the hostel, when I took my kids there, I opened the door and you could smell it, it was really disgusting. [sigh of disgust] You know, we are really not used to things like that.

Anti-integration sentiment among the White population continues as Whites still dominate the resources of South Africa, unwilling to engage in a change of lifestyle in order to create a more equal society.

Wendy, another interviewee, did not see current problems as one’s that could be fixed and said she yearned for the days of apartheid. She said:

I wanted them to live separately from us. I didn’t want us to mix. I want what I have, I want them to have. But I didn’t want us to be together… I didn’t want to be better and they to be down there. I wanted to be on the same level, but I wanted them to be on their own and I wanted us to be on our own.

The only thing Alicia said that changed for her and her family after apartheid ended was the fact that her children now had to go to school with Black children. She expressed her displeasure with this:

Our kids had to go to school with Black people, and in the hostels they had to stay with Black people, which was not very pleasant. I really felt sorry for my kids, that really wasn’t something very good. These people are just not like us… they grew up differently; they are just very much different to us. You know I don’t have anything against these people, I get along with them very well… we are just not the same. They are just very, very different.

This thinking is almost directly taken from a statement made by Edmund Garrett in 1895 in defense of apartheid:

Say not that we are superior and they are inferior, but simply that we are different, and that difference involves, as a matter of practical comfort and convenience for both races, a certain amount of keeping to themselves. Of course we should go on thinking of ourselves as the superior race (quoted in Abdi 1999:147).

Many White people still hold onto fear of Black people or “the unknown” and continue to live separate lives. Although interviewee Richard believed that the new generation of Whites might be “different,” he expressed to me his astonishment that fifteen years after democratization Whites still can choose their lifestyle carefully and sustain a life that does not include Black South Africans if they wish to do so.

Since the initial stages of change in the early 1990’s there is little progression towards continued racial integration. Segregation continues to be rampant. High degrees of class division and extreme poverty endure, but hope remains as progressives understand that South Africa still has a long journey ahead. While Richard admits that the transition continues to be a “torturous process,” he believes that the activists should be “largely satisfied with a lot of progress we made and be concerned a lot with the issues that still are outstanding.” He compared his actions of determination for human rights with those of a sculptor creating something new, “If we just chip away at this great big marble, if we keep chipping, something is going to happen at some stage.”

Similar to the United State’s symbolic or modern racism, while “beliefs about Africans […] may have become more egalitarian, their underlying racist attitudes and affect have not changed much, because basic racial attitudes are learned and ingrained through socialization and are therefore very resistant to change” (Duckitt and Mphuthing 1998: 813). Although most South Africans feel that race relations have improved and appreciate the large degree of the shift in attitudes and everyday practices following the transition from minority to majority rule, there is still a large amount of evidence of persistent attitudinal racial divisions in South Africa, with White South Africans more satisfied with current circumstances than Black South Africans (e.g., Grossberg, Struwig and Pillay 2006).

There is also a fear within the current South African government that if they are unable to encourage change and growth of the economy that another revolution may be ahead. This fear may well beexasperated after the recent death of Nelson Mandela, a beacon of hope, unity and a strong believer in the “Rainbow Nation.” South Africans and the world watch intently, waiting to see how the dream of a new South Africa survives past his lifetime.


Bonnie Joy Massey is a Lecturer of Sociology at California State University, Fullerton.



Abdi, Ali A. 1999. “Identity Formations and Deformations in South Africa: A Historical and Contemporary Overview.” Journal of Black Studies 30(2): 147.

Duckitt, John and Thobi Mphuthing. 1998. “Political Power and Race Relations in South Africa: African Attitudes Before and After the Transition.” Political Psychology 19 (4): 809-832.

Grossberg, Arlene, Jare Struwig, and Udesh Pillay. 2006. “Multicultural National Identity and Pride.” Pps. 54-76 in South African Social Attitudes: Changing Times, Diverse Voices, edited by U. Pillay, B. Roberts, and S. Rule. Cape Town, ZA: HSRC Press.

Marx, Anthony. 1992. Lessons of Struggle: South African Internal Opposition, 1960-1990. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.