The politics of race and identity in the former ‘Rainbow Nation’

Jan-Bart Gewald is a historian specialized in the social history of Africa. He is Professor of African History and Director of the African Studies Centre Leiden. 


It has almost become a cliché to say that South Africa is a country of enormous income differences; the country’s Gini coefficient is the highest in the world. Indeed, I am still struck by the enormous contrasts that exist in the country. One minute one can be zooming along from the airport to downtown Johannesburg in the sleek, swift and super-efficient Gautrain, chatting to a young Zulu woman teaching English in Thailand, and a few minutes later one can be side-stepping blanket clad street urchins high on glue and begging for money on the pavement outside Rosebank shopping mall. In the evening one can have an exquisite meal, stroll past shops selling fox and mink furs for the companions of the rich, marvel at the latest in high fashion, and try to ignore the huddled forms of people sleeping on cardboard clustered for warmth around burning bins in the alcoves of buildings.

Notions of race
Not surprisingly political parties across the spectrum in South Africa draw on and highlight these inequities whilst propagating their party’s politics. Only a fool would seek to ignore the pent-up rancour and anger that is felt by the dismissed impoverished masses on the streets and on the lands of South Africa.The bulk of these people are the same as those who were disempowered by the apartheid regime, and although there are also substantial numbers of white South Africans adrift, the debate in South Africa is once again increasingly clustered around notions of race and essentialised ethnic identities. Whereas in 1994 the ideals of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ appeared to be within reach, the last few years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency appeared to emphasise evermore that these ideals were merely a pipe dream.

Mind-set of apartheid idealogues
In his presidency Jacob Zuma appeared to foreshadow Donald Trump in his attitude to the rule of law, complete disregard for decorum, racist and tribalist sentiments, and male chauvinism. The genie that was unleashed by Zuma, in which once again it became the accepted norm in South Africa to discuss and describe all issues in terms of race or tribe, has effectively resurrected the mind-set of apartheid ideologues and enabled the ignoble son of Amsterdam, Hendrik Verwoerd, to continue to determine and define public debate and the contours within which political discourse is conducted in South Africa. Ironically, twenty-four years after the ending of the apartheid state, a new generation of politicians appear to be more than prepared to resurrect the terms, identities and categories of the past. In the face of South Africa’s inclusive constitution, King Goodwill Zwelithini wishes to restrict access to land in KwaZulu-Natal on the basis of race and ethnic identity. In this, the Zulu king is prepared to enter into an alliance with Afriforum, an organisation that consciously embraces an Afrikaner identity and seeks alliances with other minorities in contemporary South Africa. In direct opposition to Afriforum and equally racially militant is Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which claims to be a socialist Marxist-Leninist party and has an explicitly militarist approach to politics.

General elections 2019
In short, it seems as if the centre-ground has been abandoned in the interests of extreme positions on the outer fringes of the political spectrum, in which race and ethnic identity have once again been allowed to come to the fore in South Africa. In May 2019 the ANC will once again undoubtedly win the general elections in South Africa, but in the run-up to these elections it is evident that the politics of race and identity will take centre stage. In effect the use of the politics of race and identity will act as a cover and do nothing to truly transform the enormous inequalities that will continue to exist in South Africa; the chances that the elections will lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth in the country are slim at best.

The ASCL will organise a Country Meeting on South Africa in May 2019, where Barry Gilder, author of The List, will be one of the speakers. The List tells the story of a group of veterans of ANC intelligence and of the post-apartheid intelligence service, who are formed into a secret task team by the newly elected president to investigate the possibility of remnants of apartheid security threatening to obstruct the radical changes that he and his team are planning.

Photo: 'Rainbow Nation': A man applies face-paint to a South Africa fan ahead of South Africa v Uruguay at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Photo by Richard Matthews, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

This post has been written for the ASCL Africanist Blog. Would you like to stay updated on new blog posts? Subscribe here! Would you like to comment? Please do! The ASCL reserves the right to edit, shorten or reject submitted comments.


Income differences
ethnic identities
Rainbow Nation
Jacob Zuma
King Goodwill Zwelithini
Julius Malema
South Africa


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Rhodes university

This article describes simply and accurately what is presently happening in South Africa. We are being reracialised at every level of our society. This type of social engineering is politically driven. Unfortunately even the youth have bought into this process. We will need brave and bold leadership in order to plot a way forward that is mutually inclusive of everyone. Unfortunately as the article suggests, this seems unlikely to happen.