Skin Deep Politics

The question as to whether a coloured can become leader of South Africa's ruling party and even, more remotely, president of the country.

Trevor Manuel and Thabo Mbeki.

I finally had a chance to read Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s profile of President Jacob Zuma that appeared in “The New Yorker” on the eve of the World Cup final.  You need a password to read the piece. There isn’t much new in there for junkies of South African politics. Written in a dry tone, it rehashes the political contests of the last five years between Zuma and the now-vanquished Thabo Mbeki, Zuma’s predecessor as president of the ANC and of South Africa. It briefly gets interesting when when Hunter-Gault, who worked as a foreign correspondent in South Africa in the 1990s, briefly touches on the subject of who could be Zuma’s successor after 2013 when his term expires (remember he said he’d only run for one term; add to that that ANC presidents can only serve two terms; same for the country’s president). Hunter-Gault highlights the race politics of leadership within the ANC:

Zuma’s position is secure for now. His term runs until 2013, and he does not have an obvious successor within the A.N.C., a political behemoth so dominant that South Africa is essentially a one-party state. Trevor Manuel, currently the head of the National Planning Commission, may be the most respected government official in the country, but he has a fatal political flaw. He comes from a mixed-race background, and was classified as “colored” [spelling: coloured] by the apartheid government, even though he identifies himself as black. When I asked people about the prospect that Manuel would himself become President, they often responded with a silent no, pointing a finger at their skin.

But before it gets interesting, however, Hunter-Gault moves on, predictably, to write about Julius Malema.

Some may point out that Trevor Manuel is not favored by rank and file ANC members because he is associated with the ANC’s neoliberal economic politics. He served as Minister of Finance to first Mandela and then Mbeki between 1996 to 2009. During that time the ANC discarded its RDP policy for GEAR, a policy which trade unions, a big part of the ANC blames for some of South Africa’s economic woes. So, it may have less to do with his color than with his idea.

At the same time, Manuel has been one of the most popular members of the ANC.  He had been a member of the underground ANC during apartheid, for which he spent time in detention. When the ANC was unbanned in 1990 and one year later held its first national conference since the 1950s inside the country, he was elected to the organization’s National Executive Committee (NEC) by delegates. He subsequently headed up the ANC’s Department of Economic Planning. During the time he served as Finance Minister, in 2002, he placed first in the conference election for the same NEC. Though he would drop a few places by the next conference, in 2007, when he was associated with Mbeki (Zuma was elected leader there), Manuel retained his NEC place and was subsequently appointed by Zuma to head up the National Planning Commission.

Nevertheless, the ANC, for all its talk about non-racialism, has issues with race. At various times, powerful elements in the party has dropped its “blacks in general” formulations to push for “Africans in particular” to fill leadership positions. It is forgotten that until 1969, coloureds could be members of MK, the ANC’s armed wing, but not the ANC itself (they’d have to join the Coloured People’s Congress) or could only be elected to the NEC by 1985. And this was only because of pressure in exile. The most powerful positions of the ANC are referred to as the “top five.” Cheryl Carolus, a contemporary and close comrade of Manuel during the mass struggles of the 1980s in Cape Town, was elected deputy secretary-general of the ANC in 1994 (she was part of Mandela’s delegation in the first public negotiations with the apartheid government), but before she could move up further in leadership, was dispatched to London as high commissioner.

The ANC’s race politics when it comes to coloureds are complex. For some takes, I’d recommend a long review I did in 2007; this article by Nhlanhla Ndebele, who argues that “… for years the ANC embraced a narrow and exclusive brand of African nationalism, and that its embrace of non-racialism came about only as a result of sustained struggle within largely the post-1960 exiled wing of the organization;” or the 1996 book, Now that we are free: Coloured communities in the new South Africa, published by my former employer, Idasa.

Update: when Barack Obama was elected US President in 2008, Mozambican writer Mia Couto, wrote a piece listing six reasons why it would be unlikely for Obama to win an election in an African country. After mentioning factors like authoritarianism and restrictive election laws, he mentioned Obama’s race: “Let us be clear: Obama is black in the United States. In Africa he is mulatto. If Obama were African, he would see his race used against him … the predatory elites would campaign against someone who they would designate as ‘not an authentic African.’ The same black brother who is hailed today as the new American president would be humiliated at home as being representative of ‘the others,’ those of another race, another flag (or perhaps no flag at all).”

Further Reading

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Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

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Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.