Whiteness in Southern Africa

Rethinking white societies in Southern Africa from the 1930s to the 1990s, particularly the region’s white workers and white poor and their relationship with white-ruled states.

Nigel Theron. Image via Jeppestown Flickr CC.

The idea of whites in colonial Africa usually conjures up a particular set of images: pith helmets and khaki shorts, rural landscapes and vast estates, madams and masters parked on verandas alternately sipping gin and barking orders at African servants. The stereotype is of whites as a uniformly wealthy and homogenous group, sitting securely atop a binary power structure. In this view of the past, race and class are synonymous, the one a consequence of the other in the context of a race-based order.

But historians are now challenging this picture and the assumptions on which it rests. Our new book focusing on Southern Africa’s white workers and white poor, and their relationship with the white-ruled state, reveals colonial white societies as inherently fragile and anxious, wracked by divisions, conflicts and contradictions. While the presence of a white underclass is well-established in histories of early industrial South Africa, historians of white societies rarely deploy class as an analytical category beyond the advent of apartheid in 1948, which is understood to have elevated any remaining “poor whites” into the comfort of middle-class life.

In this book, a collection of upcoming and established scholars challenge such homogenizing understandings. Concentrating on the 1930s to 1990s, our work reveals the continued presence of white workers and poor whites throughout this period associated with white privilege and power. It also expands the focus beyond South Africa to include Angola, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe in a truly regional approach. This brings up all kinds of unexpected vignettes: white workers in South Africa comparing themselves to rightless Africans; African farmers writing letters for illiterate white peasants in rural Mozambique; white miners unperturbed by Zambian independence; or the Rhodesian state deporting white settlers on account of their “undesirability.” Across the region, we find broad similarities in white-ruled societies—most notably, that racial identity was never the sole marker of social status and power in the region. Due to their class position, white workers and the white poor—what we call “nonhegemonic whites”—were never firmly established in the dominant political, economic and social structures of the racial state.

Why investigate this? It is not simply a question of academic curiosity or a somewhat pedantic plea for historical accuracy. Rather, we argue that these studies illuminate the construction and maintenance of race, how this intersected with the formation of class, and how the resulting social, political and economic complexities animated the regimes in question throughout their existence. The category of “white” was never an automatic or natural one—it was diligently and carefully maintained.

Across the societies examined in our volume, white elites were consistently concerned that white workers and the white poor cast doubt on ostensibly innate racial superiority—the legitimizing basis for colonial and minority rule. Their poverty as well as their proximity to blacks—living alongside, performing the same kind of work, maintaining social relations with, or, perhaps more than anything, having sex with—provoked acute fears of racial degeneration and the disruption of the carefully constructed racial boundaries on which white rule depended. At the same time, white authorities were also concerned about lower-class whites’ ostensible propensity for hostility towards Africans. Especially later in the century, as local and international imperatives shifted, white elites increasingly sought to cloak continued white power in the veneer of nonracialism. Hence, overt racism came to be seen as uncivilized and the purview of poorer whites, who were blamed for racial tensions.

Thus these potentially disruptive or deviant whites were perpetually the objects of state discipline and rehabilitation—efforts to mold them into “proper” whites. Colonial states had vast resources at their disposal and used both welfare and punitive measures in a broad repertoire of interventionist racial disciplining. In apartheid South Africa, whites in the public service were subjected to often invasive and intimate forms of regulation and surveillance. Afrikaner elites clearly had little faith in their more humble brethren’s ability to provide the productive and ideological labor their project required of their own accord. In Southern Rhodesia, rehabilitation schemes aimed to turn recalcitrant white male youths into productive farmers, or lower-class girls into respectable women. Such efforts were routinely flouted. This is evident not only in archival evidence of whites absconding from under the nose of the racial state’s interventions, but in the very continuation of such efforts throughout the century.

The failure of state efforts to control poor and working-class whites demonstrates that non-hegemonic whites had their own ideas and pursued their own interests. This book shows that white indocility was much more widespread than existing literature recognizes, and that throughout the twentieth century, white elites regarded the lower-classes as threatening racial hierarchies. At the same time, the indocility of poor and working-class whites seldom amounted to actual transgression or sustained opposition to reigning racist practices, codes and behaviors, or the jettisoning of racial privilege. A focus on lower-class white agency therefore reveals race as functioning not in terms of clear dividing lines or borders, as the mythology held, but in terms of zones or spaces in which working-class realties produced room for maneuver and space for ambiguity.

The scholarship collected in this volume shows the extent to which race and class remained not only deeply entangled throughout the period of ostensibly monolithic white minority rule, but in fact was constitutive of white identities and animated state policy throughout the century. Today, Southern Africa is no longer ruled by whites. But since the 2008 economic crisis and the subsequent rise of right-wing populism, most visibly in the global north, workers and the poor are back in the spotlight. Class disrupted as much as race bound together in twentieth-century Southern Africa—today, this is still the case.

This is a condensed version of the Introduction of Rethinking White Societies in Southern Africa, 1930s-1990s (2020), published by Routledge, and edited by Money and Van Zyl-Hermann. The full introduction can be read for free here.

About the Author

Duncan Money is a historian of Central and Southern Africa during the 19th and 20th century.

Danelle van Zyl-Hermann is a social and cultural historian of South Africa.

Further Reading