Whiteness in Southern Africa – an interview

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Title: Rethinking white societies in southern Africa: 1930s–1990s
Editors: Duncan Money, Danelle van Zyl-Hermann

Publisher: Routledge
ISBN: 9780367376420

This book showcases new research by emerging and established scholars on white workers and the white poor in southern Africa. Rethinking white societies in southern Africa challenges the geographical and chronological limitations of existing scholarship by presenting case studies from Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe that track the fortunes of nonhegemonic whites during the era of white minority rule. Arguing against prevalent understandings of white society as uniformly wealthy or culturally homogeneous during this period, it demonstrates how social class remained a salient element throughout the twentieth century, how southern Africa’s white societies were often divided and riven with tension, and how the resulting social, political and economic complexities animated white minority regimes in the region. Addressing themes such as the class-based disruption of racial norms and practices, state surveillance and interventions – and their failures – towards nonhegemonic whites, and the opportunities and limitations of physical and social mobility, the book mounts a forceful argument for the regional consideration of white societies in this historical context. Centrally, it extends the path-breaking insights emanating from scholarship on racialised class identities from North America to the African context to argue that race and class cannot be considered independently in southern Africa.


Duncan Money and Danelle van Zyl-Hermann, editors of Rethinking white societies in southern Africa, 1930s–1990s (Routledge, 2020) chat to Cliffordene Norton.

Duncan Money (Photo: provided)

Congratulations on the publication of your book, Rethinking white societies in southern Africa, 1930s–1990s. What was the inspiration behind this book? 

Thank you! The project originated from conversations around our mutual research interests: we are both historians who pursue more nuanced and critical understandings of how race and class interests intersect, and how this has shaped people’s identities, actions and forms of organisation over time.

Duncan investigates these kinds of questions using the case study of white mineworkers on the Zambian Copperbelt in the colonial and post-colonial periods, while Danelle has been studying the experiences of South Africa’s white workers with the transition from apartheid to democracy.

We met after completing our PhDs, when we both joined the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein as postdoctoral research fellows. There, we started discussing the similarities and differences in our research findings, and the questions which remained unanswered. This is how we decided to initiate this project of writing a regional history of white societies in southern Africa in the twentieth century.

Danelle van Zyl-Hermann (Photo: provided)

Why a regional history of whites? And why this specific period?

The history of white societies during the period of white minority rule is understood too simplistically. The idea of whites in colonial Africa conjures up images of 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. Such stereotypes present whites as a uniformly wealthy and homogenous group, secure atop a binary power structure.

This view of the past equates race and class, so that the one is understood as a consequence of the other in the context of a race-based order. As a result, this section of African society is assumed to have shared political, economic and social interests and values, simply on account of the colour of their skin. Some politicians and historians continue to make this misjudgement.

We wanted to challenge this view – not because we think race-based privilege did not exist, but because the assumption that there were no real class divisions within white society inadvertently reproduces the propaganda and myths of white minority regimes – the “classless” volk of apartheid South Africa, or the supposed egalitarianism of white Rhodesia. White societies were in fact much more varied, complicated and interesting – and today we live in a world which bears the imprint of these relations.

The realities of working-class and poor whites’ lives, in particular, are silenced in such stereotypical views of the past. Of course, historians have documented the experiences of these groups in the early twentieth century, when poor whites flocked to the cities after the South African War to look for work in the mines around Johannesburg. But there is the idea that, after the Great Depression, the work of the Carnegie Commission and the start of National Party rule in 1948, poor and working-class whites “disappeared” as all whites became wealthy and powerful in the apartheid state. And this story from South Africa is understood to represent what happened across the region, without much actual research into whether this was really the case.

Both our individual research projects already showed that working-class whites remained an important part of Zambian and South African societies (and economies) throughout the twentieth century. We wondered to what extent this was the case in other countries in the region. Moreover, we were eager to attempt a kind of history writing which looked beyond national borders to compare experiences and illuminate connections, thus bringing us to a more thorough understanding of the entangled workings of race and class.

Rethinking white societies in southern Africa presents case studies from Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Why did you choose these five countries? 

We formulated our assessment of the existing scholarship and the gaps we identified, into an invitation to researchers to take part in a workshop around this theme. We were very excited to receive submissions from a range of people – from PhD students to senior academics. Our case studies reflect the countries on which their research focuses.

Unfortunately, Namibia and Botswana are clearly still missing from this research agenda. Nevertheless, our case studies allowed us to compare developments and experiences in parts of the British empire (Zambia and Zimbabwe), the Portuguese empire (Angola and Mozambique) and South Africa as a British dominion and later an independent, minority-ruled republic.

South Africa, of course, had by far the largest white population in the region, but the other states also had substantial numbers of white residents, and many of these states worked hard throughout this period to attract more white European immigrants.

Photo: Pixabay.com

Indeed, the minority-ruled states of this era had very specific ideas of what white colonial societies should look like, and state institutions actively pursued forms of social engineering to try to achieve their visions. It became clear during our workshop conversations that lower-class whites across the region often had complicated relationships with state institutions, precisely because they were perceived to challenge the homogeneity, conformity and respectability that states desired.

So, if white societies weren’t uniform during this period, what were they like?

White societies were inherently fragile and divided. Differences surrounding ethnicity, political attitudes and length of stay in the colonies produced tensions and had real consequences in everyday interactions and opportunities. This meant that racial identity alone was never the sole marker of social status and power in the region.

This was most clearly the case when it came to issues of social class – the focus of our book. Working-class and poor whites, in particular, did not fit easily into the colonial racial order. Often, their lives were more closely intertwined with black Africans – they lived and worked closer together and, as a result, maintained social relations which did not always conform to the accepted master-servant pattern. This provoked constant anxieties among white elites. They feared that lower-class whites could undermine the carefully constructed racial boundaries on which white rule depended.

Throughout the twentieth century, therefore, white workers and poor whites were subjected to forms of state disciplining, surveillance and social engineering resembling those imposed on black populations – albeit in different forms.

Ivo Mhike’s chapter in the book describes how the state in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) sought to mould white teenage “delinquents” into proper white settlers by setting up “rehabilitative” institutions and training them for agricultural work to keep them out of the cities. Neil Roos explores how South Africa’s white civil servants – whose numbers were increased enormously in the early years of apartheid – were closely monitored, not only in terms of their work performance, but also in terms of their personal demeanour, physical appearance, dress and use of alcohol. Perhaps more than anything, sexual relations across the colour line provoked acute fears of racial degeneration among the authorities.

In his chapter, George Bishi shows how European immigrants – otherwise welcomed in Southern Rhodesia to bolster white population numbers – were labelled “undesirable whites” and thrown out of the country if they were found to have intimate relations with Africans. Corporate interests were also involved in efforts to regulate lower-class white lives.

Bill Freund’s research shows how the steel giant Iscor planned its new town of Vanderbijlpark in such a way as to separate not just black from white, but also lower-class whites from wealthier whites, with working-class neighbourhoods subject to strict regulations for suburban neatness. Unsurprisingly, such efforts to regulate working-class lives bred antagonistic and rebellious attitudes towards white power wielders.

Drawing attention to these divisions within white society and saying that whites did not all have the same kind of power and privileges does not mean that their white skin was meaningless. Lower-class whites definitely enjoyed privilege and opportunities that were not available to black people at the time. Indeed, while we found widespread evidence of working-class and poor whites transgressing social rules and practices and flouting official regulations, there are very few examples of such whites willing to completely abandon the measure of privilege bestowed by their white skin, and no examples of any of them questioning the legitimacy of the racial state. This starts to reveal the complicated ways in which race and class intersected in everyday life.

Your book also presents unexpected findings about white mobility during this period. Could you tell us more about this?

It was an important political claim of white minority regimes in this era that whites were a permanent presence in the region. Historians subsequently also tend to see whites as “settlers”. Our research shows that this was not always the case – significant parts of white societies were not very settled at all.

In his chapter, Jon Hyslop shows how some poor whites shuffled around the region – looking for work, pursuing family connections which might offer support, seeking charity in cities or taking recourse to the countryside, where they might find unskilled work.

White workers also frequently moved around the region, and some were mobile on a global scale. Northern Rhodesia’s white miners frequently moved across the British empire, alternating working on the Zambian Copperbelt with stints in Australian and British mines. These global connections made for strong working-class solidarities between trade unions on different continents. Duncan’s research shows that their mobility also meant that the Copperbelt’s white miners were not very attached to their political surroundings. Though they displayed racist attitudes in the workplace, they were not concerned about Zambian independence under a black majority government in 1964. And this was not the case in British spheres of influence only.

Districts of Copperbelt Province, Zambia (Photo: Lighton Phiri [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia commons)

Caio Simões de Araújo and Cláudia Castelo’s chapters show that the Portuguese empire was particularly eager to move its rural poor to its colonatos in Angola and Mozambique. These people’s identities, beliefs and ways of life travelled with them and were re-established and adapted in colonial settings – often to the annoyance of colonial authorities and wealthier white settlers.

But whites were not only physically mobile – social mobility was also very important. Particularly lower-class whites, like those mentioned above, moved around in the hope of moving up in the world in status and in financial terms. Some were successful: Copperbelt miners earned very high wages while their industry boomed. In contrast, Nicola Ginsburgh shows how the white railway workers who came to Southern Rhodesia hoping for upward social mobility were often frustrated in the face of wages too low to maintain the expected “European” standard of living and prestige.

In South Africa, white social mobility was a state project as well as a matter of individual intent. Bill Freund’s chapter describes how Iscor’s policy of “civilised labour” was less about maintaining white workers’ standards of living and more about “civilising” an impoverished workforce into the state’s image of a respectable working class. Of course, social mobility was also precarious.

Danelle’s research shows how white miners in South Africa desperately defended the racist laws which protected their jobs – especially in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the white government moved to scrap these laws. This placed white workers in conflict with white politicians and business people, who often looked down on them and, by this point in the century, considered them no longer essential to the economy. These white miners genuinely feared slipping down the class and race ladder into white poverty.

Take us through the process of compiling and editing the book.

After soliciting researchers working on these themes, we organised a workshop at the University of the Free State in early 2018. Here, we welcomed participants working in universities in South Africa, Zimbabwe, the US, the UK and Portugal. Each contributor to the workshop gave a presentation on their research, which formed the basis for the broader discussion about how race and class worked in the region during this period, and what kind of broad similarities and differences could be identified. Subsequently, the participants submitted draft chapters to us as editors, and we worked with them to refine their ideas and shape the entire volume into a coherent whole.

The manuscript was then submitted to UK-based publisher Routledge and reviewed by international experts. It was published in print in February 2020 and soon afterwards selected by Routledge for open access publication. This means that the complete book can be read online and downloaded for free here: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781003002307.

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Assemblage-teorie, affek en witwees. ’n Alternatiewe blik op die werking van witwees

The volksmoeder, ordentlikheid and whiteness

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