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Socioemotional Apartheid


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Socioemotional Apartheid

Socioemotional Apartheid

1st February 2017


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of

In opposition to the smug claims of some South African thought leaders that unlike in other multiracial nations such as Brazil and my homeland America that this nation is far ahead of the eight ball in race relations progress, personal experiences here as an African American social scientist have been rudely teaching me otherwise.


For instance, a few mornings ago, an older White South African handyman came by my Cape Town flat with his Black South African helper to fix a sliding door problem. Since he was so loud in doing so, I could not help in hearing the handyman rudely ordering his helper around  at times even calling him stupid and threatening to send him back him. The helper just mumbled responses and did what he was told.

It brought back memories of two other incidents when last year for a few months I lived in Johannesburg, behind a mall in Randburg, clearly Afrikaner country. I was renting a flat from an East Indian couple who were the only Non-White property owners for blocks around. One Saturday morning, I opened the door due to a knock to see in front of me an older White man who without greeting me demanded to be let into the flat insisting he was the owner. When I refused to so, he became flustered but turned around and walked away. When I called the East Indian property owners, the husband came over immediately and explained that the property was still in the process of being transferred to them. Seeing their success, the former owner was making a habit of returning to the property to harass their new tenants out of jealousy. They proceeded to tell me how White neighbours threw trash on their lawn when they first moved into a house in the neighbourhood.


The second incident which comes to mind occurred in my favourite Joburg Mall coffee shop where I, as a brown skinned African American, used to enjoy sitting on a comfortable couch with enough room for two people. One day, I put my bag on the couch and went for my usual ginger drink. When I came back, there was a young White male in suburban attire who had decided to sit there as well.

When I was about to sit down, he sprung to his feet saying “I don’t want to sit next to you.” When I told him there was enough space for the two of us, he again repeated he did not wish to sit next to me.

These casual ethnographic micro-narratives regarding observations of how White South Africans treat people who are Black skinned and of lighter though still brown tones simply reinforce what I have noticed where ever I have travelled throughout the country off and on since 1999 with even more deeper experiences since I have begun to live in South Africa first in Johannesburg and now in Cape Town over the past two years. It is quite common to see Whites to walk past Blacks and non-white others in Malls and on the streets and elsewhere as if they do not see them and for Non-Whites to do the same to Whites and to other Non-Whites as well. In not a few stores I have frequented, service is racially cured with Whites helping Whites and non-whites helping Non-Whites depending upon the visual racial categorization.

There have been restaurants in which I would have to wait as a non-white until Whites are seated or served first with denials of course when I bring the issue up to the waitperson or to the manager. While in Joburg while speaking in an American accent to a prospective white woman landlord who assumed I too was White warned me not to walk around her plush suburb to instead like “all of us” get a car since it was too dangerous to walk outside the premises. “And don’t get into a taxi with those crazy Black drivers.”

This all stems of course from what I have coined as socioemotional apartheid. Socioemotional apartheid like its peer socioecomotional Jim Crow in America, continues in such full force though the frameworks of legal and public policy apartheid of course ended in the early 1990s.

Apartheid is a horrible master narrative deeply rooted in the formation of Afrikaner colonial and then radical nationalist culture with English cultural collaboration embedded in memories of clashes with Zulus and other indigenous peoples and the British concentration turned death camps where nearly 70,000 Boer women and children and countless Africans died in the course of the Second Boer War. Apartheid, as a possible form of national governance   was solidified in the formation of Daniel Malan’s Radical Nationalist Party which emerged in the 1930s in opposition to Boers and English who wanted to create a fusion white culture completely disenfranchising tribal Blacks and partially coloureds and Indians depending on the providence. And through the unexpected electoral win of Malan in 1948, for 46 years, apartheid would become the living hades for the non-white majority with a minority living in mortal fear.

The historical depth of apartheid as a horrible way to structure and carry forth a society no matter how enlightened it’s proponents were as national leaders was in other way such as power utilities, farming, road construction, and medical sciences is the reason why in 2017,23 years after the ascent of Black Majority rule in South Africa, the country remains a place where Blacks and non-Blacks experience grave difficulty even looking at each other in the eye let alone saying hello and really meaning it.

It should not be surprising as terrible as it has been that in most cases the white response to Black Majority rule was to and still is to jail cell themselves in behind high walled fences with electrical barbed wire on top with  giant killer dogs living with them inside the gate. Their children are driven everywhere even down to the corner to get a soda pop fearful of kidnappings and murders. And of course there is the fear of even going near townships let alone in them as well as in racialised Black urban and rural regions depicted in the media and in the minds of many White and other South Africans as “naturally” dangerous crime infested violent places.

The perpetual White fear of blood baths which has never come to full reality of course with a deep patronising view of Non-Whites rendering them invisible and in other ways irrelevant except for cheap labour is matched by deeply rooted Black and other non-white pent up hatred towards whites and towards each other. Just last night before writing this, I was talking to a Southern African post graduate student in a Cape Town based university who told me about a Black South African friend of his who made it clear that he would not be satisfied until every Afrikaner left South Africa.

It brings to more immediate mind the historically rooted socioemotionally reason why University Management – largely Black student movement for free education on major historically elite White campuses now majority Non-White student bodies continue to go nowhere. It is largely a generational problem in a socioemotional apartheid nation state in which White administrators and their highly assimilated middle class Black and other Non-White colleagues are stumped in knowing how to effectively communicate with a new generation of Blacks spewing pent up anger of the ages falling outside the norms of paternal asymmetrical civility. And the same goes for emerging generations of Blacks and other non-whites with competitive skill sets who walk off the job and even leave the country rather than be bothered with the unreconstructed racism of White employers who simply still do not get it or want to in how they think about and treat non-whites.

When we think about human rights and accountability for the human rights of each other as a transitional justice issue in post-conflict societies where race or some other dehumanising socially constructed status defining has been historically central in building and sustaining power and privilege in nation state formation, transitional justice scholars and public policy makers rarely acknowledge what happens every day inregards to the micro-aggressions and discriminations  occurring in negative verbal and bodily interpersonal interactional experiences.

As long as every day socioemotional apartheid generates routinised and intentional micro-aggressions and discriminations amongst the various racialised ethnic populations of citizens and immigrants, the legal and public policy frameworks of justice such as anti-apartheid laws and policies and compensatory programmes such as affirmative action will never gain significant fruition in broader civil society systems and sectors, and in grass roots communities. Instead there will remain a gap between what the State proclaims constitutionally and in public policy declarations regarding fairness and respect in human treatment and what happens every day in the lives of a multicultural society. It is a gap in South Africa between the proclamations of interracial human rights and what actually happens every day which becomes expressed in spasms of interracial  socioemotional aggression and violence if not physical be it on or off university campuses, in urban and suburban communities and in rural areas.

Written by Prof John H Stanfield II, a Research Fellow and Research Director in Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery (DGSD) programme of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) but his views do not necessarily reflect those of DGSD-HSRC. Professor Stanfield is a widely published African American sociologist now residing and working in South Africa.


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