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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009)

The Social Construction of Race and Citizenship in South Africa (Draft)



The spirit and practice that characterized European relations with so-called non-European others can be summed up in two words: white supremacy. In 1776, Adam Smith in his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations described two events that he said 'were the greatest and most important in the history of mankind'. These were the 'discovery of America, and the passage to the east Indies by way of the Cape of Good Hope'. 'What benefits, or what misfortune to mankind may hereafter result from these great events', he went on, 'no human wisdom can foresee'. But it was possible for Smith, even in 1776, to foresee that 'the savage injustice of Europeans' toward those Europe was in the process of colonizing would 'render an event, which ought to have been beneficial to all, ruinous and destructive to several of those unfortunate countries'.

In Capital (volume I), first published in 1867, Karl Marx wrote that the 'discovery of gold and silver in America', led to the 'extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of indigenous populations, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for commercial hunting of black skins', which he said were 'all things which characterize the dawn of capitalist production'. Marx goes on to remind us that 'while the cotton industry introduced child slavery into England, in the United States it gave the impulse for the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery' into a system of commercial exploitation'. Indeed, he says, 'the veiled slavery of the wage labourers in Europe needed for its pedestal the unqualified slavery of the New World'.

In this paper, I explore the use of race to perpetrate and naturalize the 'savage injustice', and 'the unqualified slavery' of settler colonialism that we in South Africa only emerged from in 1994.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jan 2001
    From: UNRISD