1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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

Political Parties, Social Movements and Race Relations in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Draft)



This paper discusses the role played by South African political parties and other popularly based movements and organizations in the construction and sustaining of racial identities.

At least since 1994, and in certain cases for decades before, South African political organizations and social movements have attempted to define their programmes, beliefs and goals in ways that are 'non-racial'. Such efforts have been complicated by differences in the conception of non-racialism and difficulties involved in conceiving social reality in a race-blind fashion in a social context where institutions, culture and social inequalities are structured by racial distinctions.

The first South African political party to adopt a professedly non-racial rhetoric was the South African Liberal Party in 1959, though earlier, South African communists attempted to organize and mobilize around class interests. During the 1950s, the African National Congress (ANC) used the terminology of 'multi-racialism' in defining its goals and constructing alliances with other groups, and it refused membership to 'non-Africans'.

'Multiracialism' and 'non-racialism' have been understood in different ways by various organizations since then. Generally speaking, liberation movements and their supporters have opposed racial inequalities but have adopted inconsistent positions on the meaning of race itself. As elsewhere, nationalist celebration of cultural identity and communal history can come very close to endorsing notions of racial difference and promoting racial consciousness. 'Non-racial' rhetoric (and class analysis) became especially prevalent during the 1980s, when it was used by the United Democratic Front (in explicit opposition to the Black Consciousness movement) and when trade unions supplied the most powerful organizational base for liberation politics.

Following a historical introduction, the paper examines the relevance of race-based identities in the ways in which modern political parties attempt to build their followings. Though, theoretically, South Africa's proportional representation electoral system supplies strong incentives for rival parties to convert support from each other's followings, several commentators have suggested that elections are merely racial censuses: that is, voters understand and define their interests in racial terms and support the party which appears to embody 'their' community.