NOTE: This essay was written in 1996. Some things have changed since then. Some things have not.
In “Racism’s Last Word,” an essay written for the catalogue of a 1983 exhibition entitled “Art against Apartheid” Jacques Derrida declares, “APARTHEID-may that remain the name from now on, the unique appellation for the ultimate racism in the world, the last of many” (291). Because of the reprehensible regime of apartheid, South Africa was considered a social, political and economic outcast to much of the free world.1 Now, post-apartheid South Africa presents itself as a champion of equality, tolerance and multiculturalism, but this transformation has come about slowly and at great cost. In the wake of these changes a new rhetoric emerges. Much of this new discourse is consciously designed to counteract nearly five decades of government-mandated separatist rhetoric and centuries of racism, intolerance and colonialist hegemony. Although no one should ever forget or dismiss the contributions of those who have sacrificed their lives, security and personal comfort in fighting apartheid, it is the rhetoric of these individuals, their leaders and their supporters that has caused and continues to create South Africa’s monumental transformation.
Now that South Africa is “post-apartheid,” an issue for rhetorical scholars and critical theorists to consider is whether South Africa is now or is in the process of becoming “postcolonial.” Postcolonialism, in addition to being a critical genre, has also become popular in rhetorical circles as a way to examine non-literary forms of discourse including political rhetoric. In “Post-Apartheid Narratives” Graham Pechey makes the following claim: “my concern here is to ask whether ‘post-apartheid’ is anything distinct from ‘postcolonial’ and whether it and the postmodern have anything to say to each other” (152). My essay has a similar purpose, which is to consider whether South Africa is becoming or is already postcolonial, and to consider whether post-apartheid rhetoric is congruent with postcolonial rhetoric. As with any issue concerning South Africa, there are rarely easy solutions or explanations. This nation’s history and current situation are so intricate and enigmatic that, naturally, its discourse is correspondingly complex. This is why I have chosen to take a deconstructionist approach not only to South African discourse, but to postcolonialism itself.
Although I could have approached South African postcolonialist discourse from a literary perspective, such as by examining contemporary South African poetry or the novels of Nadine Gordimer or John Coetzee, I have chosen instead to consider the nation of South African as its own text. The Republic of South Africa is actually quite new in that its most recent constitution was ratified in May of this year. I will briefly examine this constitution to consider whether it is itself a postcolonial text and whether this document has the potential to create an environment conducive to postcolonialism.
In order to explore post-apartheid South Africa’s postcolonial status, I should begin by breifly explaining what postocolonialism is. In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha states that “Postcolonial criticism bears witness to the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for the political and social authority within the modern world order” (171). Furthermore, in “Postcolonial Criticism,” Bhabha says, “it is from those who have suffered the sentence of history-subjugation, domination, diaspora, displacement-that we learn our most enduring lessons for living and thinking” (438). Because of its former policies of enforced racism and censorship, South Africa “bears witness to” these “unequal and uneven forces” perhaps more so than any other nation in modern times. South Africa offers great potential to teach us “lessons for living and thinking” because every South African people group has suffered these “sentence[s] of history.” Under apartheid, non-whites suffered injustice from the whites, and all South Africans have suffered the stigma and economic hardship of political and economic sanctions engendered by global anti-apartheid protests.
Pechey, however, argues that “‘postcolonial’ is only too often a polite expression for states that are both economically and culturally neocolonial” (author’s emphasis 152). In South Africa’s case, the term “neocolonial” is particularly apt because of its renewed status as a Commonwealth nation. From a postcolonialist perspective, renewing allegiance to a former colonial “motherland” would certainly seem to be a step backward. Therefore, the new, post-apartheid South Africa may not be postcolonial at all, but a reactivated colonialist state.
The process of becoming postcolonial, however, involves more than merely severing ties with a colonialist superpower. Postcolonialism is not necessarily the antithesis of colonialism. Colonialism and postcolonialism are not mutually exclusive because postcolonialism has little to do with political systems or alliances but with attitudes. In fact, postcolonialism often espouses much of what remains of colonialism. A postcolonialist mentality envisions a worldview in which the peoples of a colonized nation look to their ancestral roots for cultural relevance while at the same time considering themselves a people united beyond cultural and racial differences. One of the goals of postcolonialist thought is to eliminate the “us vs. them” binarism that has plagued colonial societies. Postcolonialism is not merely about declaiming European expansionism, but examining what has been lost and what continues to be suppressed by discourse that privileges Western or Eurocentric ideals at the expense of the other. Postcolonialism promotes a viewpoint in which the colonizers do not overempower the colonized. Since this also is a goal and purpose of the New South Africa, then this nation is postcolonial in spite of its colonialism.
South Africa’s current desire for wholeness, unity and equality is exemplary, especially considering its turbulent history. A cursory examination of this history is necessary in order to understand South African discourse and to understand why studying South Africa is crucial from a postcolonialist standpoint. South African history is one of ceaseless conflict both from without and from within. Geographically and metaphorically, South Africa is nestled between the East and the West. This physical and philosophical location generates diversity in perspective and cultures, but it also has resulted in virtually insurmountable polarities.
Established as a farming outpost in the seventeenth century to provide fresh produce to the Dutch East India Company’s merchant mariners, South Africa was the midway point between Europe and Asia-a benchmark between the Old World and the New. As European nations vied for global domination and investment companies grappled for plundered wealth, South Africa became a pawn in the rivalries among the Netherlands, England and France. Until this century, South Africa was not its “own.”
There is no question that South Africa was once colonial, but whether it has philosophically left colonialism behind is not as certain. In any colonized society, the attitudes and policies of colonialism tend to linger for decades, even centuries, after the original conquering powers have returned home and their descendants have created for themselves a new culture in a new land. Racist attitudes, especially toward the indigenous peoples, are passed down from the founding settlers through subsequent generations. For South Africa, this colonialist imprint was to flourish into one of the worst incidents of racism and oppression of the modern era: apartheid.
South Africa’s policy toward its indigenous inhabitants had never been one of equality and fairness, yet this racism-as-policy is very recent. Derrida says, “although racial segregation didn’t wait for the name apartheid to come along, that name became order’s watchword and won its title in the political code of South Africa only at the end of the Second World War” (291). South Africa’s apartheid era began in 1948, shortly after much of the world had fought a costly campaign against one of this century’s most brutal racial crimes: the holocaust. In the wake of the fall of Nazi Germany, South Africa imposed a less-aggressive, but more insidious form of systematic racism. This regime of separation was not merely about ignoring or obliterating diversity, but seeking to destroy the other through cultural, social and economic negotiation. Apartheid deliberately executed Bhabha’s “sentence of history.” Apartheid was not merely a case of apathy and neglect by a government or a society, but aggressive, systematic oppression; as a South African friend of mine observes, “it was about the administration of dispossession.”2 (emphasis mine)
Apartheid had become a synecdoche for South Africa itself. Seeing the New South Africa as a multi-cultural, anti-totalitarian society requires deconstructing the sign of apartheid without expunging it from South African discourse. This is not to say that we negate the significance of apartheid, but we scrutinize the importance of this term to South Africa’s cultural text. A postcolonial analysis of apartheid includes not only examining apartheid as a colonialist sign, but also examining its significance as a postcolonial concept.
In “Discontinuity and Postcolonial Discourse,” Sara Mills makes this assertion about Pechey’s argument that apartheid is not necessarily the epitome of colonialism:
Pechey argues that it is a mistake to see the situation of apartheid South Africa simply as colonial, to see apartheid, for example as a form of “internal colonialism”; instead, “we need to see that what coincides in South Africa are not two ‘superstructural’ spheres on one ‘infrastructure’ but rather so many ‘nows’ lived alongside each other.” (77)
Although post-apartheid South Africa holds great promise for postcolonialist study, in some ways South Africa was postcolonial before the abolition of apartheid.
Technically, South Africa has been “postcolonial” for most of this century since it successfully became independent from England, and, therefore, from European colonialist rule, in 1910. Although apartheid seems to be the ultimate manifestation of colonialism, ironically and paradoxically, apartheid itself was postcolonial act because it was a way of asserting South Africa’s autonomy. In “Rehearsals of Liberation: Contemporary Postcolonial Discourse and the New South Africa” Rosemary Jolly claims,
Afrikaner nationalists believed that they were defending this independence [from Britain] and accepted the isolation that resulted from international antiapartheid policies as the price of freedom. It is impossible to understand the psychology of nationalist Afrikaners as colonizers without understanding that they continued to see themselves as victims of English colonization and that the imagined continuation of this victimization was used to justify the maintenance of apartheid. . . . Afrikaner nationalists have always seen themselves as true postcolonials. (22)
Derrida’s rationale for apartheid is less sympathetic for the plight of the Afrikaners, but, nevertheless, portrays the mentality of a race that considered themselves the disempowered other and, therefore, chose to empower themselves by intensifying the marginalization of every group in South Africa:
At a time when all racisms on the face of the earth were condemned, it was in the world’s face that the National party dared to campaign “for the separate development of each race in the geographic zone assigned to it.” (italics in original 291, 92)
This “in your face” strategy did indeed attain the world-wide attention that Afrikaner nationalists may have consciously or subconsciously desired, but only furthered the problem of marginalization.
As white South Africans marginalized the indigenous population through apartheid, apartheid, in turn, marginalized those who enforced it. Jolly makes this observation about Derrida’s critique of apartheid:
[“Racism’s Last Word”] calls on the (non-South African) audience to be subjects who perceive racism as a global problem and simultaneously poses apartheid as a (South African) object that is unfit by virtue of its spectacular otherness. (20)
In other words, even condemning another society’s colonialism is itself a colonialist act since once again we are asserting a Manichaean opposition. In this case, South Africa under apartheid was an evil empire to be denounced as a vile spectacle of inhumanity. Merely labeling apartheid as “bad” or “wrong” does not address the deeper issues of this very complex phenomena, nor does this binarism propose a means to deal with a potential resurgence of apartheid or another form of intolerance.
There is no way to purge the South African narrative from colonialist imprints and there is no reason to try to do so since colonialist and postcolonialist discourse are not necessarily exclusive of each other. South Africa’s uniqueness stems from its pluralism as troubling as this may be at times. “The history of South Africa is less the simple triumph of one such narrative of collective identity over another than an irreducible plurality of imagined communities that are not deaf to each other as their manifest mutual contradiction might give out” (Pechey 155). The coalescence of these narratives is itself part of South Africa’s narrative development.
Apartheid will always be a part of the South African text however shameful its presence and painful its memory. To ignore it would cause this text to unravel. Because of apartheid, considering the South African narrative as a single text is difficult since its narratives, like its society, have been forced to develop separately. The only way to consider the South African text an aggregate of many cultures is to include apartheid as a narrative factor rather than attempting to dissociate it from the cultural narrative.
Now since the era of apartheid has ended and South Africa has once again submitted itself to colonialist rule, the questions to consider now are whether South Africa is still postcolonial or if it is postcolonial again but in a different way.
Just as apartheid was the “law of the land” in South Africa for much of the twentieth century, the inverse of apartheid, which has no “unique appellation,” is now the standard. The legal foundation for this post-apartheid policy is the new South African Constitution.
As a political document, South Africa’s constitution holds great promise for rhetorical and cultural studies, especially in the area of postcolonial criticism. Although the oppressive policies of the apartheid regime began to be curtailed in the 1980s and were completely eradicated by the early 1990s, this new constitution affirms South Africa’s desire to break from its oppressive, racist past to become a unified nation. President Nelson Mandela’s concept of “black unity” is one “that anticipates the constitution of the South African people as a community of equals at the same time as it heightens the opposition by uniting the groups opposed to the upholders of white supremacy” (Bernasconi 118).
The word “apartheid” appears nowhere in the new constitution, but it has a strong rhizomatic presence. Although much of the constitution is, naturally, devoted to legislation governing the quotidian affairs of state, the ostensibly anti-apartheid sections are particularly notable. Parts of the constitution seem to declare “whatever apartheid was, we will now have the opposite.” For this essay, I will briefly synopsize these sections that best exemplify apartheid’s antithesis.
The Preamble to the South African Constitution is an eloquent précis of the post-apartheid Weltanschauung that offers the purpose of the constitution itself while defining the goals of the nation. Unlike the confident tone of the Preamble to the United States Constitution, this Preamble begins with a humble and apologetic tone:
We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
The terms “Recognise,” “Honour,” and “Respect” in these lines are notable because they give the text a quality of hyper-sensitivity. From this opening statement and throughout the text, the South African Constitution consciously seeks to recognize and affirm the “other.”
The New South African constitution, however, is not necessarily postcolonial merely because it challenges what we would consider colonialist. A postcolonialist constitution may, in fact, be oxymoronic since constitutions are inherently colonialistic. Pre-colonial forms of government rarely rest upon the collective acceptance of a written or even orally transmitted document, but upon rule by tradition, military prowess, superstition or fear. Constitutions evolved as a means to administer power without an obvious display of this power. Constitutions are colonialistic because they assert an arbitrary order as a “natural” one, an order evident to those who embrace the same set of cultural values. Because of the diversity of values in South Africa, the possibility of a constitution being accepted by all groups is unrealistic if not impossible.
Sometimes in order to maintain a postcolonialist atmosphere for the majority, some colonialism may be necessary. For example, consider the constitution’s attitude toward tribal government: “The institution, status and role of traditional leadership, according to customary law, are recognised, subject to the Constitution.” (emphasis mine, 12.211.1). Although recognizing traditional leaders is a positive move toward postcolonialism, the fact that tribal law is secondary to constitutional law maintains colonialistic authority structures. In order to maintain the egalitarian ideals of the new government, a constitutional hierarchy is necessary, especially in consideration of women’s issues and the needs of others who may be ignored or disempowered by traditional leadership such as gays, people with disabilities, or members of other ethnic or tribal groups. As Bernasconi notes, “Tribalism was one of the contributing causes of white domination and it remains a ‘mortal foe of African nationalism'” (111).
In order to understand whether this constitution can address the values of all South Africans, it is important to examine what these values are. The Founding Provisions in Chapter One states,
1. The Republic of South Africa is one sovereign democratic state founded on the following values:
(a) Human dignity, the achievement of equality and advancement of human rights and freedoms.
(b) Non-racialism and non-sexism.
(c) Supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.
(d) Universal adult suffrage, a national common voters roll, regular elections, and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.
These values are those of the Republic, which by no means assures that all citizens will agree with these values. But by whom are these values determined? The issue of who decided what values are privileged is especially important in an era when power structures are still in flux. While the new South African constitution reflects new values of human dignity and equality for all and opposition to racism and sexism, many of its democratic values privilege Eurocentric ideals; this privileging is in opposition to the objectives of the new South Africa.
Although South Africa is a “black” country in which whites and individuals of other races represent small minorities, the constitution, nevertheless, seems to continue to assert white, European hegemony. For example, “In the event of an inconsistency between different texts of the Constitution, the English text prevails” (14.240). This statement marginalizes other versions of the constitution including the Afrikaans version.
But privileging English over the other ten official languages is not necessarily an overt colonialist move since English is the most easily recognized and most commonly spoken language in South Africa3. From a postcolonialist perspective, an African text can employ a European language and still be uniquely “African.” One way the constitution could be interpreted as an African or “black” text is in the way Henry Louis Gates defines them: “black texts are ‘mulattoes’ (or ‘mulatas’), with a two-toned heritage: these texts speak in standard Romance or Germanic languages and literary structures, but almost always speak with a distinct and resonant accent” (xxiii). From this perspective, English (and Afrikaans) are as legitimately “black” languages as Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiNdebele, isiXhosa or isiZulu. There is nothing necessarily colonialistic about privileging English over other languages provided that this language is accessible to all.
Is it possible, then, for a western textual construction to become the embodiment of a postcolonial ideal? The answer is “yes” if one considers postcolonialism from a viewpoint that does not perceive Western and non-Western ideologies as mutually exclusive. Again, we must consider Pechey’s question to find out whether the colonial and the postcolonial “have anything to say to each other.”
In “Politics beyond Humanism,” Robert Bernasconi discusses Derrida’s opinion of Nelson Mandela, who is now president of South Africa and who strongly influenced the framing of this constitution. In the following excerpt, Bernasconi examines Derrida’s questioning of Mandela’s adherence to Eurocentric political philosophies:
Derrida asks at the outset about Mandela’s admiration for Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, the Bill of Rights, and British political institutions, which would seem to associate him inextricably with a European, even an Anglo-American, history. (106)
According to Derrida, Mandela would certainly quality as a colonialist, yet a cursory examination of his biography reveals an individual who has personally suffered Bhabha’s “sentence of history.” Few people better exemplify the essence of postcolonialism than Nelson Mandela. On a broader scale, one should question whether there anything necessarily un-African about associating oneself with European or American ideals. Assuming that all societies have suffered “the sentence of history,” understanding how all societies have dealt with this sentence promotes greater understanding for dealing with similar situations.
South Africa provides great potential in the field of rhetoric because it is an endless chain of signification always seeming to be on the verge of aporia. South Africa epitomizes paradox as First World and Third World, Western and non-Western, black and white. The South African Nation is borne of conflict. Bhabha claims, “It is in the emergence of the interstices-the overlap and displacement of domains and difference-that the intersubjective and collective experience of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated” (2). This African nation and European colony is an ever-self-deconstructing sign, a metaphor of the never-ending struggle between opposition and unity.
South Africa cannot be capriciously labeled as “colonial,” “postcolonial,” “neocolonial,” or “anticolonial” merely to suit our needs as scholars as the future of real human beings and the destiny of a nation are at stake. Whether the new South African government and its constitution is a good start or “too little too late” will not be determined for quite some time and even then there will always be questions over whether the changes that came about provided the promised results. The possibility of the once ruling class, the minority whites, now becoming the victims of neomarginalization is a serious concern not only for those who would suffer the immediate effects but for all those who desire a fully-equitable South Africa. Furthermore, Blacks and other non-whites may find that this new empowerment is fleeting or, at the very least, does not fulfill the desired expectations. A recurrence of what happened in post-World-War-II South Africa may happen again:
the plight of finding themselves forcibly written into somebody else’s narrative of redemption-after-long-persecution; in the condition (just when it seemed they would enjoy the fruits of the victors) of being . . . “victims of victims.” (Pechey 153)
Regretfully, “apartheid” was and is not “racism’s last word” as Derrida, and others, had hoped. Bernasconi says, “If Derrida’s conception of the last racism is not to be preposterous, and absurd pipe-dream it must find its underpinning in the framework of the closure, rather than an end, of racism” (105). Even if South Africa truly has abandoned its racist past, others have only begun to write their own histories of systematic racism. One need not look any further than the former Yugoslavia or Iraq’s treatment of the Kurdish people to see that racism is a human condition, regardless of ethnic background or current political situation.
Because of South Africa’s potential for social and political instability, much of what has been gained could easily be lost or replaced by something worse. Changes in the rhetoric of state, as those expressed in the South African Constitution, are meaningless if other forms of rhetoric do not follow suit. Art, literature, film, and mass media will certainly reflect the aspirations of the new South Africa. But unless the rhetoric of the individual and the local community changes, these public changes will be insignificant in the private sphere of discourse. Until anti-apartheid rhetoric is the standard in the workplace, the schoolyard, the pubs and, most importantly, the home, all other forms of “official” rhetoric will lack significance.
1. Although many of the attitudes and the effects of apartheid remain, South Africa has officially forsaken apartheid. In respect for this move, I will refer to apartheid in the past tense.
2. Special thanks to my good friend Rado from whose Master’s Thesis on urban planning (unpublished, U of Queensland, 1995) this quotation comes and without whose help and encouragement this essay would not have been written.
3. Language accessibility is certainly a concern in South Africa, an issue which can and should be dealt with from a postcolonial perspective. The parameters of this argument, however, are far too broad for the scope of this paper.
Bernasconi, Robert. “Politics beyond Humanism: Mandela and the Struggle against Apartheid.” Working through Derrida. Ed. Gary B. Madison. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern U P, 1993.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
— . “Postcolonial Criticism.” Redrawing the Boundaries. Ed. Stephen Greenblat and Giles Gunn. 437-465.
Derrida, Jacques. “Racism’s Last Word.” Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 290-299.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford U P, 1989.
Jolly, Rosemary. “Rehearsals of Liberation: Contemporary Postcolonial Discourse and the New South Africa.” PMLA 110 (1995): 17-29.
Mills, Sara. “Discontinuity and Postcolonial Discourse.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 23 (1995): 73-88.
Pechey, Graham. “Post-Apartheid Narratives.” Colonial Discourse/Postcolonial Theory. Ed. Francis Barker, et. al. Manchester: Manchester U P, 1994.