South Africa


Sitting Pretty — White Afrikaans Women in Post-apartheid South Africa

Sitting Pretty — White Afrikaans Women in Post-apartheid South Africa

Unacknowledged shame ensnares humans in repetitions of emotions, such as anger, and therefore forecloses change. Acknowledged shame opens different options. It allows recognition of the Other that enables the refusal of oppressive racial, gender and sexual discourses. Therefore, it opens the potential for upending whiteness.

Judging by South Africa’s existence of just over 100 years as a unitary state, its inhabitants have been entangled in twisting coils of anger and unacknowledged shame. It goes without saying that these emotions work against the political task at hand, which is to overturn centuries of dehumanisation and thereby democratise social relations.

It is a truism that particularly Afrikaners have excelled at doing unto others what had been done unto them. The wound of the South African War (1899-1902) was wielded to further wound those around them. In early 21st century South Africa, it would seem that cycle is accelerating again.

To counteract the shame of inflicting apartheid and colonialism on this land, some white people are parading a revolting hubris, also in racist performances on social media. Cultural brokers and other opportunists are swooping in to capitalise on a growing disenchantment as a result of the failings of the post-apartheid regime.

While this article focuses on whiteness, it should be read in the context of globally rising racial populisms of all hues. In South Africa white and black populisms feed off, and spur one another on. These populisms have in common that they crib discourses from the Global North, and mobilise hostile emotions against not only people racialised as Other, but also gendered and sexualised Others.

Emotion is central to this politics, which makes the liberal wish of so-called rational politics, devoid of affect, exactly that – wishful thinking. I concur with political philosopher Chantal Mouffe’s argument for a position that acknowledges that emotion is inherent to politics.

Therefore it becomes a question of inspiring passions towards a politics against domination and for democratic values. In South Africa’s case, these values are human dignity, freedom and equality, as contained in our first democratic Constitution.

Among emotions, shame seems the most optimal to dismantle whiteness as a structure of domination, the reason being that it is the primary social emotion, according to sociologist Thomas Scheff. In situating Self in relation to Other and to society, it provides disruptive moments that could be transformative for identities.

Shame is understood as a collection of related emotions, such as embarrassment, humiliation and feelings of failure and inadequacy. Pertinently, shame works both inter- and intra-personally. For a moment, an individual sees herself through the eyes of another.

Shame is about the preservation of social bonds, as individuals fear disconnection from and misunderstanding by others. Therefore, it holds potential to transform the broken social relations bequeathed by apartheid.

Two moves are found in relation to shame in the post-apartheid identity work that white Afrikaans-speaking people do. The first is unacknowledged shame, when individuals retreat into, and cling to, normative defensive whiteness.

These normative individuals feel shame in the form of fear of loss of white status and belonging. An example would be white South Africans’ oft-heard reference to the country having been turned into the “skunk of the world” during the 1970s and 1980s due to the global rejection of apartheid.

The world” implicitly references the white Western world.This narrative indicates which social bond such people fear may be lost: It is the tie with the global white other, rather than the local black other.

In such cases, the Afrikaans white self is felt to have been shamed before its global reference point, the “Western white”. The anti-apartheid movement in Western countries is read as global whiteness’s withdrawal of its verification of apartheid whiteness.

For some Afrikaners, this withdrawal interrupted the promised fullness of enjoyment of Afrikaner nationalist pride – that feeling that psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls jouissance. The resulting defensive whiteness remains blind to black people’s humanity while eagerly drawing on White Right discourses to justify continued white advantage.

The second move is acknowledged shame, which is understood as enabling a deepening of humanness. An acknowledgement of racialised shame involves breaking with apartheid whiteness by seeing people racialised as black as human beings capable of shaming. An example is the following narrative by a dissident respondent in my study:

Andriette: [A young black man] said to me, “You have humiliated me terribly” and I realised I had to ask his forgiveness. I was so angry I hadn’t realised how much I was hurting him in front of other people.

White individuals’ shame before the eyes of black people opens the possibility of restoring and creating social ties in ways that breach apartheid categorisations. Dissident white people are aware that whiteness causes their own psychosocial degradation.

They draw on uncertainty, humility and self-reflection to challenge and remake themselves. In the words of Andriette:

I also have to re-evaluate myself in terms of all my actions [and ask myself]: “Am I not now thinking that I’m better, know better?”

Dissidents work to overturn the colonial denial of humanity to black people. Consequently, practices involving emotion, particularly shame, can pave ways out of apartheid whiteness, but only if acknowledged.

Unacknowledged shame ensnares humans in repetitions of emotions, such as anger, and therefore forecloses change. Acknowledged shame opens different options. It allows recognition of the Other that enables the refusal of oppressive racial, gender and sexual discourses. Therefore, it opens the potential for upending whiteness.

Recognition is here used in the way that philosopher Judith Butler proposes: That we are recognised as human based on a set of cultural norms of recognition. Therefore, a person is humanised in the eyes of the Other. If it is acknowledged, shame can facilitate exactly this humanisation and, I would dare say, a mutual humanisation, in which the white Self humanises black Others, and the black Self humanises white Others.

To counteract recurring reruns of hurt and destruction, a politics of recognition across the old and the new social frontiers must be pursued. Tired habits of being and doing may, despite their beguiling populist guises, ultimately be our collective undoing.

Mutual humanisation through a consciously driven politics of recognition, that mobilises our emotions against domination, can open new vistas of social imagination. This seems painfully necessary in a still relatively new South Africa that feels old before its time. DM

Professor Christi van der Westhuizen (D. Phil.) is an author, academic, columnist, public speaker and former journalist. This article draws on her new book, Sitting Pretty: White Afrikaans Women in Post-apartheid South Africa (2017, UKZN Press). She is also the author of White Power – the Rise and Fall of the National Party(2007, Zebra Press). Her working life started at the anti-apartheid weekly Vrye Weekblad. Global initiatives include serving on a high-level fact-finding mission to Palestine and as gender specialist at the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Previously she was affiliated to the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice, Free State University, and the Institute for Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options