Defend Truth


Race: An artificial construct to justify Europe’s lust for wealth and profit through merciless vandalism


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

I have taken flak over the years for writing about race in our much-loved country, South Africa, but I shall not relent because I firmly do believe that if we do not tackle this phenomenon head on, it will be at our peril.

When looking at race, it is important to understand that it remains a social construct and that progressive people everywhere must continuously work towards deconstructing it wherever it rears its ugly head. When debunking race, one looks at predominantly two elements: on the one hand, race theory and, on the other, power relations.  Furthermore, race can be divided into four categories: institutional, structural, interpersonal and internalised.

Institutional refers to policies and practices that reinforce racist standards within a workplace or organisation. Structural, on the other hand, refers to multiple institutions collectively upholding racist policies and practices, ie society. Interpersonal talks to racist acts and micro-aggression carried out by one person on another. And finally, internalised racism refers to the subtle and overt messages that reinforce negative beliefs and self-hatred in individuals.

A brief but concise history will tell us that race was not always considered a biological or genetic category.  So, how did we come to understand it that way today? Well, it started with the colonial period and, in particular, we see the shift in the idea of race in the 17th and 18th centuries. The answer to this question is firmly rooted in two things: the rise of global capitalism that was backed by slavery and colonialism, and a period of theorisation in Europe known as the Enlightenment.

According to Dr Danielle Bainbridge’s PBS documentary series, Origin of Everything, “when the Spanish began the colonisation of the Caribbean, and later Latin America, after 1492, they looked to Native populations to mine the silver and gold under brutal working conditions”. 

And though it is years later in our case in South Africa, we see the exact pattern emerging, especially after the discovery of gold on the Reef in the then Transvaal (Gauteng today). The Spanish set about enslaving, attacking and murdering those who didn’t comply. Sounds familiar, right?

The British, on the other hand, decided to make use of two types of forced labour – indentured labour from Britain itself and enslaved Africans. There are some important distinctions to make between these two groups. First, indenture was a contractual agreement with fixed terms that varied widely. Terms of these contracts were often very exploitative, but many also came willingly in exchange for their passage to the new colonies. Many of these indentured servants finished the terms of their contracts and began lives as property owners. 

Enslavement of Africans was an entirely different category of labour from indenture because, firstly, slavery was for life, not for a fixed term or number of years; secondly, slaves weren’t considered human; thirdly, it was not a contract because it takes two consenting humans to enter into a contract; and fourthly, slave laws were enacted codifying hereditary slavery, meaning that if you were enslaved and had children, then those children would also remain in slavery. 

Now, with the expansion of this system of accumulation, there was understandably some resistance, even from Europeans. So, “in order to continue justifying slavery, we start to see the pseudoscience of ‘race’ emerge that connected physical features, behaviour and legal rights, right around the 18th century when colonial use of slaves was expanding”, says Bainbridge.

So, as a result of a desire to perpetuate systems of exploitation, more and more distinctions were made about the supposed differences among races, primarily the differences between black people and their white counterparts. In a new book, The Lie of 1652 (Tafelberg), a friend of mine, Patric Tariq Mellett, demonstrates how the Dutch and Afrikaners also participated in this pseudoscience in our part of the world:

“But it also introduced a new element of control by indulging in social engineering to reconfigure people of colour into colonial-manageable identity formations. This process was also aimed at alienating the black majority from the land of their forebears and rendering them as perpetual aliens who, at the height of apartheid, were de-Africanised and colourised into Blacks and Coloureds or Black and Brown.”

This evolution of race became more concretised after social structures of slavery were in place and not before, and was solidified by the Enlightenment. So, how did the Enlightenment contribute to this matter and impact definitions of race? Bainbridge explains: “This period was primarily European thought and ideological development that saw the emergence of some key concepts that tie back into today’s conversation.  First, there was a push in scientific communities to categorise the natural world using ‘reason’ and creating elaborate hierarchical systems that emphasised the similarities between different species and subgroups, and the inherent differences among others. And race was fitted into this same mould. As European theorists looked to classify the world into ‘scientific’ groupings, physical markers that were already established social norms through enslavement and genocide were ways that they sought to ‘prove’ that this was the ‘natural’ order and not a social construction.”

Here, Sara Baartman’s physical features, pencil tests in our hair, our flat noses and so much more comes to mind.

In short, the Enlightenment formulation of history also played a crucial role in the development of social ideologies of race. Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel and other philosophers of their day claimed that certain racial groups stood outside of history or had no history, and this included all groups that they considered “non-white” or outside of European ideals of modernity. This meant that groups that were devoid of history and culture were inherently less valuable and therefore subordinate to other races. 

Similarly, the rise of capitalism and colonial expansion suggest that at its core we are dealing with a class society in which the bourgeoisie are the dominant class at the expense of the working class. And in SA, this is still very much running on racial lines, with the dominant class predominantly white and the working class predominantly black. The arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1652 represented the embryo of the emergence of class society with the bourgeoisie in its infancy and, hence, race mattered.

Karl Marx wrote: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in the mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”

Marx continues: “The transformation of the individualised and scattered means of production into socially concentrated ones, of the pigmy property of the many into the huge property of the few, the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence and from the means of labour, this fearful and painful expropriation of the mass of the people forms the prelude to the history of capital. It comprises a series of forcible methods… The expropriation of the immediate producers was accomplished with merciless vandalism, and under the stimulus of passions the most infamous, the most sordid, the pettiest, the most meanly odious.”

No one dare deny that Marx might as well have been speaking of South Africa during the discovery of gold and the rush that ensued. White Europeans’ lust for wealth and profit through merciless vandalism and under the stimulus of passions are the most infamous, the most sordid, the pettiest, and the most meanly odious. Soon after the arrival of the Dutch, we see the arrival of the first group of slaves in the Cape Colony, which should tell us something about Marx’s analysis. 

I have taken flak over the years for writing about race in our much-loved country, South Africa, but I shall not relent because I firmly do believe that if we do not tackle this phenomenon head on, it will be at our peril. 

Cornel West reminds us though that “in these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis; we must accent the best of each other even as we point out the vicious effects of our racial divide and pernicious consequences of our maldistribution of wealth and power. We simply cannot enter the 21st century at each other’s throats, even as we acknowledge the weighty forces of racism, patriarchy, economic inequality, homophobia and ecological abuse on our necks.

“We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us, or we hang separately. Do we have the intelligence, humour, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.” DM


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  • Mr Van Heerden, when I was at school I wanted to become a biologist until I realised that I would spend a good deal of my studies cutting up animals that once were alive.

    • I am not sure how u can put BEE and Apartheid in the same category. BEE is an attempt to even out the disparities caused by apartheid. I don’t always agree with how it is applied, but in theory that is why it is needed.

      • BEE is race based discrimination that is trying to be the opposite of apartheid, which would balance it out. So with the one system there is discrimination and with the other system there is discrimination. Two wrongs do not make a right.

  • Saying that race is a construct of colonialism is like saying that capitalism invented money. While I’m certainly not about to defend the sins of colonialism, I do believe this is an important distinction to make, because the assumption that the concept of race was invented and and has been exclusively abused by white colonialists is simply not true. History and geography is littered with examples of people of all cultures and dare I say it, races, that have used the concept of race to exploit and marginalize. I suspect that this butts up against one of the more misguided precepts of certain dark corners of post-modern thought that postulate that only white people can be racist, when in reality we can see that angry people across the world are currently making negative assumptions about white people, based on their ‘race’. And if your response to that would be ‘It’s not racist if it’s true’, I’m sure we can all agree that would be somewhat dangerous ground to be walking on… I find it somewhat problematic that a piece purporting to deconstruct racism should therefore be so critical of ‘whiteness’. I think you are trying to cure a babalas by drinking more, Mr Van Heerden, and I can personally attest that this doesn’t work very well…

  • Thanks for this summary Mr van Heerden (I have a piece in Opinionista myself today – Chris Butters). Whilst I am Norway based now, I grew up in comfortable white Capetown. I was horn into a society where there were, quite simply, two classes of human beings. As a child one doesn’t question the world. Not until the teen years maybe. That’s just how it was. One doesn’t need to like Communism to recognise that Marx has a lot valid to say about this; and to what extent that apartheid construct was about working class versus ruling class – perhaps as much about economics as about race at all, no …? (I still have a pretty ugly 1960s book called “Race and Reason” which claimed to justify separate development.) And now there’s reverse racism, no? But my kids are, happily, “rainbow” kids. Will time heal all this?? In a world that is becoming more tribal? – best regards, Chris

  • You said: I am certain now that the NEC of the ANC has decided to comply with the resolution of its 54th National Conference as it relates to those in its ranks being accused, charged and prosecuted, and we will soon see the arrest of and formal charges laid against Magashule. Yes, and those who constantly remind me that this will never happen, well, watch the next couple of weeks, comrades.
    Not sure I can take you seriously about anything of gravitas anymore.
    Some people do, others are opinionated on people’s doings.

  • The destructive revolutionary ideas of the EFF and similar believe that bringing everyone down to the lowest level is preferable to inequality, (no matter how extreme the inequality,) is a result of that inequality. Surely a better way is to raise, not push down, and that requires capital and capitalism. These sorts of discussions are not common in countries where there is sufficient prosperity so that all can survive reasonably comfortably. Perhaps the expected severe drop in living standards from the “protective” responses to coronavirus are concentrating our minds on possible fearful extreme outcomes. Raise the levels of the exploited, give everyone a reasonable chance, and race slips away.

  • “This evolution of race became more concretised after social structures of slavery were in place and not before, and was solidified by the Enlightenment”. You clearly have no idea of the concepts of “evolution”, “enlightenment” and “social structures”. Race is a direct result of evolution and cannot possibly be described as a social construct. The enlightenment focused on the rights of the individual and you have made no argument as to how this could have affected the scientific concept of race.
    I am afraid, your writing represents the epitome of the non-sequitur concept.

    • The erudite Oscar van Heerden has written a clear, logical and concise version of academic postcolonial thought. I found the piece to be particularly effective and “enlightening” in outlining key concepts of Critical Race Theory – which investigates and unpacks centuries of ingrained Western ideology including the abominable period during Enlightenment when science analysed biological features as a means to classify humans into different categories – basically in order to legitimize sub-human treatment of groups of people.
      It remains for each individual, especially in our country, to unpack and reflect on the ingrained racist ideology we have normalised, specifically looking at the types of racism van Heerden so clearly describes: structural, institutional, interpersonal and internalized racism.

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