Before the democratisation of South Africa in1994, blacks were overwhelmingly excluded from political and economic rights, while the politics of whites, who were enfranchised, revolved around identity as well as racial exclusivity. Necessarily, therefore, the democratic settlement was involved with accommodating racial and ethnic differences. The article argues that even though the agreed constitution formally espoused non-racialism in response to the racist oppressions of apartheid, it rested upon an informal but widely understood ‘racial bargain’. In other words, while the white minority would concede political power, they would (for the moment at least) retain control over major sectors of the economy. Even so, although the economy would be run on deracialised market principles, it would provide for greater levels of black participation and ownership in order to overcome the racially polarised nature of South African society. However, it was to be the slow pace of social and racial change which resulted from reliance upon the market which led to the state effectively renegotiating the bargain by implementing an increasingly assertive programme of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).
It is proposed that South Africa’s racial bargain cannot be understood unless it is located in the context of decolonisation. This is illustrated by comparative reference to the nature of related decolonising racial bargains in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Malaysia which were shaped, variously, by history, demography and other dynamics. These diverse experiences indicate that while racial bargains can be broken (Zimbabwe), albeit at considerable cost, their essence is that they are continuously being renegotiated in accord with changing political dynamics. It is concluded that progress towards substantive racial equality is the rock upon which the democratic right of individuals belonging to racial minorities is founded.