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  • Why Race Matters in South Africa
  • Allan D. Cooper
MacDonald, Michael . 2006. Why Race Matters in South Africa. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 245 pp. $45.00.

Historians have used apartheid South Africa as a useful case study for analyzing the etiology of race and racism. Among such works are the classic studies of George Fredrickson (1981), Leonard Thompson (1986), and Saul Dubow (1989, 1995). Michael MacDonald approaches the subject of race as a political scientist interested in discerning the role of the state in developing racial identities. His work offers an insightful examination into the political history of South Africa, and provides an extraordinary inquiry into the theoretical foundations of race as a construct for reifying collective identity.

Benedict Anderson (1991) has articulated the nonscientific basis of the "nation," arguing that such groups exist as "imagined communities." MacDonald explains how the same can be said for racial groups. He documents how the European settlers of South Africa created an identity of being white by employing state structures for segmenting the population of the country into disparate racial groups distinguished by economic class, as well as the political experiences of belonging and not belonging.

MacDonald argues that racism fosters the idea that some people are better than other people merely because of their membership in a race. Racists do not regard power as the source of their superiority, but superiority as the source of their power. Thus, whites are superior, even when they lack power (p. 6). Apartheid became a version of white supremacy that ensured inequality and distinctiveness between black and white. The state formulated such identities through the promulgation of the Group Areas Act, the Separate Amenities Act, the Immorality Act, the Prohibition of Mixed [End Page 131] Marriages Act, the Population Registration Act, and other policies obstructing African urbanization and mobility. "Separate development" became the guiding philosophy of apartheid policies, functioning to denationalize Africans while acting to nationalize whites. Explains MacDonald, apartheid "was committed to racializing state and society, and was therefore diminishing particularity among Africans. Yet the apartheid state recoiled from nationalizing Africans in the manner of whites. "If Africans were considered to have comprised one nation, they would have constituted the larger nation and presented apartheid with a unified threat" (p. 13).

As Macdonald notes, if whites had been innately superior, they would not have had to organize structural policies to privilege themselves systematically. A society based on merit would have sufficed, but white officials were not seeking to create and maintain racial identities just for their own sake: such identities were integral to the competitive pursuit of power and control over the resources of the country. As MacDonald points out, "groups are not important in themselves; resources make them important" (p. 27). MacDonald agrees with Fredrickson that whites did not historically become aware of themselves as white; rather, they became white to justify and recast their power. Whites identified themselves in racial terms after they had established domination. The Boer War constituted compelling proof that color alone had not produced a cohesive community of nineteenth-century whites. Whites succeeded in this task precisely because, as Leonard Thompson argues, there was no corresponding sense of racial identity among Africans. Ultimately, it was citizenship that gave content to color.

Most of the political literature on apartheid South Africa accepts that the white community, as an entity within itself, acted within the philosophical framework of a liberal democracy and was committed to capitalism. MacDonald argues that such assumptions are false. South African capitalism evolved out of the gold-mining industry, where prices were fixed internationally and labor was necessary from outside the boundaries of the state. White workers were provided protections by law from African competition. South African capitalism thus rejected liberal values, including market competition and political equality. Similarly, the state created the conditions that made commercial farming profitable by destroying the independent African peasantry, eliminating competition, forcing African subsistence farmers into the cash economy, and providing white farmers with cheap labor. In the process, whites became political subjects while blacks were reduced to being objects of political power.

MacDonald suggests that it was really Steve Biko and the Soweto revolt of 1976 that was...


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pp. 131-133
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