Liberalism and Identity Politics II – South Africa

South Africa has been a segmented society for centuries. It still is. For example, marriages across ethnic and religious lines are relatively rare. Ethnic identities were crystallised into a system of racial classification by the apartheid state. This is a context in which identity politics might have had disastrous consequences and it was often predicted that apartheid would end in a general conflagration. Despite substantial political violence in the decade before 1994, this did not happen. For the last century and a half, infectious disease has been the more important killer. Deaths from AIDS in the opening few years of this century – some of which could have been avoided by more rapid roll out of treatment - exceeded all the mortality from war and political violence since 1850.


Accordingly, the broad questions are:


  • Historically, why has identity politics not been more lethal than it was?
  • Looking forward, does identity politics have the potential to destroy democracy and to become lethal on a scale not seen up to now?

While not exhaustive, the following points are relevant.


Coexistence over centuries has led to the development of what can be called ‘consociational tolerance’


France has considerable difficulty tolerating the wearing of head scarves and crucifixes in schools.  The reasons go back to the French Revolution and the Code Napoleon, with their vision of a single French citizenship, undivided by religious affiliation.  We have much less of a problem.  ‘Ag,’ South Africans say, ‘they are like that’ and accommodate differences.  And, while there remains considerable homophobia in South Africa, gay people have achieved a new recognition, and have emerged publicly as a new tribe, as it were, with its own customs, lifestyles and rituals.


Identity issues arise from social change, and they are particularly acute among people changing roles


This has been noted in comparative international studies of nationalism.  In making the transition between roles, people find their sense of self under pressure and have to negotiate changes in it.  A century ago, South Africans were generally very poorly educated.  Growth in the middle class has necessitated extension of education and each successive generation has gone further than its predecessor.  Unlike societies with a more stable class structure, most South African university students have parents who had not been to university.  When these changes intersect with group identities, the issues become even more pressing.  Black consciousness, for instance, emerged at a time when black university enrolments started growing strongly.  Likewise, old middle classes may suffer disorientation when dealing with the new.  Of course, many people negotiate new identities quite easily and are relatively uninterested in identity politics.


Identity politics movements are led by political entrepreneurs seeking constituencies.  In the process they may fragment civil society.


Part of the process of mobilizing Afrikaner nationalism was the withdrawal of Afrikaners from common civil society associations into specifically Afrikaans organizations, resulting in encapsulation into a managed social base.  And the civil society mobilization around the political transition was also managed politically, with effects lasting into the present.  The ability to crosscut ethnic cleavages by associational membership organised around interests is reduced, and with it a sense of common citizenship.

From time to time, new entrepreneurs may peel off from existing movements and seek to mobilize constituencies of their own.  This happened to Afrikaner nationalism from the late 1960s and it has been a feature of recent years as well.  Two outcomes are possible: extremists are marginalized by peeling off, leaving a more moderate rump.  Or the radicals may displace the rump or exert a radicalizing influence on it.     


Inequality plays a major role in identity politics mobilization.  It is not inequality as such that matters, but differential group participation in it.


Mobilization develops narratives of what ‘they’ did to ‘us’.  In the political space, these   narratives oversimplify processes and outcomes, exaggerate agency and neglect the relevant counterfactual.  What would South Africa have looked like today if there had never been colonialism?  The greater the populism, the greater the distortions.

The substantial diminution of the inequality of income between ‘races’ between 1970 and the present moderates identity politics, as have changes in patterns of employment, reduction of residential segregation and a more continuous spectrum of business activity.


If elite polarization damages democracy [1], elite accommodation continues to be necessary to forestall the massive disruption of identity politics in non-democratic settings.


As it became clearer that apartheid was doomed, old elites detached themselves from it in order to influence the shape of the new.  By the time that serious political negotiation had started, elite polarization had diminished to the point that the negotiation could succeed.  Quite where we are at the moment is more difficult to read.  Should fault lines open up over the most carefully negotiated parts of the constitution, elite polarization is a serious risk.


There are a number of factors which could make identity politics more malign.


These include:

  • A decline in the rule of law, never great at the lower levels of the social system.  In so far it occurs among the executive branch of government, it amounts to a creeping coup d’etat.
  • Corruption and other forms of undermining of state capacity to protect and serve the public.  The World Economic Forum’s World Competitiveness Report 2014-2015 summarizes how precarious the situation has become.  Out of 144 countries, we are ranked 56th overall, but 90th in public trust in politicians, 96th in diversion of public funds, 98th in irregular payments and bribes in the awarding of public contracts and licenses and 104th in favouritism in decisions of government officials. 
  • Economic stagnation.  Failure to grow economically faster than population growth makes distributional struggles more intense.

Just because identity politics did not tear the country apart in the last great political crisis, we cannot be sure that it will not do so in the next one.



[1] See for instance,  Nancy Bermeo, Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times. The Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Charles Simkins

Senior Researcher