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Book Extract: How social media reveals South Africa’s unfinished work on race

Book cover. Supplied image.

Book cover. Supplied image.

Published Sep 24, 2023


By Thandiwe Ntshinga


Afrikaner farmers and farmworkers, left destitute after the Anglo-Boer war, migrated to urban areas where they lived as unskilled labourers among black unskilled labourers – an embarrassment to international whiteness and a threat to ideas of racial purity. White women were also perceived as vulnerable to black men. Solving the poor white problem became imperative in preserving ideas of white racial superiority – and the road to apartheid began.

“Black racist bitch” is the slur hurled at Ntshinga when she shared the information on TikTok. What does this outburst say about our understanding of our history and the real work of dismantling white supremacy?

Ntshinga takes us through the global evolution of the project of whiteness, examining aggression, dispossession and tactical collaboration and observes its effects on white people and white society. Ntshinga’s reimagining of what it means to study racism, reverses the lens and makes apparent what is normalised and invisible.

About the author

Thandiwe Ntshinga is a semi-retired activist, writer and researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for the Study of Race, Gender and Class. Her research has been primarily in critical whiteness studies with a focus on South African poor whites and the fragility of whiteness. She is also a poultry farmer.


On social media, posts, comments and memes circulate with the phrase ‘Race is a social construct, it does not exist’, however that can be misconstrued.

It is not the same as ‘Racism is a social construct; it does not exist’. That’s a dangerously incorrect understanding of race and how it moves as a tangible force in society. Race and racial classification are ideology. Racism encompasses behaviours, structures and laws. The question then becomes how was race constructed? The short answer is: by Western European men. Multiculturalists who support nonracialism, may not notice that neither multiculturalism nor nonracialism challenge the status quo of oppressive systems that white people erected and see no problem in benefitting from. On Tiktok, user @Knysna provides such an example in her engagement on racism in South African universities:

@Knysna FYI: I believe non-racialism will end racism. Race is [a] social construct that only exists in the minds of people.

@BaiM So it’s something that you cannot just simply do away with.

@BaiM But you’re making it seem so easy when it’s been a system created by white people to their benefit and it won’t stop just like that sorry.

@Knysna Racism will exist so long as people believe races exist. #DecoloniseRace.

@BaiM Yes it’s a social construct but that construct is embedded in systematic (sic) and institutional racism that [was] created to oppress poc.

@Knysna I know. This is what I said. But if you want to end racism, you need to stop believing that races exist.

@BaiM I think you mean interpersonal racism as opposed to systemic or institutionalized racism. We would love to hope people would treat others equally.

@Knysna The concept of race was created to divide and control people. We won’t solve racism until people stop valuing and believing in race.

@Knysna SA’s constitution is actually non-racial. Gov can’t classify SAfns (South Africans) according to race. They get around this by getting SAfns (South Africans) to classify their own race.

I always find it a little bit off-putting when a Black person sounds like a white liberal who ‘fights’ racism by ignoring it. The post-apartheid ideology of non-racialism and the misuse of the social construction of race, in the way that @Knysna asserts, is not progressive nor decolonial.

‘… the very logic of the narrative prevents us from truly engaging with the problems that race presents to our society’, writes Simon Howell for Thought Leader. He elaborates:

Non-racialism sweeps under the rug the very real differences that racial categories have wrought on South African society. There is no denying, for instance, that race is as much an economic concept as it is a political and social one. Not “seeing” race prevents serious engagement with some of our most desperate problems: the ever-widening chasm between the rich and the poor, a faltering education structure and the continued growth of South Africa’s townships for example.

Tiktok user @BaiM makes all the relevant decolonial critical whiteness arguments when tackling the ‘race is a social construct’ position in popular nonracialism narratives. The reality of race, racism and white superiority is ‘something that you cannot just simply do away with’.

The claim that ‘Racism will exist so long as people believe races exist’ made by @Knysna is misguided. Racism will exist so long as people – regardless of race – subscribe to ideas of white racial superiority. The nonracialism discourses that have been employed by the ANC have been weaponised to continue racism. New political party, ActionSA’s, values address some of what is missing in nonracialism narratives on their website:

– Non-racialism is not ‘colour blindness.’ Non-racialism acknowledges the division caused by the social construct of race in the South African context.

– South Africa must strive to be a country where people’s potential to thrive is based on their ingenuity and hard work, and not the colour of their skin.

– While we strive for a non-racial South Africa, we recognise that after 26 years of democracy, a strong correlation remains between race and socio-economic standing.

– We cannot pretend that race is not a primary determinant of the future prospects of many South Africans. We must act as one to address this historical inequality.

– Breaking the cycle of racial inequality requires that we take action to implement real and substantive policies aimed at improving equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

– South Africans must act as one to challenge racism in all its forms and pro-actively work to break down racial stereotypes and racial prejudice.

– Interventions aimed at addressing inequality must be grounded in the principle of achieving non-racialism, which means interventions must be focused on equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes.

On and offline there is sociopolitical commentary that argues that the political ideologies of newer parties like ActionSA and the EFF have primarily based their political visions on older ANC principles that tackled racism more directly. The ANC has yet to achieve this clarified position as a governing party. This is the political context in which South Africans find themselves having conversations about race.

“Black Racist Bitch” is published by Tafelberg, an imprint of NB Publishers, and retails at R280.

The Saturday Star