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About this book

This highly-regarded text provides a wide-ranging introduction to the social, political, cultural and economic life of South Africa. Thoroughly revised and updated, the third edition takes account of recent key developments, including the impact of the economic crisis, the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, and increasing tensions within South Africa's politics and government.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

South Africa has been notorious for the racial segregation and ‘apartheid’ (or ‘apartness’) that dominated her twentieth-century history. The country was so much a special focus of international opprobrium that it is sometimes hard to recall how commonplace racial oppression has been in other societies. It has also proved very difficult for even the wealthiest societies to dismantle the mechanisms that perpetuate institutionalised racism. Other colonial settler societies were characterised by racial segregation. South Africa was merely one of many examples of violent European conquest in Africa. Doctrines that embodied assumptions of White supremacy, and mechanisms of residential and workplace segregation, were the norm in the era of imperial consolidation in Africa. The exclusion of Africans from commercial farming, controls on African land ownership outside native reserves, and the ruthless protection of White interests were also scarcely abnormal. South Africa nevertheless exhibited certain unusual features. The country went through massive social upheavals after the discovery of diamonds and gold towards the end of the nineteenth century, and it underwent urbanisation and economic development unprecedented on the continent. Rapid development intensified the system of cyclical African migrant labour that provided cheap workers for the mines, factories, and commercial farms. The conflict between settlers of Dutch descent and the British Empire, culminating in the Boer War or South African War at the end of the nineteenth century, pitted two organised settler communities against one another. But the exclusion of almost all Blacks from the formal political institutions of the Union of South Africa created in 1910 reflected wider assumptions about racial hierarchy that were prevalent across the major European Empires.
Anthony Butler

2. Historical Context

South Africa is a young democracy and a middle-income developing country. Her citizens are like the inhabitants of other developing countries, in that most of them must wage bitter struggles for access to scarce resources in a highly unequal society. But many of them also consider themselves to be a special people: their uniqueness derives from their particular history of colonisation, racial segregation, and political liberation. At the heart of that exceptional history is ‘apartheid’ – literally ‘apartness’ or separation. The inheritance of segregation and apartheid, together with irreconcilable differences over its significance, still obstruct efforts to create a national identity and a coherent and inclusive social order. South Africa’s modern history was decisively shaped by the discovery of diamonds and gold in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, and by the responses of the imperial power, Britain, to the opportunities and threats these finds presented. Yet, if modern South African history begins with the ‘minerals revolutions’, the ramifications of these discoveries cannot be understood without first comprehending the complex balance of forces that characterised the area that is today South Africa in 1870 (see Box 2.1). Four great historical narratives are represented in any political map of the time: the stories of the Khoisan peoples, the African pastoralists and farmers, the ‘Boer’ European-descended settlers, and the British imperialists (see Map 2.1). The least widely known history concerns the subjugation of the earliest inhabitants of what was to become South Africa. Hunting and herding societies, known today as Khoikhoi, San, or collectively Khoisan, had been present in the west and northwest since around 1000 bc. They were devastated during the early period of European settlement as the Dutch East India Company established control over much of the Cape from the mid-seventeenth century. Often-violent European settlers, and the diseases they brought with them, rapidly subjugated the Khoisan across the entire Cape region.
Anthony Butler

3. A Rainbow Nation?

History has bequeathed a rich ethnic, racial, linguistic, and religious diversity to contemporary South Africa. According to the country’s most recent (2011) census, around 80 per cent of the 55 million population classify themselves as ‘African’, 9 per cent as ‘Coloured’, 8 per cent as ‘White’, and between 2 and 3 per cent as ‘Indian/Asian’ (see Table 3.1). These racial designations are directly descended from apartheid’s notorious population registration legislation. In principle, the South African government no longer supports routine racial classification of the population, but instead uses racial data based on apartheid categories to isolate trends, to design historical redress policies, and to identify the impacts of equity-promoting policies. In reality, apartheid’s racial categories are alive and influential, in government and in political life. The country’s diversity, however, transcends the racial categories of apartheid. About one in five South Africans speaks isiZulu in the home, and around one in six speaks isiXhosa. Other substantial minorities – of between 5 and 15 per cent – embrace Afrikaans, Sepedi, English, Setswana, or Sesotho as their mother tongue. Religious affiliations include a variety of Christian denominations, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and traditionalist African systems of belief.
Anthony Butler

4. The South African Economy

The South Africa economy is by far the largest in southern Africa, accounting for greater output than the rest of the region combined. Yet, in global terms, it is a dwarf. It is the most advanced economy on the African continent, but it suffers from significant shortfalls in skills and infrastructure. It is predominantly a services economy, and a home to advanced financial services companies; but international investors mostly view it as a resources economy. Its affluent suburbs and conspicuous consumption starkly contrast with impoverished peri-urban townships. Such uneven urban prosperity is divided by a chasm of inequality from the poverty of South Africa’s rural dispossessed. These apparent paradoxes are less puzzling than they first seem. Middle-income countries typically display extreme contrasts in economic development, with wealthy urban elites living alongside extreme poverty and economic backwardness.
Anthony Butler

5. Social Structure and Social Policy

This chapter explores the character of South African society, and investigates the government’s efforts to address the poverty and inequality that scar the everyday lives of so many citizens. Firstly, we place the society into comparative context, using international human development indicators to identify South Africa’s relative developmental strengths and weaknesses. We go on to explore the country’s key dimensions of relative and absolute disadvantage. Here we address the vexed conceptual and empirical issues that surround the analysis of inequality and social division. Just who is disadvantaged and why? Is South Africa essentially divided by race? Or is inequality better explained in terms of class structure, a rural–urban divide, or gender oppression? In the second half of the chapter we appraise some key government strategies to improve the situation of the less advantaged, through employment creation, social protection programmes, public service delivery, social infrastructure, and education policy.
Anthony Butler

6. Government

The contemporary South African state emerged out of a tumultuous history. Its first modern manifestation, inaugurated in 1910, was the product of a forced unification by the British imperial power. Unification required the suppression of Afrikaner and African societies, and the harnessing of their energies to a dynamic minerals-based economy. Across almost all of its short history, this state failed to command popular legitimacy. The 1910 Act of Union embodied a racial politics of convenience, cementing an alliance of interests between Boer and English-speaker, and excluding almost all Blacks from formal political participation. After 1948, this state was transformed into an instrument of Afrikaner nationalist advance. It was used to impose increasingly brutal social engineering, which culminated in massive ‘forced removals’ and the launch of Bantustans into quasi-independence. Coloured and Indian South Africans were meanwhile serviced and regulated by a labyrinthine bureaucracy of ‘own affairs’ departments.
Anthony Butler

7. Political Life

South Africa’s twentieth-century politics were dominated by the exploitation and oppression of the majority of the country’s people by its White minority, and by the struggle to establish fundamental social and political equality. After 1948, a key secondary issue was concealed behind this overarching conflict: the implications for the character of political life of increasingly authoritarian single party domination by the NP. The shadow of apartheid continues to hang over the country’s political life. While a democratic system has transformed political participation, politics still turn around two historically familiar issues. How can the vast racial imbalances of wealth and opportunity in the society be reduced? What are the implications of one-party electoral dominance – today of the ANC – for the quality of the country’s new democracy South Africa is a representative democracy with elections at national, provincial and local levels. The 1996 Constitution prescribes that two legislative bodies are to be elected at national level, the NA and the NCOP.
Anthony Butler

8. Culture, Ideas, and Issues

This chapter introduces South Africans’ popular and high cultures, their intellectual preoccupations, and their everyday arguments and debates. We investigate the country’s traditions of music, theatre, dance, film, and art; the character of everyday social interaction in cities, suburbs, and townships; and the most lively elements of contemporary intellectual life. Finally we address some of the most highly charged issues in popular debate and the media: racism and ‘decolonisation’, crime, corruption, HIV/AIDS, and sport. A seemingly innocent idea, ‘culture’ evades easy definition. Social scientists sometimes talk of cultures to refer to the ‘maps of meaning’ through which people make sense of their world: an accepted practice in one culture may not make sense in another; a traveller may experience ‘culture shock’ when unfamiliar experiences do not correspond to their expectations. The everyday use of the term is equally contested.
Anthony Butler

9. South Africa and the World

South Africa’s history bears the imprint of powerful external forces. The country’s people are a product of continental migratory drift, cross-oceanic slavery, and colonial aggression. The modern South African state was created by means of violence, at the turn of the twentieth century, by the world’s greatest empire. Her history was profoundly influenced by mass industrialised warfare and by the Cold War between East and West. Today the country is enmeshed in the dynamics of a new period of economic globalisation. The ‘realist’ tradition in the study of international relations characterises states as competitive and conflicting actors pursuing their own national interests. Such an approach lies in stark contrast to more idealist approaches that emphasise the importance of morality and co-operation in international affairs. This chapter views South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy through these two lenses, as a regional power obliged to balance its initial instincts as a human rights crusader with the demands imposed by the need to pursue the country’s immediate political and economic interests. In the apartheid era, Pretoria was the most powerful actor in its region.
Anthony Butler

10. South Africa in the Twenty-First Century

The struggle against apartheid propelled South Africa to an unusual international prominence. The country’s first democratic elections, in 1994, were watched with fascination and hope around the world. After the decades of political turbulence that have followed – and following the death of global icon Nelson Mandela in 2013 – the country no long embodies international expectations of a better future for the world’s developing countries. South Africa has matured as an actor in global politics, but it has also become a more cynical player that has largely abandoned the principled advocacy of human rights and democracy. The government continues to be at the heart of the fractious project to remake Africa’s political life, and to transform the continent’s economic prospects, but there is no longer any expectation that South Africa will be the leader of the continent in such endeavours. On a wider canvas, Pretoria participates in the struggles of the countries of the South for more representative global institutions and for a more equitable international trading order.
Anthony Butler
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