Race, Nation and Liberation in South Africa: Questions, Reflections and Readings from the broader Left tradition


Who is African? Who is South African?

Is/Was South Africa a case of internal colonialism?  

Are white (and Indian) South Africans merely “settlers”?

Does the land belong to all or to the indigenous?  

Who is indigenous? What are we to do with tribal distinctions?

Is a race a nation and if so is South Africa made up of four nations [African, Coloured, Indian, European]?

Are Africans from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia etc, “African” when they are in South Africa?

Are races metaphysical, biological or socially constructed? If they are socially constructed how were they socially constructed and how do they continue to be socially constructed-who came up with these categories (have the categories changed across time?) in the first place and why?

Is “white” European?

Are Afrikaners “white” and since when?

Are coloureds Afrikaners if many of them speak Afrikaans? Are Afrikaners African?

Who exactly is coloured and for how long have coloureds been coloureds? Are first generation mixed-race people coloured or merely mixed-race?

Are only black/African South Africans African? When did the category “black” emerge in racial census sheets in South Africa and why?

Are Indians Black but not African?

Are relationships across races possible and if not, what does that mean for nation-building?

Should we strive for a multi-racial or non-racial society?

Should we abandon race-categories from our imaginations and can we do so while still fighting racism?

How do we build a nation with such linguistic diversity?  

Was apartheid rooted in capitalism? Can we achieve social justice and achieve national liberation under capitalism today?  


These questions, and many more have animated debate among South African social theorists and political activists for over a century. What is the South African nation and how do we achieve national liberation? The answer to that depends on how one answers the questions posed above. Someone who believes that race is an ontological fact, that it is primordial and static, and someone who thinks that race is an arbitrary social construction that should be hurriedly gotten rid of, will propose radically distinct visions of a liberated South African society.

When discussing issues of race or indeed using what we may think of as banal racial categorisations, few of us stop to think about what our conception of race is. What do we mean when we say “she is white?” Do we take racial categories as given or do we understand and appreciate their historical construction and the meaning attached to them?  When we speak about national liberation, about racial justice and social justice, it would serve us well to be clear about our underlying and differing analytical, sociological and normative judgements.

While historically there has been a long and contested debate in scholarly and political circles about the National Question in South Africa, going to the root of the our social, cultural and economic dimensions of nationhood in South Africa is a task not readily undertaken in the post-apartheid era by academics and the public alike. Indeed, while under apartheid non-racialists and multi-racialists, Marxists, liberals, Africanists and nationalists engaged in serious reflection on the difficult questions posed at the beginning of this essay, the post-apartheid era has been too quick to pose easy answers. Both the “rainbow nation” colour-blind approach and populist calls to ethnic-nationalism tell us little about our complex history and contested present. As the promise of the new South Africa collapses under the weight of deep political and economic crises, and as the terms of the negotiated settlement are placed in the dock, old questions are beginning resurface, and along with them, the old fractures that have undermined a cohesive sense of a South African identity. We would do well to reflect on the historical debates on these issues lest we risk repeating the horrors of the past.

The recent Shivambu-Momoniat incident, and responses to it, brings this all into sharp relief. While not going into the details of the incident, it is instructive to read the EFF’s response to the claims of racism levelled against its MP. For the EFF, “Anyone who has paid attention to the history of the liberation movement knows that the National Question means black people were oppressed, but worse, Africans. This highlighting of Africans, amongst blacks, in liberation movement literature seeks to point to indigenous Africans like the Bantu, Khoi and San. Although Coloureds and Indians are also blacks, emphasis was always placed on African people because colonisation created hierarchies, socialised blacks like Indians and Coloureds to think they are superior to Africans. As a result, systematically they were provided better services than Africans.”

It is not necessary for our purposes here to review the EFF’s contested history of thuggery, racism, xenophobia and hyper-masculinity. The responses to Shivambu’s accusations against Momoniat have already done so and these have been rejected by EFF members themselves. Rather, we feel it is important to clarify the liberation history that the EFF purports to appeal to in justifying its position.

While it is certainly the case that the ANC’s liberation theory saw South African society split into four distinct race groups or nations (“Coloured”, “Indian”, “White and “African”) and that it saw Africans in particular as deserving special treatment due to the super-exploitation that group faced, others within the liberation movement as a whole did not agree with that formulation. Indeed, Biko and the Black Consciousness movement refused to subscribe to the four nations thesis and instead used the label “black” as a political category to unite the oppressed while rejecting the apartheid’s race-based identity categories. The Unity Movement also rejected the four-nations thesis for an uncompromising non-racialism and “non-collaboration” with the institutions, including the racial institutions, of apartheid. It is curious that the EFF attempts to stitch the four nations thesis with the BC category of “black” in their statement whilst also washing over real differences within the broader liberation movement.

Within the ANC itself, there were disagreements about the formulation of the nation and the terms of the national liberation struggle; who can or should lead the struggle against colonialism and apartheid was continuously contested on the grounds of both race and class. This was evident with the emergence of a younger generation of radicals like Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in the 1940s. This group contested both the elite-composition of the ANC leadership at the time and raised questions about so-called non-Africans and what role they could play in the struggle. The split of the Pan-African Congress (PAC) from the ANC was a manifestation of this contestation. It also took time for whites to be accepted into leadership positions in the ANC. In terms of the economic dimensions of struggle, serious disagreements occurred between the left (aligned to the SACP and for a brief period to the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC) and right factions of the ANC (aligned to traditional leaders or the liberal capitalist class).

For its part, the ANC emerged with an official commitment to non-racialism. Once apartheid had been formally removed, the commitment to non-racialism was entrenched in various legislative and institutional frameworks and indeed in the Constitution. However, it was sometimes unclear what this commitment meant: the word non-racial appears continuously alongside the continued use of apartheid-generated race categories that imply, rather, a commitment to multi-racialism.

As South Africa, like many other countries, experiences deepening economic inequality and a spike in racial nationalism, white, black and coloured, it is incumbent on all those seeking to realise national liberation and social justice to revisit the terms of debates of the past. To this end, the Progressive Corner team puts together a reading list of key texts in the left tradition on the national question in South Africa. We encourage engagement with these texts in order that the public and political activists clarify our own commitments. It is in such clarity that we can advance on the path to achieving a South African identity based on social justice and genuine commitment to achieving a better life for all. 



“South Africa is not a colony but an independent state. Yet masses of our people enjoy neither independence nor freedom. The conceding of independence to South Africa by Britain, in 1910, was not a victory over the forces of colonialism and imperialism. It was designed in the interests of imperialism. Power was transferred not into the hands of the masses of people of South Africa, but into the hands of the White minority alone. The evils of colonialism, insofar as the non-White majority was concerned, were perpetuated and reinforced. A new type of colonialism was developed, in which the oppressing White nation occupied the same territory as the oppressed people themselves and lived side by side with them…On one level, that of “White South Africa,” there are all the features of an advanced capitalist state in its final stage of imperialism…But on another level, that of “Non-White South Africa,” there are all the features of a colony…Non-White South Africa is the colony of White South Africa itself.”

The Road to South African Freedom

It is therefore particularly important for South Africans to distinguish between a nationalism designed to serve the interests of an elite or an aspirant bourgeoisie, and a nationalism which is revolutionary and designed to serve the interests of the mass of the oppressed people. In other words, it is not enough merely to speak of ‘nationalism’. Nationalism, like all ideology, has a class content and it is necessary to say whether, in the long term, that nationalism is progressive or reactionary, bourgeois or revolutionary. In our view, therefore, it is impossible to separate nationalism from the class struggle; and the depth and closeness of this connection will have a vital bearing on the future of the South African revolution.”  

The enemy hidden under the same colour


“The African National Congress is the symbol and embodiment of the African will to present a united national front against all forms of oppression, but this has not enabled the movement to advance the national cause in a manner demanded by prevailing conditions. And this, in turn, has drawn on it criticisms in recent times which cannot be ignored if Congress is to fulfill its mission in Africa.”

ANC Youth League Manifesto (1944)

“The African although subjected to the most intense racial oppression and exploitation, is not the only oppressed national group in South Africa. The two million strong Coloured community and three-quarter million Indians suffer varying forms of national humiliation, discrimination and oppression. They are part of the non-white base upon which rests white privilege. As such they constitute an integral part of the social forces ranged against white supremacy. Despite deceptive and, often, meaningless concessions they share a common fate with their African brothers and their own liberation is inextricably bound up with the liberation of the African people.”

Morogoro Conference 1969
“The liberation movement in South Africa characterised our society as Colonialism of a Special Type to describe the unique situation where both the colonisers and the colonised shared one country. The basic conclusion arising from this, is that the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) is an act of addressing the national question: to create a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society. The “national character” of the NDR is therefore the resolution of the antagonistic contradictions between the oppressed majority and their oppressors; as well as the resolution of the national grievance arising from the colonial relations.”

Nation-Formation and Nation Building: The National Question in South Africa

“Above all, we want equal political rights… I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites I this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy. But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony… it is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.”

-Nelson Mandela


“The Africanists take the view that there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race…

We aim, politically, at government of the Africans by the Africans, for the Africans, with everybody who owes his only loyalty to Afrika and who is prepared to accept the democratic rule of an African majority being regarded as an African.

We guarantee no minority rights, because we think in terms of individuals, not groups. Economically we aim at the rapid extension of industrial development in order to alleviate pressure on the land, which is what progress means in terms of modem society. We stand committed to a policy guaranteeing the most equitable distribution of wealth. Socially we aim at the full development of the human personality and a ruthless uprooting and outlawing of all forms or manifestations of the racial myth.”

Robert Sobukwe Inaugural Speech, April 1959

Congress of the People

“We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people; that our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality; that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities; that only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief; And therefore, we, the people of South Africa, black and white together equals, countrymen and brothers adopt this Freedom Charter; And we pledge ourselves to strive together, sparing neither strength nor courage, until the democratic changes here set out have been won.”

The Freedom Charter

Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM)

“Who constitutes the South African nation? The answer to this question is as simple as it would be in any other country. The nation consists of the people who were born in South Africa and who have no other country but South Africa as their mother-land. They may have been born with a black skin or with a brown one, a yellow one or a white one…All that is required for a people to be a nation is a community of interests, love of their country, and pride in being citizens of their country. And have not the Non-Europeans of South Africa sufficient community of interests? Are we not all crushed by the same Nazi-like racial creed? Are we not all persecuted and humiliated by the South African brand of Nuremberg laws under the hall-mark blazoning all over South Africa: “For Europeans Only”? Do we not live in constant fear of every official and policeman because, from the moment of our birth, we are branded as criminals by the colour of our skin? The prisons and cemeteries, or, as official language prefers it, the statistics of crime and death, are eloquent testimony of our community of interests. ”

1951 Declaration to the People of South Africa

Steve Biko

“One of the basic tenets of Black Consciousness is totality of involvement. This means that all blacks must sit as one big unit, and no fragmentation and distraction from the mainstream of events be allowed. Hence we must resist the attempts by protagonists of the bantustan theory to fragment our approach. We are oppressed not as individuals, not as Zulus, Xhosas, Vendas or Indians. We are oppressed because we are black. We must use that very concept to unite ourselves and to respond as a cohesive group.”

I Write What I like

The Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC

National Liberation, democracy, and the basic material needs of the people, the MWT of the ANC argued, could not be secured by the black workers of South Africa on the basis of capitalism…There can be no separation of stages…between its national democratic and its socialist aims…Just as national oppression is rooted in class exploitation, so the national liberation struggle is rooted in class struggle.” -Rob Peterson, Letter to NEC from Dismissed Editor, 17/7/1979 in,

“South Africa: The Workers’ Movement, SACTU and the ANC-A Struggle for Marxist Policies

Neville Alexander

“It is a measure of the inadequacy of the theoretical frameworks of the South African liberation movement that many organisations and individuals speak, write and act as though they accept the validity of ‘race’ as a biological entity. In the only country in the world where this belief constitutes the basis of state policy, it is amazing that so few have bothered to examine the concept of ‘race’ as a political priority.”

“…as soon as the idea of a single undivided nation is put forward consistently, the question of the class leadership of the struggle and of the nation is raised in all its sharpness. … it is only the exploited black working class (to be joined later by white workers depending on the relationship of forces then obtaining) who can actually bring into being such a nation

“One Azania, One Nation”

The word ‘non-racial’ can be accepted by a racially oppressed people if it means that we reject the concept of ‘race’, that we deny the existence of ‘races’ and thus oppose all actions, practices, beliefs and policies based on the concept of ‘race’. If in practice (and in theory) we continue to use the word non-racial as though we believe that South Africa is inhabited by four so-called ‘races’, we are still trapped in multi-racialism and thus in racialism. Non-racialism, meaning the denial of the existence of races, leads on to ‘anti-racism’ which goes beyond it because the term not only involves the denial of ‘race’ but also opposition to the capitalist structures for the perpetuation of which the ideology and theory of ‘race’ exist

Nation and Ethnicity in South Africa

Feminism and the Women’s Movement

“The ‘Women Question’ remains, arguably, the most unresolved in the history of democratic thought and practice in South Africa. In tracing the articulations of this question through the twentieth century and into the period of democracy it is evident that the demands for a society free of gender domination to a secondary status both in intellectual reasoning and in political projects.”

-Shireen Hassim in The Unresolved National Question: Left Thought Under Apartheid

Sian Byrne, Nicole Ulrich and Lucien van der Walt

“… a widespread socialist consciousness existed both in FOSATU and in parts of the UDF, which stressed class struggles centered on black workers as a means to a radical form of national liberation. The appeal class, socialism and workerism reflected, at least partly, the fact that the working class confronted not just racial oppression but class rule as well.”

Red Black and Gold” in The Unresolved National Question: Left Thought Under Apartheid


Thabo Mbeki

“I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me.

In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done.

I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom.”

-“I am an African,” Text here. Speech on Youtube

Ivor Chipkin

“Mbeki is not simply discussing Apartheid, the term is never used. Instead he insinuates another term, also never used: colonialism. ‘I Am an African’ is profoundly ambivalent about the precise identity of ‘the people.’ There is a constant shifting between two registers. On the one hand, the term includes both the perpetrators and the survivors of the colonial ‘crime against humanity’. On the other hand, it refers exclusively to those who lived and struggled against this terrible injustice.”

Do South Africans Exist? Nationalism, Democracy and Identity of “the people”

Neville Alexander

“By using the shorthand of ‘race’, we not only give advantage to middle class black people as against working class people, we also entrench – avoidably – the very racial categories that undermine the possibility of attaining a truly non-racial democratic South Africa.”

“Affirmative Action and the Perpetuation of Racial Identities in post-apartheid South Africa,”

Vishwas Satgar

“Rather than the above two approaches—non-racism as shown through support for the ANC and naïve, ahistorical colour-blindness—I want to suggest that we look back to the Freedom Charter for a richer account of non-racialism. The Freedom Charter proclaimed a non-racial South Africa as realisable through a social construction of race equality. Moreover, such a nation-building project has to go to the roots of systemic racism constructed by decades of segregation and apartheid.”

“Who is a non-racial South Africa? Manyi, Manuel and the battle for the South African Dream”

Pallo Jordan 

“The ANC has always held that democracy, national liberation and non-racialism are inseparable. But, we have equally forcefully said that for democracy to advance national liberation it must entail the empowerment of the oppressed and most exploited – the Africans, Coloureds and Indians. The Freedom Charter remains the seminal statement of our movement`s vision and it envisages the radical restructuring of key aspects of the economy as the means to destroy the material basis of the White racist power structure.”

-The National Question in Post-94 South Africa


Gerard Mare

“We live in a world where the ‘banality’ of race thinking is everywhere. Race has been thoroughly naturalised, it is so ‘obvious’ to us, that it seems to invite no questions. I owe the clearest illustration of this point to Michael Billig’s book Banal Nationalism, which has given much content to my own explorations of the continuation of race thinking and race practice. Billig, a social psychologist, uses the concept of ‘banality’ to explain the depth of nationalist fervour that can be drawn on ‘in times of need’ through its continuous, but inconspicuous, prior presence. It is the banality that closes us off from even noticing its insidious sedimentation in everyday life, before the moment of need arises when it serves the purpose of making sense and justifying behaviour  of the inconsequential kind or of the most horrendous nature against other categories of people-whether it be warfare or genocide.”

Declassified: Escaping the Dead End of Race in South Africa

Zmitri Erasmaus

“In the ongoing process of our liberation we must create openings in the racial house. We must refuse to live by its rules of dominance and its significations. We must refuse to ‘bleed the raced house for the gains it provides in authenticity and insiderdom [Toni Morrison]’. This demands that we figure out ways to make definitive statements about why race matters while depriving it [race] from its lethal cling.”

Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa

Sisonke Msimang

It takes time for me to discover it is possible to embrace radicalism that looks and feels different from the radical ideas of women. And so it takes me longer than I would have liked to see that there are ways of being tough and angry and confrontational without being judgemental about the choices of others. It takes me even longer to realise that those with more moderate politics than mine were making choices that weren’t necessarily based on being compromised or constrained. Mummy and Baba weren’t ignorant of Biko. They had considered his point of view and differed-not on the basis of weakness, but on the legitimate basis of intellectual and strategic disagreement. I couldn’t see that then, though it is is plain now.”

Always Another Country

David Everatt

“There is a more compelling question underpinning the issue, namely is it possible for non-racialism to be realised under a nationalist government? Is non-racialism compatible with nationalism at all? Non-racialism was crafted by the African nationalist resistance movement in response to apartheid, itself a nationalist-fuelled ideology; but it remains questionable whether that same African National Congress is able to throw off the constraints and racial blinkers of nationalism and truly embrace non-racialism”

The Origins of Non-Racialism


Frantz Fanon*

“But the unpreparedness of the elite, the lack of practical ties between them and the masses, their apathy and, yes, their cowardice at the crucial moment in the struggle, are the cause of tragic trials and tribulations…

Yet the national bourgeoisie never stops calling for the nationalization of the economy and the commercial sector. In its thinking, to nationalize does not mean placing the entire economy at the service of the nation or satisfying all its requirements…For the bourgeoisie, nationalization signifies precisely the transfer into indigenous hands privileges inherited from the colonial period…

[The national bourgeoisie] frantically brandishes the notion of nationalization and Africanization of the managerial classes. In fact, its actions become increasingly tinged with racism. It bluntly confronts the government with demand that it must have these [managerial] jobs. And it does not tone down its virulence until it occupies every single one of them.

Whereas the national bourgeoisie competes with the Europeans, the artisans and small traders pick fights with Africans of other nationalities. We have switched from nationalism to ultranationalism, chauvinism, and racism…

The racism of the young national bourgeoisie is a defensive racism, a racism based on fear. Basically it does not differ from common tribalism or even rivalry between clans or confraternities…

[In order to enter into a period of nation building] Any hint of caste consciousness should be eliminated. We have seen in the preceding pages how nationalism…disintegrates in the aftermath of independence. Nationalism is not a political doctrine, it is not a programme. If we really want to safeguard our countries from regression, paralysis, or collapse, we must rapidly switch from a national consciousness to social and political consciousness.”

Pitfalls of National Consciousness

Benedict Anderson

The Nation is “an imagined political community-and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign…It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing, perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations…It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely ordained, hierarchical dynastic real…It is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”

Imagined Communities

Karen and Barbara Fields

“But race is neither biology nor an idea absorbed into biology by Lamarckian inheritance. It is ideology, and ideologies do not have lives of their own. Nor can they be handed down or inherited: A doctrine can be, or a name, or a piece of property, but not an ideology. If race lives in today, it does not live on because we have inherited it from our forebears of the seventeenth century or the eighteenth or the nineteenth, but because we continue to create it today…Those who create and re-create race today are not just the mob that killed a young Afro-American man on a street in Brooklyn or the people who join the Klan and the White Order. They are also those academic writers whose invocation of self-propelling ‘attitudes’ and tragic flaws assigns Africans and their descendants to a special category, placing them in a world exclusively theirs and outside history- a form of intellectual apartheid no less ugly or oppressive, despite its righteous (not to say self-righteous) trappings, than that practiced by the bio- and theo-racists.”

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (For this quote see also, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the USA”)

Mahmood Mamdani

I have argued that European colonialism in twentieth century Africa turned indigeneity into the litmus tests of rights…While everyone [liberation movements] agreed that the settler’s prerogative had to go, not everyone was agreed that the native too was a colonial construct that needed to be reformed just as urgently…The predominant trend in African postcolonialism was otherwise [to Nyerere’s radical nationalism that aimed to deracialize and deethnicize citizenship]: for conservative nationalism, the point of independence was precisely to replace the settler’s prerogative by the native’s prerogative…”

“To leave the test of indigeneity for one of residence as the basis for political identity and political rights is to take leave of the world of the rat and the cat, of ethnicity and race, of the native and the settler, as political identities. This, in turn, would require making a distinction between cultural and political identities so as to redress the dialectic between past and future. To ground political rights in cultural identities is to accent the past-of which a shared culture is one outcome-as a guide to limiting future possibilities. To differentiate political from cultural identities, however, is to accent the commitment to live under a common roof over the recognition of a common history-no matter what the overlap between them-as the real basis for a shared future.

When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda

Stuart Hall

…race works like a language. And signifiers refer to they [sic] systems and concepts of the classification of a culture to its making meaning practices. And those things gain their meaning, not because of what they contain in their essence, but in the shifting relations of difference, which they establish with other concepts and ideas in a signifying field. Their meaning, because it is relational, and not essential, can never be finally fixed, but is subject to the constant process of redefinition and appropriation. To the losing of old meanings, and the appropriation and collection on contracting new ones, to the endless process of being constantly re-signified, made to mean something different in different cultures, in different historical formations, at different moments of time.”

Race, the Floating Signifier

The Black Panther Party

“We, the Black Panther Party, see ourselves as a nation within a nation, but not for any racist reasons. We see it as a necessity for us to progress as human beings and live on the face of this earth along with other people. We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian Internationalism…

Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses of the people: poor whites, poor blacks, browns, red Indians, poor Chinese and Japanese, and the workers at large.”

What Does the Black Panther Party Stand For?

**This selection is not exhaustive and we welcome further suggestions. Please contact TPC team for recommended additions**

By Carilee Osborne, Rekang Jankie, Michael Nassen Smith and Awande Buthelezi