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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

10 Jan 1992: Rhoodie, Nic

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POM     You were saying Dr. Rhoodie?

NR     Something that came up during a survey is that most blacks regard the Afrikaners as constituting a stable ethnic unit.  In other words they recognise the ethnic credentials of the Afrikaner.  Most blacks even acknowledge that the English speaking South Africans constitute an ethnic group, which they do not, because of their diversity.  The concept of English speaking in SA is an umbrella concept.  It involves people from different cultures and so on. These people call themselves English speaking South Africans whereas in the case of the Afrikaners the concept Afrikaner denotes, in terms of accepted criteria, that it is an historically evolved ethnic group.

     What is interesting is that the blacks regard the Afrikaner as an ethnic group, they regard the English speaking whites as an ethnic group, but they don't regard themselves, and they don't regard the Zulus, as a stable ethnic group.

     The explanation is simple.  Blacks regard their numerical superiority, their collective numeral superiority, as their main trump card in the struggle for a redistribution of power in SA.  Now why would they squander this trump card and allow the government to introduce divide and rule tactics?  This is why most black leaders refrain from using the word 'tribe', and why they never use the concept of ethnicity.

POM     The black leaders avoid the concept, but what about ordinary black people?

NR     Ordinary blacks take their cue from the leadership echelons. However, even black people in fairly sophisticated categories find it difficult to understand the concept of ethnicity.  I am not now referring to those blacks sweeping the streets who have not been to school and who are functionally illiterate, I don't think they have any rational opinions of this; they don't know what the concept entails in terms of the concepts that we use in order to address the problem of ethnicity.  But if you do research among fairly sophisticated blacks you will find that the majority will studiously avoid the concept of ethnicity because they think that ethnicity is a new form of apartheid and that the whites want to perpetuate apartheid in terms of new nice-sounding concepts such as ethnicity.

     So, I can understand their position and their fear of divide and rule.  If I were a black leader I would probably do the same.  I mean if your trump card is the collective numerical preponderance of your people, of your group, why divide your supporters in terms of ethnicity?  That is why the black leadership studiously avoids the concept of ethnicity.  Currently there are signs that Mandela and his lieutenants are beginning to wake up to the realities of SA.  Now they are beginning to realise that you cannot wish ethnicity away, and by sweeping it under the carpet you will simply be putting off the evil day of ethnic conflict.

     Some are beginning to argue that we should face up to the realities of ethnicity now, even if the latter is still in a sort of dormant state.  Rather tackle the problem now, look  it squarely in the face, and try and accommodate the ethnic factor in whatever the new SA will be, for instance, creating institutions such as an independent Supreme Court to guard over the rights of ethnic enclaves or individuals belonging to small minorities.  I think this is a very positive development in SA.  Even Mr. Mandela, now and again, and only a few weeks ago, said that provision would have to be made for ethnic minorities in a new SA.  This is a positive development.

     Until fairly recently no black leaders wanted to mention the concept of minority rights, with the exception of the Zulu Inkatha movement. Chief Buthelezi is not afraid to say boldly, that the Zulus constitute a separate ethnic nation, and that they would like to be recognised as a separate ethnic nation and they would like to be represented in decision making bodies as representatives of the Zulu ethnic nation.

POM     You made an observation when I came in about the different way in which Europeans perceived ethnicity and how it is perceived here.  Could you just compare and contrast the two different ways in which the terms are used?

NR     In the case of Europe, the Europeans grow up with the reality of ethnic diversity.  I find that in the case of my friends in the US, if you talk to them about ethnicity they have one stock recipe for resolving the ethnic problem; institute a strong Supreme Court and that's it.  I think this is a very simplistic way of looking at the problem, especially the problems that you find in deeply divided or segmented societies.  The idea that you simply introduce one man one vote and all your problems will be resolved, that is in order in a country like the US where 80% of your population are from West European descent. I mean it is easy to say in a place like the US, just give everybody the vote and everything will be fine. The Europeans are much more sophisticated about this kind of problem so you will find that in Europe you have an open debate on the problems of ethnicity, something that has been sorely lacking in SA.

     In SA white academics and researchers also avoid the concept of ethnicity but for different reasons.  In SA, for many years, if you wanted to defend your interest in ethnicity, if you wanted to stimulate a rational debate surrounding the concept of ethnicity, many people would regard you as a neo-nazi or somebody championing the cause of the new apartheid.  At present, however, we find that there is a positive change.  More and more white academics and analysts are beginning to face up to the realities of ethnicity and to accept that ethnicity and racism are not necessarily synonymous.  If you have an ethnic group, racial traits or characteristics can be markers of ethnicity; the presence of racial factors, like skin colour, are not necessary conditions for an ethnic community to exist, e.g. Scandinavia.  The Scandinavians all come from the same basic stock; can you differentiate physically between a Dane and an Norwegian? You can't.  But despite the fact that they are racially homogenous they have diverse cultural and historical roots.  So, the concept ethnic does not necessary involve physical or somatic features or characteristics.

     Of course, I concede that if you have a situation where, say, two groups are separated in terms of culture, language and religion and superimposed on this also a racial factor, then of course your problem becomes much more difficult to handle.  For instance, take the Croats and the Serbs in Yugoslavia: say, for the sake of argument, that the Serbs were white and the Croats were black. Superimpose upon them other differences, historical and so on; can you imagine how difficult the problem could have been?  If Catholics were white and the Protestants black, then they would kill each other by the thousands every day because now your opponent becomes visible. Now you can't say, that man riding on a bicycle down the street is a Catholic. How do you know that unless you talk to him?

     So if there is a physical factor, skin colour for instance, defined as a racial factor involved in the equation, then of course it makes for more complicated ethnic relations.  There are many examples of an ethnic problem or ethnic factor without external physical racial markers or criteria.

     In the case of Europe this conference will be addressing the future of ethnic minorities in the greater democracies of Europe.

POM     When is this conference being held?

NR     3rd to 5th February in Slovenia.  The name of the town is Maribor.  It is a small university town in the Northern part of Slovenia, about 15kms from the Austrian border.  The Council of Europe will be represented as well as several other very prominent research organisations in Europe and they will openly debate the problem of ethnicity and the future of ethnic relations, including how to accommodate ethnic groups in democratic institutions.  This is the same sort of debate that we should have had in SA years ago, but because of the reasons that I have mentioned we have lost a lot of time.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.