Much of what is commonly known about South Africa centers on a single reality: this is probably one of the most racialized societies on earth. South African society is notorious for how, over the course of a century and a half, its economic, social, and political system systematically structured identities, interests, and institutions in that country on an explicitly racialized basis. The country is also rightly famous however for the courageous, multifaceted, and long-standing attempts to oppose that system, for the struggle to build a more just and free society, and for its apparently miraculous transition to a multiracial democracy in the mid 1990s. This struggle in turn has constructed an alternate set of identities, interests, and institutions. More recently, South Africa has continued to capture headlines for the challenges and difficulties associated with the attempts to consolidate democracy in a society that remains, socially and economically speaking, radically unequal – albeit now increasingly in terms of class rather than, as it was previously, in terms of race.
For much of the country’s history, the dominant rules of the game that governed both political and economic life were built around the deliberate construction of race – or attempts to erode and challenge it. From at least the 1700s until 1994, those rules overwhelmingly favored white settlers and their descendants while other South Africans were systematically excluded from access to political and economic power. Throughout, this exclusion was most forcefully directed at Africans. Racialized identities shaped how most South Africans came to identify their interests, often overriding (if never quite eliminating) the importance of other identities such as class and gender; they structured also the society’s key institutions, both formal and informal, political and economic. In particular, the racialization of politics built a very particular kind of state – one of the strongest and richest on the continent, but one that explicitly sought to meet the needs only of a small fraction of the society. This was especially true under the National Party (NP) government.