Professor Neil Roos: How Ordinary Whites Were Caught In Apartheid Society

Students protesting apartheid outside of the Duke Chapel. The demonstration was meant to voice students' support of Duke's divestment of all its holdings in South Africa. This particular protest was organized by graduating seniors on the day of their commencement. The protests hit home: on May 3, 1986, the Board of Trustees voted to withdraw all its South African investments.

To understand the history of the ideology of race, and fighting racism to eventually reach the utopia of non-racialism, we need to understand and challenge’whiteness’ as the foundation of racial categories and racism. Similarly in South Africa, we must understand whiteness to banish the ghosts of apartheid which still linger. Historian Neil Roos, a professor in the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State is tirelessly working at understanding and discussing whiteness. Roos has written Ordinary Springboks: White Servicemen and Social Justice in South Africa, 1939-1961 published in 2005, and Whites in Apartheid Society, due for publication by Indiana University Press in 2018. The Daily Vox spoke to Roos about his work and whiteness in the South African context.

How did you become interested in race – and specifically whiteness?

I went to as progressive as high school as I could considering the time in Durban. We learned an Alan Paton, Cry The Beloved Country sort of tone of ‘apartheid is bad,’ the sort of liberal tone of the late 1950s. The very day that I started university was the day that Neil Aggett who was a trade unionist got murdered. He had the same name as me, he looked like me, and it kind of brought home that apartheid kills. I was doing a teaching degree and I was looking around for subjects and majors where one could meld political interests with scholarly ones. At the time there was a group of historians at Wits University called The History Workshop and they were doing serious political work: mobilising, trying to write histories, and bring hidden histories to the fore. They were doing all this kinds of stuff on the histories of struggle and I followed what the Wits people were doing in Natal. I became interested in white communists in the middle of the century. They were involved in this thing called Springbok Legion which was a lefty trade union among South African soldiers and they organised mainly white men in the South African military but they also tried to organise black soldiers.

The number of whites involved in anti-racist politics in the mid-century was really tiny compared to those who weren’t. I started writing about histories of ordinary whites, working class whites like my folks. I also started reading a lot of German history and realised the big questions we needed to ask of people who lived in authoritarian societies are questions of accommodation, questions of complicity, and questions of collusion.

I’ve always been worried of these nostalgic kinds of stories that come out of white South Africa. There’s a great deal of nonsense spoken about how we whites didn’t know about and subscribe to apartheid. For me that sounds like the Germans who claimed they opposed Nazism in their hearts but they did nothing. I find those arguments very clinical and unprogressive. I find that they lead to a wholly unhelpful narrative about South Africa’s future. I’m interested in asking about how ordinary whites – not the Verwoerds, the de Koks or the big guys – were caught in apartheid society and how they helped to reproduce it.

Giving White People Honest Feedback About Racism

How do white people respond to your work?

It doesn’t make me very popular with white audiences. It clicks a nerve for a lot of white people and it’s easy for white people to scapegoat the history. From scapegoating the history it’s another easy step to say to black people, “what are you moaning about? So and so is dead” but the legacy lives and there’s too much of the past unaccounted for.

I write about whites. I cannot and will not write about whites in a coffee table sense.

What is white supremacy? How could you have been privy to white supremacy when you had no class privilege?

I came from a fairly working class background. My father was a second World War veteran who didn’t have many years of education. We lived in sub-economic housing which was disreputable but virtually rent free for people like my family. It was a rough community and my mother had ambitions for me. I ended up as a scholarship boy going to Glenwood where I hated it but it gave me a kind of cultural capital which was tied to my being white and my being a male. I got a scholarship to study teaching, I got a place in the University of Natal easily.

But the biggest instance of white supremacy was that I was given normativity. The norms that apartheid South Africa – and even post-apartheid South Africa – works through. There is a bigger agenda about knowledge which is where the decolonisation movement comes is. Why do we subscribe to these values and not ones cast in Ghana and Nigeria? I didn’t have to learn a new grammar or language or norms. That’s the core of privilege rather than getting a subsidised house or a school. That is the core of racial supremacy.

You say that the demands of the decolonisation movement should inspire a new, activist, anti-racist history of race which draws on earlier social history movements and techniques developed to understand power, ideology and representation?

Histories of race needs to have a pedagogical and political component. It needs to be an anti-racist intellectual project. It needs to have research components, teaching components, and mobilisation components. I’m reluctant to leave history of whiteness to theory about power relations because we end up de-emphasising the agency of ordinary white people which leads to the possibility of plausible deniability where they say I didn’t know what was going on, it was the big guys at fault. I don’t believe that whites didn’t know what was going on.

What can we gain by studying and understanding race?

Race transforms itself so quickly. In the early 1990s there was stuff coming from the white press, independent group media about flipping standards and corruption. Even now, in fact. I believe slipping standards and corruption are often metaphors about talking about black people. You can’t say you don’t want blacks in government anymore if you’re white but you can talk about slipping standards. Racism and racial supremacy and the language they use transform themselves is really fast and as fast as we try to respond, they change. That’s why I believe historians and other people doing my kind of work have a duty to take on big questions of racism and race and how it works. Whiteness and white supremacy can’t just be put in the cupboard where we say okay we draw through line under it and we’re all a rainbow nation. Yes, Mandela – and even Biko – wanted a non-racial society one day. But what I like about Biko and why I pinned him as South Africa’s most important intellectual is that he is saying we’ve got serious work to do before we get there and that involves understanding how race works. We can’t dismantle this until we understand how it works and how it transforms.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Featured image via Flickr