The Role of White Youth in South Africa’s Struggle Movements

| Doron Isaacs
Doron Isaacs.

This is a speech given by Doron Isaacs, director of Equal Education, at an Ndifuna Ukwazi seminar on 16 June.

The title of today’s seminar is ‘The Role of White Youth in South Africa’s Struggle Movements’. This is provocative. It can even be confusing: Do white youth have a special ‘role’? What do we mean by ‘white youth’?

Before trying to answer these questions, which are really about building non-racism, I want to say something about race and racism.

The history of racism is not just about hatred of others, of darker peoples. It was also supported by a belief in superiority; that people of lighter skin were inherently better, higher and with more potential. This was not just a view held by uneducated people.

The Scottish philosopher and economist David Hume said, ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or in speculation. No ingenious manufacture among them, no arts, no sciences.’

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant stated, ‘The yellow Indians do have a meagre talent. The Negroes are far below them, and at the lowest point are a part of the American people.’

In order to justify slavery, colonialism and Apartheid, whites in South Africa adopted the same view that they were superior to blacks. But from day one there was no such thing as a pure white ‘race’ in South Africa. This is made clear by Professor Herman Giliomee, in his book The Afrikaners, which is considered the definitive history of the people. Giliomee shows that so-called non-white or non-European ancestry is common in Afrikaner familes. This is what he says:

‘Marriages between white men and fair-skinned non-white women were common during the first seventy-five years. Many stable mixed liaisons occurred outside wedlock, and there was also large-scale sex miscegenation in the form of casual sex, especially in the slave lodge frequented by local European men as well as sailors and soldiers.

‘JA Heese, a genealogical researcher, has estimated that seven per cent of Afrikaner families have a non-European stammoeder or progenitress. During the early years the situation was fluid enough for some children born from unions of non-European parents to be accepted into the European community. There were two particularly striking cases. The slave Armosyn Claasz was born in 1661 at the Cape. Her mother was presumably a slave from the west coast of Africa, the identity of her father unknown. She gave birth to the children of four different fathers in the Company’s slave lodge, some described as halfslag (half-caste), which means that the father was white. Many of these children and their descendants were absorbed in what became prominent Afrikaner families, like the Volschenk, Coorts, Du Plessis, Pretorius, Horn, Myburgh and Esterhuyzen.

‘The other case relates to the liaison between Louis of Bengal and Lysbeth van de Caab, both considered non-European. Three daughters were born out of this liaison, and Lysbeth has two daughters from another relationship with a European. All the children entered into relationships, either marital or extra-marital, with Europeans, and most of their descendants were absorbed into the Afrikaner community of today. The families most directly involved were the Brits, Van Deventer, Slabbert, Fischer, and Carstens families.’1

Centuries later, in 1950, the Apartheid state adopted the Population Registration Act. This meant that each person in South Africa was classified into one of several different race groups, of which White was one. The fact that many white families have non-white blood, and vice versa, was swept under the carpet, but listen to how ridiculous the terms used to categorise race were. The Office for Race Classification defined a white person as one who “in appearance is obviously a white person who is generally not accepted as a coloured person; or is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously a white person.” Many criteria, both physical (e.g. examination of head and body hair) and social (e.g. eating and drinking habits, knowledge of Afrikaans) were used when the board decided to classify someone as white or coloured. The Act was repealed on 17 June 1991.

We have seen how science and education were used to promote ideas of racial superiority, but they have also helped us to overcome these beliefs. Nine days ago on 7 June Professor Philip Tobias died. He was a scientist, a white South African from a Jewish family, who studied the history of human beings going back millions of years. His field is called paleoanthropology.

His investigations of human fossils were crucial in proving, scientifically, that there is no such thing as a superior race. In 1961 Tobias published a book called The Meaning of Race in which he disproved the myth of racial superiority. He said: ‘The so-called races of mankind are simply a variety of different sorts of surface anatomy’. This is a deeper point than the one revealed by the Giliomee extract; it is not just that “races” are themselves the products of historical “mixing”, but that race is itself a myth: there is only the human race. In other words, inside we are the same.

I have gone into all of this to show that race is not real in science.

However, race is real in our society, in our power relations, in our economy, in our lived reality, in our culture, in our jokes and prejudices, in our attitudes and in our work, and that is why we are here to discuss it today. And therefore I will now try to answer the question: What is the role of white youth in our struggle movements?

My answer can be summarised as: to learn and to share. What comes first is to learn. White youth need to confront and understand our own ignorance about the world, despite having often superior formal education.

I want to read you an extract from someone who had limited personal involvement in formal politics and activism, but was nevertheless one of the 19th century’s greatest revolutionaries:

‘I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate… I have staid in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water, not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master’s eye. These cruelties were witness by me… I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together … I [would not] have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded … as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes … and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes.’ 2

Charles Darwin wrote that in his journal in 1845.

This English scientist who proved that all people have a common origin understood the importance of perspective. He knew that the world could not be properly seen and understood from above. Like Tobias, his science and his anti-racism were intertwined. 3

A few months later he added this:

‘Those who look tenderly at the slave-owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves in the position of the latter;― what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children… being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done, and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty…’ 4

Darwins’ reflections point to the fact that we, privileged youth, have the permanent challenge of overcoming the biases and prejudices of our class position. To do that is to really learn.

Relating to this problem, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre admitted:

‘It would be wrong to imagine that the intellectual could simply accomplish this task by simply studying the ideology inculcated into him… In actual fact it is his own ideology… In other words it is the tinted glasses through which he normally looks at the world.

… It follows that if he wishes to understand the society in which he lives, he has only one course open to him and that is to adopt the point of view of its most underprivileged members.’ 5

At the same time, however, white youth must not deny themselves the right to an opinion, nor deny themselves the right to argue with their black friends and comrades.

A twentieth century German-Jewish philosopher and Marxist named Max Horkheimer, who escaped to America, made this observation:

‘Even the situation of the proletariat is, in this society, no guarantee of correct knowledge. The proletariat may indeed have experience of meaninglessness in the form of continuing and increasing wretchedness and injustice in its own life. Yet this awareness is prevented from becoming a social force by the differentiation of the social structure which is still imposed on the proletariat from above and by the opposition between personal [and] class interests which is transcended only at very special moments. Even to the proletariat the world superficially seems quite different than it really is.’ 6

White youth, privileged youth, intellectuals, the middle-class – whatever we call them – will sometimes have insights, networks, skills and expertise which will be crucial and indispensable tools for strengthening struggles of poor and working class people. 7 This is the importance of the second aspect, to share.

These struggles must be successful, because it is only in an equal society that we can actually do away with racism. This is because although it is true that racism creates inequality, it is truer that inequality creates racism. Or to be more precise, an economic system that produces inequality will generate racism, xenophobia, and tribalism in order for one group to justify its domination of another.

This was explained by Karl Marx in Capital:

‘The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.’ 8

The struggles we are engaged in together are therefore doubly important. They can change the material conditions of people’s lives, and in so doing reduce the suspicions, divisions and fears between people of different backgrounds. This will be especially true if we participate in them together.

To end I want to relate two significant events in my life, both of which happened to take place years ago in Kalk Bay.

The first event was during a walk with Zackie Achmat. We were in the harbour and watching an old lady remove the skin and scales from fish that had just been offloaded from a boat. She had dark skin that had been made darker by the sun over many years. Zackie and I were discussing the role I could and couldn’t play in the world. He pointed at the old lady and said: ‘You can never be an activist the way she could be an activist.’

The comment has stayed with me and is one I very much appreciate. Zackie was not saying, ‘You cannot be an activist’. No, but he was helping me to understand who I was and what that meant. We need non-racism and unity, but as individuals we must also be conscious of history – and the differing expectations and subtle limits it places upon us – even as we work to overcome it altogether.

A few months later in Kalk Bay I was reading a book titled Building Tomorrow Today by Steven Friedman, about the history of the independent trade unions in South Africa. My reading that day convinced me to join Equal Education. What made the deepest impression on me was the story of Neil Aggett.

‘In 1978, a young doctor at Soweto’s Baragwanath hospital began using his spare time to help the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union set up a Johannesburg branch. On the morning of 5 February, 1982, the doctor, Neil Aggett, now 28 years old and the secretary of A.F.C.W.U.’s Transvaal branch, was found dead in his cell at John Vorster Square police station: police said he hanged himself. He was the first white to die in detention.’ 9

Neil was a remarkable young doctor who had come to the conclusion that ‘the diseases of his worker patients were rooted in their factory conditions’ and that unless these changed his work as a doctor would be somewhat futile.

‘Like some other young whites, he became a unionist only by rejecting the world in which he was raised. Aggett was born in Kenya to settler parents who emigrated to South Africa to escape independence. He was sent to a private school in the eastern Cape and graduated in medicine at the University of Cape Town. All this prepared him for a lucrative private medical career and an assured place in the white establishment. But university also awakened his interest in politics. He began reading political theory and turned his back on both the conservatism and the affluence of his background – he rejected luxury and moved into a labourer’s cottage without hot water or electricity.

‘… Often he would work all night at the hospital and then put in a day’s work for the union.’

Officially Neil took his own life in his cell. However, ‘we know from the record at his inquest that he endured severe interrogation and that it was after a particularly harrowing sessions that he was found hanging in his cell.’

Neil was a remarkable person, but what moved me more than his life, his work or his death, was the reaction to his death.

‘His death sparked local and foreign protests unrivalled since Steve Biko, founder of the black consciousness movement, died in detention in 1977. Biko’s death sparked outrage only; Aggett’s prompted a nation wide work stoppage which reshaped the union movement and its attitude to black political organizations – and impelled it towards greater unity.

‘… [His] commitment forced even black consciousness leaders to concede that some whites were willing to make sacrifices to fight for change. They were few, but their role in the unions helped explain why many unionised workers rejected black exclusivism.’

In response to his death the emerging unions organized the first national factory stoppage in South African history.

‘… On Thursday at noon, workers in scores of factories stopped work. Some held short services; at one east Cape plant white supervisors joined it. At another, SAAWU members stood motionless at their work benches for thirty minutes; the silence, said a witness, was “awesome”. At Ford, MACWUSA members stood silently too, but with clenched fists raised. At a Boksburg plant, FOSATU union members marched around the local pass office. That evening, the unions announced that 100 000 workers had taken part. The first national factory stoppage in local union history had, they said, succeeded.

‘… Aggett’s funeral, which followed two days later, also helped shape attitudes – this time to political links. Some 6000 mourners packed into St Mary’s Anglican cathedral, a cavernous stone building in central Johannesburg. In the centre sat rows of Baragwanath nurses in uniform; to either side hundreds of workers in union T-shirts. Before the service began, lilting melodies swelled from the church as mourners, in uncanny harmony, paid tribute to Aggett with union songs. After a ceremony conducted by Bishop Desmond Tutu and an oration by A.F.C.W.U. general secretary Jan Theron, they set off in procession for the burial.

‘Aggett rejected segregation in life, but the law prevented him doing so in death; he was buried in a white cemetery in suburban Johannesburg and the procession brought the emerging unions into the heart of white suburbia. Startled residents scurried to their fences as thousands of workers, marching behind union banners in the searing heat, sang their last tribute to Neil Aggett. At the graveside, A.F.C.W.U. members, speaking through an interpreter, described what the young doctor had meant to their movement and brought home the way in which he had bridged the racial gap.’

The Neil Aggett story goes together with the story of the old fisherwoman. White youth can play a significant role —of learning and sharing— when mindful of their privilege.

Paula Ensor told us earlier that what politics gave her was a sense of belonging for the first time. I think this is the greatest gift that white South African youth can receive from the black South African youth they work with; acceptance and belonging. This we should apply both ways, and in so doing honour the memory of Neil Aggett.


  1. Herman Giliomee. The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town, 2003) p 18. 

  2. Burkhardt et al., eds, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 3:242 and 243 n8 in A Desmond & J Moore Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (Penguin: London, 2009). 

  3. See Desmond & Moore Darwin’s Sacred Cause (supra). 

  4. Burkhardt supra 3:345. 

  5. Jean-Paul Sartre ‘The intellectual and the masses’ in Between Existentialism and Marxism (New York: Verso, 2008) at 255. 

  6. M Horkheimer Critical Theory (New York, 1972), pp 213 – 214 cited in Alex Callinicos Social Theory (2ed) (Cambridge, 2007) p 250. 

  7. See also intro by Richard Shaull to Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed which says: ‘For Freire, the resources for that task at the present time are provided by the advanced technology of our Western world, but the social vision which impels us to negate the present order and demonstrate that history has not ended comes primarily from the suffering and struggle of the people of the Third World.’ 

  8. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1977), p. 915. Or as the Trinidadian historian of slavery and first Prime Minister Eric Williams put it ‘Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.’ See Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (New York: Perigee Books, 1980), p. 7. 

  9. All extracts on Neil Aggett are from Steven Friedman Building Tomorrow Today: African Workers in Trade Unions 1970 – 1984 (Johannesburg, 1987) pp 277-284. 

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