‘Honorary whites’ in SA and the art of forgetting

The term ‘honorary whites’ was a political designation employed by the apartheid regime in South Africa. It served to extend certain rights and privileges typically reserved for whites to individuals who would have otherwise been categorised as non-white under the Population Registration Act. Picture: Supplied

The term ‘honorary whites’ was a political designation employed by the apartheid regime in South Africa. It served to extend certain rights and privileges typically reserved for whites to individuals who would have otherwise been categorised as non-white under the Population Registration Act. Picture: Supplied

Published Jan 28, 2024


By Siyabonga Hadebe

Long before apartheid was outlawed in 1990, South Africa already had way too many “honorary whites” who lived in whites-only suburbs – besides the Japanese, some local black people also belonged to this exclusive club.

This extended to some foreign individuals from neighbouring countries such as Malawi, who had a cosy relationship with the apartheid state.

The term “honorary whites” was a political designation employed by the apartheid regime in South Africa. It served to extend certain rights and privileges typically reserved for whites to individuals who would have otherwise been categorised as non-white under the Population Registration Act.

The privilege was reserved for special groups that collaborated with the apartheid project, but everything associated with it was illogical. Whereas the Chinese were classified as “black”, their cousins in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea were classified as “white”. South Korea declined the gracious offer from the apartheid government.

The status aimed to lessen the burden placed by the notion of a global hierarchy of race on collaborators of colour, irrespective of origin. These days, however, the term extends to cover people “who think they are above other non-white people” (or colonial clerks), not just in terms of the hue of their skin but ideas and conduct.

This article examines the problematic concept of “honorary whites” and its pervasive influence on South African society during apartheid. It further delves into this concept through Frantz Fanon’s lens of the African petit-bourgeoisie to explain the attitudes and behaviours of the black economic and political elite in post-apartheid South Africa.

Scholarly and other works often highlight the experiences of international athletes and celebrities like the West Indies cricket team, Maoris and Arthur Ash, but many of our brothers and sisters living within South Africa and Bantustans also had access to certain rights and privileges that were not afforded to the majority of black South Africans. These people were useful tools in areas like sports, business, politics and other areas of human endeavour.

Some notable individuals already owned homes in Johannesburg’s exclusive northern suburbs, Durban North, East London and other select locations. For instance, the TBVC Bantustans, along with Malawi, maintained diplomatic relations with Pretoria.

They established embassies and consulates across the country. Their ambassadors, consul generals and diplomats had to obtain specific status under the apartheid regime’s race laws to reside and work in Pretoria and other cities like Bloemfontein, Durban and East London.

While it has become fashionable to claim struggle credentials, two prominent figures in the entertainment industry have openly acknowledged that their parents were Bantustan diplomatic envoys residing in Waterkloof.

However, the same cannot be said for other elites from Bantustans and townships, who swiftly manoeuvred to become the primary beneficiaries of post-apartheid transformation initiatives intended for previously disadvantaged groups.

The “honorary white” group has perpetuated their privileged lifestyles. Alongside their families, they occupy prominent positions in politics, commerce and society at large.

A substantial portion of this group remains within the exclusive circle of individuals who can afford prime property in upscale neighbourhoods and exorbitant tuition fees at prestigious institutions like Michaelhouse, Grey College and Hilton College.

Furthermore, the descendants of colonial clerks continue to wield influence in government and business. This phenomenon stems from the fact that these families accrued immense wealth through their collaboration with the apartheid regime.

They amassed their fortunes not through their entrepreneurial prowess, as is often asserted, but rather by exploiting the privileges that were denied many of their kind.

While many may not fully appreciate the role played by black soccer bosses, their ability to navigate the oppressive apartheid system was largely due to the privileges extended to them by the authorities to keep the masses entertained.

This part of our most recent history remains largely unexplored, and narratives only focus on just how good Jomo Sono was or how entertaining the Soweto derby was.

In fairness to the ANC, its exile cohort represented a tiny fraction of the black population. When the new administration took over in the Eastern Cape, for instance, it was forced to inherit civil servants from the Bantustan regimes of Transkei and Ciskei.

The disastrous consequences of this decision are well-documented, and the province has yet to fully recover from the mismanagement and rampant corruption that characterised those early years.

The point I am trying to drive home is that not everyone had a difficult experience under apartheid, and this may contribute to a nostalgic yearning for the past by a certain segment of the population.

Also, not everyone was a “klipgooier” in the streets, but a small group of businessmen (collaborators) were always looking up to the apartheid death squads to protect their property situated in black areas.

Today, this behaviour has contributed to the frustration many people feel towards indifferent black executives in both the public and private sectors. It is now becoming clear that these contrarian attitudes were planted a long time ago through honorary whites and their amazemtiti ancestors.

Paradoxically, the black majority placed their trust in the very same oppressive classes that had historically hindered their progress and hoped that they would lead them to liberation. The lumpen class has played a significant role in keeping black communities off-balance and disorganised, a trend that continues today.

The African petit-bourgeoisie class, including those working in politics, the judiciary, business, entertainment and sports, were never on the front lines fighting for anything. They just benefited from the sacrifices of those who did fight and continue to bear the scars from the past.

Like everywhere, South Africa’s capitalist system is all about creating protection for the elite who make up the benefactor classes on top of this system.

It is also crucial to recognise that “honorary whites” consistently prioritise their class interests, aligning with those of the national bourgeoisie and the capitalist classes over the well-being of the masses of African people who suffer from extreme poverty.

The most egregious element of the African petit-bourgeoisie concerns their conscious decision to prioritise their own interests at the expense of the masses. Systemic corruption is, hence, not an accidental occurrence but a conscious enterprise employed by those in power to maintain their privileged positions.

What an increasing number of Africans are realising now is that individual access to positions within the capitalist system does not translate to progress for the masses of people. The high end of the table is reserved and will always be reserved for “honorary whites”, who fervently support internal colonialism and neo-apartheid.

When the African petit-bourgeoisie was much smaller during the apartheid era, many of the problems South Africa currently faces would probably have been much easier to identify. However, the numbers have expanded to include many pretenders, and this explains the unending story of pain and suffering at the hands of the “honorary white” group.

Karl Marx argued that the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat (the masses) by extracting surplus value, the difference between the value of the workers’ labour and the wages they are paid.

This exploitation leads to growing inequality and social unrest, which ultimately culminates in a class revolt. In his view, a class revolt would not be a spontaneous uprising but a conscious and organised movement led by the masses.

While Marx’s ideas are often dismissed as antiquated, they remain relevant not only in South Africa but also in other parts of the world.

Contrary to popular belief, what South Africa needs is not an election but a peasant revolt to establish a more just and equitable society. The reason why our ancestors revolted as far back as the 1800s was to attain freedom and not democracy or constitutionalism.

Capitalism, more so than apartheid, is inherently exploitative and cannot be sustained. Therefore, the establishment of a classless society is necessary to achieve true freedom and equality. Reversing historical continuities can never succeed using free-market tools, given that both apartheid and colonialism were fundamentally capitalist systems.

Thirty years have passed too swiftly, and it all seems forgotten.

Siya yi banga le economy!

* Based in Geneva, Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economics, politics and global matters. The views expressed here are his own.