Suren Pillay, “Equality Citizenship and Difference: Becoming Post-Apartheid.” Commentary by ARC Student Fellows Abigail Kolker, Parfait Kouacou, and Sarah Litvin.

Suren Pillay’s talk, “Equality Citizenship and Difference: Becoming Post-Apartheid,” is concerned with the legacies of apartheid, including justice and reparations claims, as well as inequalities and citizenship. In the post-apartheid period, South Africa is trying to transcend its history of violence and inequality by focusing on protecting equal citizenship and upholding human rights. Yet, in his lecture, Pillay underscores the continued legacy of ethnic tension in post-apartheid South Africa by exploring two recent violent instances: the Marikana Mine massacre and a spate of xenophobic violence against foreign nationals from other African countries.

While many scholars consider the “wrong” of apartheid on economic terms (as the securing of cheap labor for the gold and diamonds minds central to the South African economy at the end of the 20th Century), or in racial terms (as a system of systemized racial discrimination that distributed social, political and economic resources based on race), Pillay introduces a third avenue to think about apartheid discrimination that is often less prominent: classification and distinctions based on ethnicity.

The 1950 Population Registry Act designated eight racial categories for South Africans. The indigenous, black South African population did not fall under any of these. Instead, this law categorized and identified them according to ethnicity. Under the Bantustan policy in apartheid South Africa, these people–80% of the population– became, in Pillay’s words, “foreigners” living in “nominally independent states.” These Bantustans or “homelands” were controlled by local chieftons. In 1994, when apartheid rule ended, the racial system of power was overthrown, but the ethnic distribution of power, in the form of zones adjudicated by chieftons following customary law, remained. Of South Africa’s population of about 50 million people, 16.5 million live in these zones today, subject to chieftons and customary laws that discriminate based on ethnicity. Two maps, one showing the bantustans and the second showing the contemporary regions that operate under customary law, reveal how little these loci of authority have changed.

The effects of the country’s ethnicity-based power structure are significant. What’s at stake, Pillay says, is, “Who constitutes the community? Who speaks on behalf of community? and Who is excluded from community?” These issues are practical and philosophical; economic and political. The large platinum mines such as Marikana, elaborated upon below, have attracted major capital investments–and migrant workers–into areas that operate under customary law. This has lead to disputes about the relationship between revenues, private mining houses and chieftons’ authority, and raised questions about citizenship and equality for migrant workers, who often live in “shack areas” nearby mines and can live in these areas for generations without accumulating any rights. The country has seen political splits along ethnic lines as more and more money is at stake through mining operations in regions under customary law.

The two contemporary examples that Pillay uses to show the effects of this are the Marikana massacre and contemporary xenophobic violence. The Marikana massacre occurred in August 2012, when 34 mine strikers were gunned down by a special unit of the South African police. This was the largest instance of police killing of civilians in South Africa since 1960, and rightfully garnered much international attention. This event revealed the complexity of many contemporary issues in post-apartheid South Africa. It shows, for instance, that the Marikana massacre should not only be thought of through the lens of a labor dispute but also as how the ethnic distribution of power allows for the state to abdicate its responsibility in instances of violence. The second example Pillay employs is the discrimination and violence that foreign nationals have recently faced in South Africa. Some of the violence manifests in the quotidian, such as the dealing with immigration laws and negative treatment by the police, while other instances are more dramatic, including anti-immigrant riots and foreigner’s stores being looted. Unfortunately, extreme xenophobic violence has been on the rise; especially notable is the recent spike in physical assaults and murder of immigrants.

Most of the literature on the recent wave of xenophobia claims it all started 1994, but actually violence against the outsider has a long history in South Africa, the only difference being that the figure of the outsider was mobilized differently in the past. The figure that bridges historical and contemporary South Africa, Pillay argues, is the archetype of the migrant. In this particular context, ‘migrant’ can be defined in many ways. The “migrant” or “outsider” is a political subject, so it is not just a foreign national, but also a foreigner from another province or another state. When migrant labor is recruited for deep mining projects, as is often the case, they are usually from another town or province. Today, the migrant can be represented by either the migrant mine worker or the foreign national residing in South Africa.

Pillay claims that South Africa has yet to reckon with its system of ethnic based inequality, a system that dates all the way back to British colonial rule in the 1890s, and was folded into Apartheid South Africa. While empowering local chieftons was initially a useful strategy to consolidate control for the British, today it poses a threat to the programs of equality and human rights of the South African government. He argues that we must see “colonialism as something that has purchase in 20h century, not just history,” and concludes that this research demands a reassessment of “how, whether, and if we are becoming post apartheid.”

Pillay’s presentation is the most recent in the series of ARC’s lectures on inequality in the age of globalization. ARC fellows have explored this topic from a variety of historical, political, and economic perspectives. For example, Richard Drayton was interested in the origins of modern inequality and how inequality is reconstituted across temporal and geographic expanses.  Naomi Murakawa examined the reproduction of inequality as well, by showing how sometimes reforms, such as U.S. police reforms, intend to correct racial injustice, but can unintentionally intensify it. Pillay, by contrast, provides a case-study approach to highlight how one particular system of ethnic inequality, the South African case, prevents progress toward programs intending to promote equality. What is especially interesting about Pillay case is that it begs into question the particularities of how equality is achieved; often, the quest for justice and empowerment of one vulnerable group can come at the expense of another. As these two instances in recent South African history demonstrate, the righteous empowerment of indigenous populations through the official sanctioning of customary law can have negative effects for another vulnerable population, i.e. migrants. His talk added richness and depth to the ARC’s continuing conversation about how to understand and confront inequality in the age of globalization.