An Isis Paper on white settler-colonialism: Finding the keys to the colours in and of South Africa


By Masilo Lepuru


“Power is the ability to define reality and to impose it on other people as if it is their own definition” (Wade Nobles)

Systems of domination are based on ideas. This is because power “begins at the level of formulation of ideas”. In addition to ideas the concretisation and operationalisation of power requires institutions. This is the structure of systems of domination at their fundamental core. Theorising with the view to dismantle systems of domination requires a proper comprehension of their constituent elements. Theory aids us to unravel the complexities of systems of domination. Perhaps the most basic characteristic of systems of domination is dynamism, in the sense of constant adjustment and refinement for self-preservation. A system of domination can evolve from being a crude one to being sophisticated depending mainly on the resistance on the part of its victims and the intelligence of its architects. White supremacy is not an exception in this regard.

Dr Francis Cress Welsing formulated a theory to attempt to unravel the intricacies of white supremacy. This theory is called the Cress Theory of Colour Confrontation. This paper will draw on this theory to critically explore the South African manifestation of white supremacy. Of course, this paper presupposes the fact that white supremacy is a global system of white domination. The emphasis will be on how white settlers, as conquerors since the conquest of 1652, have used their institutions and ideas to remain in power to this day in South Africa despite many centuries of resistance on the part of the Indigenous conquered people. This paper is basically a critical commentary on the theme of a discussion called “The importance of Democratic elections in our Constitutional Democracy” as formulated by Students for Law and Social Justice at Wits University, to which this writer was invited as a panellist. I now turn to the title of my critical commentary and its formulation.

Finding the keys to the illusion of Post-Apartheid constitutional democracy.

“What became of the Black People of Sumer? The traveller asked the old man, for ancient records show that the people of Sumer were Black. What happened to them? “Ah”, the old man sighed. “They lost their history, so they died.” (A Sumer Legend as quoted by Chancellor Williams, my italics)


Francis Cress Welsing once argued that “if you don’t understand white supremacy, then everything else you think you know will only confuse you”. Simply put, white supremacy is a global system of white domination. This system of white domination manifests itself in several aspects of the dominated people’s existence such as history, politics, law, culture, economics, religion and sex. It became global during the so-called “journeys of discovery”. Our main but not only focus in this critical commentary will be history, law and politics – with the important awareness that the above-mentioned aspects are intertwined.

In South Africa white supremacy begins properly in 1652 with the conquest of the Indigenous people by Europeans. These conquering Europeans became white settlers through land dispossession and the Dutch East India company which is one of the many European institutions of conquest. Conquest manifested itself in the forms of land dispossession, and epistemicide which simply put is the colonisation of the mind and the knowledge of the colonised, in this case the Indigenous conquered people. Conquest meant that the Indigenous conquered people lost their sovereign title to territory and control over their Indigenous institutions which are the pillars of their Indigenous society. Contemporaneously and following land dispossession white settlers as conquerors imposed their European institutions in their attempt to create a European society in Africa. European State, courts, schools, churches, parliament and constitution are some of the legal, cultural and political institutions which the white settlers as conquerors imposed on the Indigenous conquered people at the expense of their own Indigenous institutions. The important question to ask in this regard is; why did the conquering white settlers see the need to impose their institutions during and following land dispossession?

The present writer holds the view that these conquering white settlers understood that Indigenous politics and society were based on the ownership and control of land and the appropriate institutions. Since these white settlers wanted to create a “miniature/tiny Europe” on the southern tip of Afrika, they understood very well that they had to start with the land, by dispossessing it, dividing it and then in the process impose their institutions. Another very significant answer to the above mentioned question is that, since they, as conquering white settlers, did not murder all the Indigenous conquered people, unlike in other parts of the world like Australia and America, they had to find a way to “deal” with these remaining Indigenous conquered people in a way that is consistent with their racist identity as a “civilizing” master-race. Thus, the racist invention of the so-called “native question”.

We must remember that white settlers “arrived” as and still are both a racial and numerical minority. They are a racial and numerical minority both in South Africa and around the globe. Land dispossession and the imposition of their institutions were and still are their way of creating a European political order in which they are in power both in an obvious and concealed manner. Thus, the European political order they were creating through and based on land dispossession and the imposition of their institutions was informed by the racist idea that they are a rational and civilized superior white race/people who are surrounded by a majority of irrational/non-rational, uncivilized and inferior non-humans/sub-humans. This summarises the origin of the racist “native question” which still exists to this day. How white settlers attempted to resolve this so-called “native question” is very complex as it depends on the degree of resistance on the part of the Indigenous conquered people and the branch of white settlers which is in power. But the fundamental commonalities are land division in the form of Native reserves/Bantustans and the creation of a constitutional framework as a political and legal regulatory mechanism and foundation of a society. These are what we will focus on in this critical commentary.

In 1853 the British settlers created a constitutional framework which was based on a racist so-called Cape Liberalism. In terms of this constitutional framework and Liberalism only “civilized natives” in the sense of the Indigenous conquered people who were owners of property and with a certain level of European education could have a right to vote. This was in terms of what Cecil Rhodes called “equal rights for civilized men”. In the Boer Republics the “civilized natives” could not vote because the Republics’ constitutional framework was based on “no equality in State and church”. Land division into white settler colonies, republics and later South Africa and its Native reserves/Bantustans and “white democracy” was how both branches of white settlers as conquerors “dealt” with the so-called “native question”. The latter being among other things the anxiety and fear the white settler minority has of someday being “overpowered” by an Indigenous conquered majority.

In 1910 South Africa as a white settler State, which it still is to this day, was created based on the European modern unitary state institution. South Africa as a white settler State and society was created through the merging of two British settler colonies as well as two Dutch settler republics which prior to conquest and the resultant land division were the land of the Indigenous conquered people since time immemorial. Thus, South Africa at its very foundation is based on the loss of sovereign title to territory of the Indigenous conquered people and the control of their institutions. The Union Act of 1910 as a constitutional framework excluded the Indigenous conquered people, as its architects intended explicitly for South Africa to be a “white man’s country” which as far as power is concerned it remains thus to this day. In 1948 after winning elections, which as usual were based on “white democracy”, the National Party informed by Afrikaner nationalism, which merely reconfigured white settler colonialism rather than invent something new, came into power as a branch of the white settlers.

In 1961 a Republican constitutional framework based still on Afrikaner nationalism and informed by the “divine gift of land” (in line with the Doctrine of Discovery in the form of papal bulls issued by European popes to authorise the dispossession of the so-called non-Europeans of their lands) which the Dutch settlers, who in an attempt to “indigenise” themselves called themselves the “Afrikaners”, created still excluded the Indigenous conquered people. And finally, in 1983 the Afrikaner nationalists reconfigured their constitutional framework to include only Coloureds and Indians.
In the light of the above brief historical backdrop, there are two paradigms which must be explained in a nutshell. The first one is the Decolonial paradigm and the second one is the Democratisation paradigm. The Decolonial paradigm is not concerned with the obvious exclusion of the Indigenous conquered people from among other things “white democracy” but it is fundamentally concerned with conquest which began in 1652 and seeks to negate it by restoring sovereign title to territory to the Indigenous conquered people and the control of their institutions and society. Simply put, it seeks to destroy South Africa as a white settler State/colony and create in its place a new Indigenous political order based on the ownership and control of land and institutions by the Indigenous people and for the Indigenous people. It pursues a Post-conquest Indigenous era as opposed to the current Post-Apartheid democratic order within a white settler State. This is because the Decolonial paradigm understands that the fundamental problem is conquest and white settler colonialism and not apartheid and “white democracy” from which the Indigenous conquered people were excluded.

This Decolonial paradigm was the ideological foundation of the PAC and BCM liberation movements. The Democratisation paradigm, which triumphed with the 1996 constitutional framework and the 1994 elections, concerns itself mainly with the exclusion of the Indigenous conquered people and seeks to assimilate them into the terms and institutions of white settler colonialism in South Africa as a white settler State and the European rights-discourse of the white settlers. In other words, its fundamental aim is the pursuit of equality and justice within a white settler State/colony called South Africa. Its triumph means that the formerly excluded Indigenous conquered people can “identify with” South Africa and its institutions through terms such as “we the people of South Africa, our constitution and our Democracy”.

There are two important things to bear in mind at this stage; namely, that “democracy” did not start with the 1994 elections and that the constitutional framework since its inception in 1853 until 1983 was based on parliamentary supremacy. White settlers as the demos/the people could hold elections to elect their white representatives who on their mandate and in their interest formulated and implemented in a white parliament laws which sustained white supremacy. Thus, white settlers as the exclusive demos, before 1994 knew the importance of elections in their “white democracy”.
With the 1996 constitution there was a paradigm shift from parliamentary supremacy to constitutional supremacy. The constitutional court with strong judicial review is also another aspect of this paradigm shift. The question is, why the need for this paradigm shift?

To adequately answer this very significant question we must recall that white settlers have always been a racial and numerical minority since 1652. As a collective in a foreign land with a conscious sense of racial superiority but handicapped by numerical inferiority white settlers as usual turned to their institutions they imposed since conquest in 1652 to remain a master-race in power. For these white settlers, the prospect of an Indigenous conquered majority occupying parliament was a “black danger/swartgevaar”, they could not accept.

These white settlers knew very well based on their own experience how one can use parliament to one’s advantage. In order to stop the Indigenous conquered majority from effectively using parliament, they called for the first time in South Africa for constitutional supremacy. In the past through parliamentary supremacy they have enacted Acts which sustained their white settler colonial sovereignty, such as the Glen Grey Act 1894 and the Land Act 1913. White settlers understood that with the triumph of the Democratisation paradigm and the “extension” of a formerly “white democracy” to the Indigenous conquered majority, the sovereign title to territory of the latter can be restored through a parliamentary process in the absence of a supreme constitution and a strong judicial review.

The triumph of the Democratisation paradigm worked to the advantage of the white settlers because through a “non-racial” democracy the demos/the people are regarded as homogenous/the same. In terms of this philosophy of non-racialism we now have “South Africans both black and white” but not white settlers and Indigenous conquered people in South Africa as a white settler State based on white settler colonial sovereignty. This non-racialism attempts to perform a “historical silencing” of conquest since 1652 which has to this day resulted in the antagonism between the white settlers and the Indigenous conquered people. The very constitution which “authorises” non-racial democracy, which as a result thereof becomes “our democracy”, totally “silenced” Ubuntu and thus Abantu and with brutal Liberal violence reduced them to just “everyone” with rights. Since the Indigenous conquered people as Abantu and their culture are not part of the constitution which inaugurates non-racial democracy, does it make sense for them to say “our constitution” and “our democracy”?

The essence of parliamentary supremacy and representative democracy which are compatible is that the will of the people in a form of a mandate is formulated and implemented through a parliamentary process by the people’s elected political representatives. Thus, when parliament which consists of elected political representatives is subjected to constitutional supremacy which decides which law is compatible with it through judicial review then the will of the people is subject to the will of both the supreme constitution and the will of the judges who decide in terms of this constitution. So, what is the importance of elections? If the Indigenous conquered majority in parliament cannot through both parliament and the political representatives they elect exercise their will as a people does it make sense for them to call it our constitutional democracy? This is what the present writer means by the illusion of post-apartheid constitutional democracy.

The very constitution which proudly inaugurates a “democracy” also negates its functioning through its supremacy (in the interest of white settlers). Thus the current “constitutional democracy” is an absurd contradiction in terms and a farce which is consistently “fed to” the Indigenous conquered people to their horrible detriment. In conclusion the present writer holds the view that what we have is not “our democracy” but a capital-managed technocracy. This is nothing but a rule by “experts” most of whom are not elected and whose ideas and policies are subject to the tyranny of profit-obsessed multinational corporations whose directors have power without being elected by the people (the South African Reserve Bank, its governors and economic advisors is a case in point of this technocracy). Thus, the conquest of the Indigenous conquered people was facilitated by a European institution/company called the Dutch East India Company with its directors and it is currently maintained by other European companies which are in line with Neo-liberal free market capitalism and the Bretton woods institutions with some of the former owning the land of the Indigenous conquered people just like their “pioneering” predecessor, the Dutch East India company.

“Power never concedes without a demand. It never did and it never will.” (Frederick Douglass)


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.