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Despite the fact that apartheid officially ended in 1994 in South Africa, new forms of racism and elitism continue to linger on, grounded in enduring asymmetries of power. Such power relations continue to serve the interests of elites whilst marginalising millions of indigent people.

This article deals with the contemporary South African political economy of higher education in order to show how problems and challenges such as access and equity are compounded and convoluted through the intervention of elitist institutions and actors. It is a shortened form of an article which was addressed to Professor Walter Baets, Chairperson of the African Business Schools Association (AABS) and Dean of the Graduate School of Business (GSB) at the University of Cape Town University.

The prime purpose of this article is to show through theoretical underpinnings how racism and elitism continue to prevail in this country, though in a more ‘veiled’ form. The perpetrators of this ‘concealed’ elitism and racism, thus, become the bearers of a new pernicious form of racial bigotry. In short, these new agents of racial prejudice have now become ‘illusionists’ who remain ‘within our gates’. We need to peel away at their masks to expose and demystify their real being.

This article, therefore, proceeds on the understanding that despite the fact that apartheid officially ended in 1994 in South Africa, new forms of racism and elitism continue to linger on, grounded in enduring asymmetries of power. Such power relations continue to serve the interests of elites whilst marginalising, as a corollary, millions of indigent people in the country. The point of departure, though, is that covert elitism and racism is shrouded in mystification and is inordinately difficult to identify and define, unless one makes a concerted effort to peel off the various layers that embalm the nefarious creature which sociologists refer to as ‘racism’. As Bonilla-Silva (1996) states,‘the new racism exists without racists ... Today, racial segregation and division often result from habits, policies, and institutions that are not explicitly designed to discriminate. Contrary to popular belief, discrimination or segregation do not require animus. They thrive even in the absence of prejudice or ill will. It’s common to have racism without racists ... Unlike the discriminatory racism of the past, the new racism is disconnected’.

The new ‘elitism’ excludes rather than oppresses. It is stealthy and gentle in appearance, but brutal and steadfast in its mission. It is only when we peel away the ‘gentle’ surface that our sensory organs begin to see and feel the rancid core. The rot is clearly evident – it is like a cancerous cell which, left unchecked, can spread and become cumulatively destructive . It stinks in every sense of the word.

In a broader sense, racism and elitism include support for and cooperation with laws, policies and practices that put groups at a disadvantage because of their race, ethnicity or culture. In the post-apartheid era in South Africa, racism and elitism have more to do with power relationships between groups in society. The power association, almost equivalent to that of a master and slave relationship, allows the dominant group to wield power to such an extent that it prescribes who makes decisions and who accedes to these demands. It allows a member of the dominant group to take on responsibility when it is not democratically acquired. The new ‘elitists’ thus assume that they have the power to decide on the fate of others, including disadvantaged black students, presumably because they believe they have the monopoly over power and knowledge. The power relationship allows these protagonists to get away with many things – chief amongst them is the belief that they have the right to shamefully pronounce on others, especially those who are vulnerable and in invidious positions. Generally relationships of power imbued with a deep sense of racism can be overt or covert. In the case of apartheid it was overt because the laws of South Africa at that time sanctioned it. In a post apartheid period, the relationship of power and racism becomes covert.

Despite the fact that it is now some twenty years into a post-apartheid dispensation, racial elitists continue to benefit from race-based social inequality in South Africa. McKinney (2007: 216) notes that continuing race-based social inequality largely makes it impossible for South Africans to ‘”exit race” or even … think about “race” differently’. As such, race not only continues to play a significant role in how South Africans use it as an identity marker, but racial categorising remains a common basis of self and other-identification in social interaction in South Africa (Collier, 2005). Within this convoluted system, racial lines are socially constructed and those who have the ‘social power’ falsely act as the sole purveyors of knowledge and insidiously pretend to hold the monopoly over decision-making. Thus racism and elitism are not seen as phenomena operating at the individual level, but are regarded as systemic conditions that structure institutional relationships.

The case study of Professor Baets clearly indicates that the power relations in the new South Africa are still determined inter alia by control over social and cultural structures such as higher education institutions in order to systematise and ensure an unequal distribution of privilege, resources and power. In this regard, Bonilla-Silva’s (1996) theory goes a long way in contributing to an understanding of the social and systemic nature of elitism and racism. It also informs the conceptualisation of the structured nature of white privilege in a more nuanced way. Hence, according to Van den Berg et al (2011), current educational outcomes, such as issues of access and equity in higher education reflect a perpetuation and reinforcement of the inequalities of the apartheid legacy.

In terms of Baets’ ‘secured space’ and authority in institutional settings, vis-a-vis his position as the Dean of the Business School and his leadership at AABS, Van Dijk (1992) offers an insightful analysis about the ways in which racists and elitists structure and reproduce their whiteness and the inferior status of ‘non-whites’. Van Dijk's provocative analysis reminds us of the subtle and embedded forms of racism that often get ignored due to the ways in which perpetrators of elitism and racism are able to deflect cause and effect through their privileged status and resources. His observations have much to offer in terms of explaining how elites create and reproduce racial inequality, illuminating, in terms of theoretical explanation, the paradigms of the less powerful classes as well as for major institutional forms. Van Dijk reminds the reader about the need to understand how racialist and elitist discourse produces racialist class structures that deeply mark the stratification and social organisational character of race-centred societies. Racism informs and is informed by its very actions.

Increasingly, complaints of racism in higher education are increasing throughout the world. For instance, Tracy McVeigh (2002), writing in the Guardian Sustainable Business, notes that in the UK there have been several high-profile cases of racist incidents. Particularly, there is the controversy over the University of Sussex's decision not to sack Professor Geoffrey Sampson, who wrote an article on his website entitled 'There's nothing wrong with racism', and said there was evidence that blacks were less intelligent than whites.

In more recent years, it would seem that racists and elitists have found new ways in which to absolve themselves from any racist actions. Herein is a strange contradiction, as Albert Memmi (1999) quotes,‘There is a strange kind of enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious.’ It would seem that these perpetrators find ‘new explanations’ which in a sense become justifications for racial prejudice. It is what Bonilla-Silva (2008) refers to as the new racial ideology commonly referred to as ‘colour blind racism’. She explains the contemporary racial inequality as the outcomes of non racial dynamics; contemporary racial inequality is reproduced through ‘‘New Racism’’ practices that are subtle, institutional, and apparently non-racial. Today racial practices operate in ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ fashion.

The new ‘colour blind’ racism serves today as the ideological armour for a covert and institutionalised system of elitism and racism in the post apartheid era. Yet this new ideology has become a formidable political tool for the maintenance of the new ‘racial order’. In effect, this new ‘colour blind’ ideology assists in the maintenance of white privilege without much commotion. It enshrouds the architects of these new racist and elitist acts, to the extent that they becomes very difficult to recognise. As a white person of ‘authority’, one, for example, could become a self appointed ‘gatekeeper’ without proper democratic sanction.

It is important for these new racists and elitists to remember, as former president Thabo Mbeki remarked, ‘The majority of our people understood that liberation from apartheid and colonialism must and had to mean creating the possibility for the millions of ordinary South Africans and Africans to enjoy better lives free from poverty, as well as the restoration of our full dignity as human beings’. Blacks can simply not be treated as second class citizens in the land of their birth, especially by people who are ‘foreigners’ in our country.

In a similar fashion, Secretary General of the ANC, Mr Gwede Mantasha has made it known that during the apartheid years there was a determination to preserve white privilege on the ill-conceived view that whites are superior to blacks. Gradually, as our society transforms, the white minority is discovering it is not superior. The numerical minority cannot continue to be the cultural majority. Twenty years on in a post-apartheid South Africa, the numerical majority is slowly beginning to take on the status of a cultural majority.

Bonilla-Silva (2008) notes, correctly, that ‘the so called colour blind white elitists should not be allowed to claim through their “clever” explanations and justifications the right to exculpate themselves from any responsibility of racism’, whether overtly or covertly.

Given the insidious nature of the new veiled racism, the role of intellectuals in exposing the dastardly deeds of racists and elitists becomes imperative. In this respect, intellectuals, especially from the higher education sector, need to play a cogent role in exposing the bigotry that exists in their ranks and within the wider ambit of society. We cannot simply say we live in a post apartheid society which is ‘non racialist’ and free from prejudice. Racism is real. Racism involves all who live in South Africa, and it will take a concerted effort to eradicate it.

Universities promote the idea and achievement of graduate attributes by students during their time at university. Knowledge, skills and attitudes (including qualities and values) are expected to be attained by our students. It is indeed ironic that we perhaps need to ask about the attainment at universities of leadership and staff attributes, particularly of shared values and human qualities that enhance the public good notion of the university and society!

Within the context of the above, how is it possible that a senior academic, a manager of an academic unit at a university and a chairperson of a business schools’ association can negatively pronounce and generalise on the quality of students in South Africa and on the academic offerings at other accredited member institutions without researched justification? Where is the collegiality in such leadership? Is this the quality of leadership that we should emulate and advocate? What can such a person teach us about the intrinsic values of leadership? The issues of access and equity in higher education are too important to be left to insidious individuals who would prefer to hide behind ‘veils of racism and elitism’ and prevent our future leaders an equal opportunity to succeed in life.

In terms of leadership, the case of Professor Baets has alerted us to the skills challenges in South Africa and the world at large. This is no longer just a leadership challenge, but a major development challenge: how to grow bigger minds. It would seem that leadership development has come to a point of being too individually focused and elitist. We need to fast track a new paradigm in leadership which recommends the theory that leadership is a collective process which should be spread throughout networks of people, organisations and institutions.

Finally we would like to use Noam Chomsky’s (1967) exhortation to intellectuals to make their mark in sustaining the hard fought freedom which South Africa realised in 1994:

“Let me finally return to Dwight Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who burst into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. ‘Why should they? What have I done?’ he asked. Macdonald concludes: ‘Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.’ The question, ‘What have I done?’ is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam—as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defence of freedom.”


Bonilla-Silva, E. 1996. Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation. American Sociological Review, 62, 465-480.

Bonilla-Silva, E. 2006. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Chomsky, N. 1967. The Responsibility of Intellectuals. The New York Review of Books.

Collier, M. J. 2005. Context, Privilege, and Contingent Cultural Identifications in South African Group Interview Discourses. Western Journal of Communication, 69, 215-231

du Toit 2000. From autonomy to accountability: Academic freedom under threat in South Africa. Social Dynamics, 26, 76-133.

Mckinney, C. 2007. Caught between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’? Talking about ‘race’ in a post‐apartheid university classroom. Race Ethnicity and Education, 10.

Memmi, A. 1999. Racism. Minnesota Books, Minnesota USA.

Puwar, N. 2004. Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place Bloomsbury Academic.

van-Dijk, T. A. 1992. Elite Discourse and Racism SAGE Publications: Sage Series on Race and Ethnic Relations, 6.

* Dhiru Soni was formerly head of the Department of Geography and Environmental Science, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research at the erstwhile University of Durban Westville, Executive Director of Outreach at the University of KwaZulu Natal and currently is a Consultant to the Higher Education Sector. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

* Mark Hay former Executive Director of the Council of Higher Education (CHE), Higher Education Consultant in Quality Assurance for past ten years and currently Consultant to the higher education sector in South Africa



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