Poor Whites: A Threat, Challenge and Embarrassment to South African Formations of White Identity

In: Shades of Whiteness
Thandiwe Ntshinga
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The ‘master narrative of whiteness’, a term coined by Melissa Steyn, cemented a discourse which was employed to justify colonialism in Africa. The exercise of power over Africans was based on whiteness’ dominant discourse which alluded to notions of the superiority of the white race over the ‘savage, uncivilised, African heathen’. Attempts to repress and oppress African people were based on imperialist ideologies which placed, supported by racist eugenics, ‘Africans into a fundamentally different and irrevocably inferior position’. The master narrative of whiteness proliferated in a unique manner in South Africa as a means to social, political and economic dominance of the white minority under the Apartheid regime. Institutionalised racism in South Africa stemmed from the dominant discourse of whiteness which portrayed European settlers as an ‘Enlightened’ people. In South Africa, this notion was mobilised to ensure the dominance of the white population. Justifications for the exploitation of the country’s ‘non-white’ population revolved around ideas of biological inferiority and incompetence of blacks, coloureds and Indians. These rationalisations, in turn, also shaped the formation of white identity in South Africa.Poor whites, however, proved a problematic to these rationalisations and notions of whiteness by exposing the myth of white superiority. By presenting a brief history of poor whites in South Africa between the 1890s and 1990s, I argue that the presence of poor whites was a constant threat, challenge and embarrassment to South African formations of white identity.My argument will be highlighted by poor whites’ position in relation to the political economy and the numerous measures and interventions aimed at the eradication of white poverty in South Africa. Furthermore the dominant class’ attitudes towards poor whites will be explored in unravelling ‘the poor white problem’.