Blackness as absence of presence

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White supremacy and anti-Blackness define the essence of Black suffering. But in South Afrika today, racism is often horribly and deliberately misdiagnosed because of the hegemonic hold that the ideology of white liberalism continues to have over Black political discourse and practice.


‘Whiteness could be described as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space and what they ‘can do....If to be human is to be white, then to be not white is to inhabit the negative: it is to be not. The pressure of this not is another way of describing the social and existential realities of racism.’-Sara Ahmed

‘This negative perception and self-perception has roots in the history of enslavement and colonization. The real battleground of the colonial process was the body...So the first enslavement and colonization is of the body as that which acts on the natural environment to produce usables for human needs, or wealth. In the auction block, the prime heath of the black body was advertised to emphasize that the merchandise was ready to be put into production line.’ -Ngugi wa Thiong’o

‘The discourses of inferiority, unworthiness, and criminality are used to justify and rationalize deep levels of exploitation and inequality. These ideological and material processes are now being remade in the context of transnational, global capital, but the historic exploitation of Black people has been intimately tied to the evolution and growth of the capitalist economy, patriarchy and racism-the racialist/capitalist/patriarchal state-since its very inception.’ -Rose Brewer

The central thesis of this reflection is that, both in historical and contemporary terms, white supremacy and anti-Blackness define the essence of Black suffering; and that, in what is generally regarded as the mainstream discourse in contemporary South Afrika - the phenomenon of racism is often horribly and deliberately misdiagnosed. This reflection further argues that this misdiagnosis is primarily a consequence of the hegemonic hold that the ideology of white liberalism continues to have over Black political discourse and practice. And that this ideological hegemony assists white supremacy in realising one of its cardinal objects - to keep Black people ensnared in a state of perpetual nothingness. Further note that this reflection will rely particularly on the work of Francis Cress Welsing and Steve Biko on the subject of racism. Even though the concepts of white supremacy, racism and anti-Black racism will be employed interchangeably, racism in the context of this reflection refers to anti-Black racism. Consistent with its stated thesis, this reflection will examine the phenomenon of racism by, amongst others:

• Providing a Black existential understanding of racism;
• Illustrating the hegemonic hold of white liberalism over Black political discourse and practice in South Afrika;
• Exposing the fallacies in the legal conception of racism in South Afrika; and
• Examining Black suffering through the theoretical paradigm of anti-Blackness.

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In 1903, the eminent Black thinker, William Du Bois made what is definitely one of the most enduring intellectual observations. He asserted that:

‘...the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line’.

Today, more than a hundred years later, Du Bois’s observation remains valid. It remains valid for a number of reasons and one of them is the fact that he boldly placed the issue of racism at the centre of the challenges that humanity would have to grapple with in the twentieth century. It is critical to note that, in this statement, Du Bois didn’t think of racism as a problem of a particular group or country. He thought of it as a problem of a particular epoch.

If viewed in the context of the critical moments that have defined Black radical resistance during the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Du Bois’s observation becomes even more important in helping us to develop a coherent framework and language for Black radical resistance today.

One of the people who, like Du Bois, made an immeasurable contribution to helping Black people develop this framework of resistance is Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, who unfortunately transitioned at the beginning of this year. Welsing was a revolutionary psychiatrist, scholar, author, activist, and without a doubt one of the most fearless and influential Black radical thinkers of our time.

She now joins a galaxy of Black intellectual giants who have transitioned such as Martin Delaney, Hubert Henry Harrison, Edward Blyden, Henry Sylvester Williams, Carter Woodson, Cyril James, John Henrik Clarke, Cheikh Anta Diop, Chancellor Williams, Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Ivan van Sertima, Josef Ben-Jochannan and many such Black radical thinkers whose life preoccupation has been the place of Blackness, in space and time.

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Welsing has earned this prestigious position through her own penetrating and insightful work on the physiology and anatomy of racism/white supremacy. Her seminal works include the ‘Cress Theory of Color’ and ‘The Isis Papers: The Keys To The Colors’. Her rich legacy of critical, intrepid and cogent Black thought is particularly needed today when there is renewed public discourse in the United of States of AmeriKKKa and South Afrika - on the place of the Black body and its permanently antagonistic relationship with the white body.

This very important discourse is not always initiated or controlled by the historical and direct victims of racism - Black people. And for this reason, it becomes extremely dangerous for Black people to talk about racism in broad terms - without any qualification, historical context or a theoretical frame-work of their own. To arrive at a correct analysis of their existential reality, it is more useful for Black people to talk in terms of white racism or anti-Black racism.

As a tribute to Welsing, I thought I should use some of her insights as my launch pad to my contribution to the raging public discourse on racism in South Afrika. According to Welsing racism can be defined as follows:

‘Racism (white supremacy) is the local and global power system and dynamic, structure, maintained by persons who classify themselves as white, whether consciously or subconsciously determined; which consists of patterns of perception, logic, symbol formation, thought, speech, action, and emotional response, as conducted, simultaneously in all areas of people activity (economics, education, entertainment, labor, law, politics, religion, sex, and war); for the ultimate purpose of white genetic survival and to prevent white genetic annihilation on planet Earth - a planet upon which the vast and overwhelming majority of people are classified as non-white (black, brown, red and yellow) by white-skinned people, and all of the non-white people are genetically dominant (in terms of skin coloration) compared to the genetic recessive white-skinned people.’

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Then in an interview, published in KHOWSHI, in December 2013, Welsing is asked:

‘Why, in your opinion, has there always been such a concerted effort to deny that racism even exists when evidence concludes that it does?

She replied: ‘Once you able to put a problem in the form of a definition, that is the first step to solve a problem, and you can’t solve a problem that hasn’t been sufficiently defined…If Black people keep moving on an understanding of what is the problem, they will eventually be able to solve it.’

From Welsing’s definition and her reply to the question in the interview, a number of useful deductions can be made:

1. Racism is the sole invention of white people;
2. Racism is a historically-evolved-global system whose chief motive is economic subjugation;
3. It is a system of power whose primary concern is the dominance and survival of a particular group (white people);
4. It is both omnipresent and omnipotent in character; and
5. If Blacks fail to analyse racism correctly, they are not likely to eradicate it.

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One of the ways in which the white-power structure has been able to sustain and reinvent itself in the South Afrikan context has been through the development of ideological contraptions that are deliberately aimed at disabling the capacity of Black people to discern, analyse and define their problems for themselves.

One of these contraptions is white liberalism. The white liberal establishment (which in the context of today includes white corporate entities, the white liberal universities, research institutions, foundations, political parties and civil society organisations and of course the people who work in them) has consistently sought to define the problems of Black people and prescribe how they should respond to these.

To fully understand the treachery of white liberalism, it is perhaps useful to start by answering the question: in the South Afrikan context, who are the white liberals? According to Steve Biko, white liberals are:

‘…that curious bunch of nonconformists who explain their participation in negative terms: that bunch of do-gooders that goes under all sorts of names - liberals, leftists etc. These are the people who argue that they are not responsible for white racism and the country's "inhumanity to the black man". These are the people who claim that they too feel the oppression just as acutely as the blacks and therefore should be jointly involved in the black man's struggle for a place under the sun. In short, these are the people who say that they have black souls wrapped up in white skins.’

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Biko helps us once again to understand the hegemonic character of white liberalism, when he says:

‘In fact it became a sine qua non that before you even started entering the arena of politics and fighting for social change you must be a non racialist. And this explains why in fact it became necessary for SASO to mount such a heavy attack on liberals. They did a quick and good job. In one year, I think the campuses obliterated any strong trace of liberalism. And in the larger society, now going out of campus, blacks began to see that in fact it was a fallacy to think that before you fight you need to have a white man next to you, for the sake of depicting a non-racial society.’

He goes on to state that:

‘Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. This has, by and large, come to be taken in all seriousness as the modus operandi in South Africa by all those who claim they would like a change in the status quo. Hence the multiracial political organisations and parties and the "non-racial" student organisations, all of which insist on integration not only as an end goal but also as a means.’

As a consequence of this hegemonic hold of white liberalism over Black political discourse and practice it became increasingly common, as Biko suggests, to hear sections of the Black political leadership use the same concepts and analysis that are used by white liberals. This ideological colonisation is responsible for today’s proliferation of false narratives and discourses, which mainly take the form of middle class Blacks and whites periodically coming together, in the form of conferences, seminars and workshops that have nothing to do with dismantling the material and anti-Black repercussions of white power.

Some of the concepts that are a product of the project of white liberalism in South Afrika include such concepts as ‘non racialism’, ‘race relations’, ‘racial tension’, ‘reverse racism’. And after 1994, ‘reconciliation’, ‘the rainbow nation’, ‘hate speech’, ‘social cohesion’ etc. All these concepts have their philosophical basis in the Western-aristocratic-liberal tradition and more specifically, post-race theory, which as part of numbing the political consciousness of Black people promotes the illusory notion of colourlessness.

Furthermore, the adoption of these concepts has had far reaching and deleterious implications for how Blacks in South Afrika think about themselves and their relationship with white people. For instance, like the white liberals, there are now Blacks who are convinced that together with whites, Blacks must take joint responsibility for the creation and liquidation of racism. There are also Blacks who believe that the problem of racism has its genesis in the individual personalities of some white people as opposed to it being a historically-evolved-structural-global system of anti-Black violence, whose roots are in anti-Black slavery.

It is also important to understand that the contemporary hegemonic hold of white liberalism over the substance of South Afrika’s national politics was given legitimacy by the Kempton Park settlement of the early 1990s, whose outcome officialised white liberalism as the ideological foundation of the post-1994 state. This is evident in the foundational values of the South Afrikan Constitution and in particular those sections that deal with freedom of expression and property rights.

The ideological resurgence of white liberalism in South Afrika, after 1994, must also be located within the systematic emasculation of the counter-narratives of Black Consciousness (BC) and Pan-Afrikanism (PA), and the global ascendancy of neoliberalism. This should help Blacks to understand why today’s neoliberal parties (Black and white) are constantly engaged in political beauty contests to prove who can be the best bodyguard of South Afrika’s Constitution.

The reason for this commotion is simple but not obvious. The South Afrikan Constitution makes it possible for white-monopoly-capital to maintain its illegitimate-authoritarian-position of total control over the South Afrikan economy, and also offers lucrative economic incentives for those in the Black political leadership who are willing to assume the role of being the mantshingilanes (body guards) of white-monopoly-capital.

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According to the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, in the post-1994 South Afrikan context the concepts of ‘discrimination’ and ‘equality’ are defined as follows:

Discrimination: any act or omission, including a policy, rule, practice, condition or situation which directly or indirectly (a) imposes, burdens, obligations or disadvantage on; or (b) withholds benefits, opportunity or advantages, from any person on one or more of the prohibited grounds.

Equality: includes the full and equal enjoyment of rights and freedoms as contemplated in the Constitution and includes de jure and de facto equality and also equality in terms of outcome.

This Act gets its legal authority from the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, which under Section 16 (which deals with freedom of expression), states that:

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes—

(a) freedom of the press and other media;
(b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
(c) freedom of artistic creativity; and
(d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
(2) The right in subsection (1) does not extend to—
(a) propaganda for war;
(b) incitement of imminent violence; or
(c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.’

Even though in both the preambles of the Constitution and the Equality Act reference is made to the historical and structural nature of oppression in South Afrika, what is conspicuously absent is who the oppressors are and who are the victims of such oppression. In this respect, the language is deliberately vague and general. And because of this, the legally-accepted definition of racial discrimination is not just fallacy, but also pro-white. It empties racism of its historical, global, group- power dynamic and most importantly, its anti-Black essence.

This skewed conception is responsible for such intellectually inept formulations as ‘incidents of racism’, ‘we must condemn both white and black racism’, ‘it is just a few whites who have racist attitudes’, and perhaps the most bizarre, ‘South Africa is not a racist country.’

All of these formulations are horribly false and misleading. Firstly, there is no such thing as ‘incidents of racism’. Unlike viruses, the existence or non-existence of anti-Black racism cannot be reliably determined through the periodic acts of individuals or institutions. And this is because, as stated earlier, anti-Black racism is a system of group power and privilege.

Furthermore, historically and structurally, South Afrika is a white supremacist-anti-Black-patriarchal country, and this is because, since its formal founding, after the so-called Anglo-Boer war (which was actually a war amongst land thieves) the economic base of South Afrikan society has been violently and legally pro-white and anti-Black. In fact, South Afrika’s economic base was anti-Black long before the formal proclamation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 (see literature on the Glen Grey Act of 1894).

Therefore, both in its colonial and neo-colonial forms, South Afrika is a satellite state of the western-global-white power constellation, and this is confirmed by, amongst others, the fact that the very name ‘South Africa’ (which is still legally maintained) came into being as a result of an Act of the British Parliament (essentially a gathering of Britain’s foremost land-stealing aristocrats) in September, 1909.

Second, in the context of the white supremacist-anti-Black world we ‘live’ in, ‘Black racism’ is both an absurdity and impossibility principally because, Black people are not in control of the historically-evolved-global power constellation that predetermines the status that each human being must enjoy on earth, or its related structures by which humans are recognised as human.

Biko explicates this argument when he says:

‘...Those who know define racism as discrimination by a group against another for the purposes of subjugation or maintaining subjugation. In other words one cannot be a racist unless he has the power to subjugate. What blacks are doing is merely to respond to a situation in which they find themselves the objects of white racism. We are in the position in which we are because of our skin. We are collectively segregated against -what can be more logical than for us to respond as a group?’

Third, the assertion that ‘we must fight both white and black racism’ is a gross falsification of the experience of the Black body in the world as we know it. Biko exposes the fallacious basis of this assertion, when he provides the counter argument that:

‘This arises out of the false belief that we are faced with a black problem. There is nothing the matter with blacks. The problem is WHITE RACISM and it rests squarely on the laps of the white society. The sooner the liberals realise this the better for us blacks. Their presence amongst us is irksome and of nuisance value. It removes the focus of attention from essentials and shifts it to ill-defined philosophical concepts that are both irrelevant to the black man and merely a red herring across the track. White liberals must leave blacks to take care of their own business while they concern themselves with the real evil in our society - white racism.’

Fourth, it is misleading to argue that the individual anti-Black attitudes of whites are merely a reflection of individual personality peculiarities and not reflective of whites as a group. Individual whites are products of the socialisation of the white community (which is an inherently racist and anti-Black community), and therefore their anti-Black attitudes are nothing else but the manifestations of the value system of the group to which they belong.

While it is true that, it is in the nature of all oppressive systems to produce corresponding value systems which will guarantee their perpetuation, Blacks must however eschew the approach that seeks to make the anti-Black attitudes of individual whites the main point of focus. This ideological distraction is part of the tactic of white power to shift the focus from itself to such useless debates as: how many whites hate Blacks and how many Blacks hate whites?

It is for these reasons that it would be utter foolishness on the part of Black South Afrikans to think that apologies from individual whites carry any value in so far as altering the structural circumstances of Black people is concerned. In fact, in practice, these individual apologies from white people are nothing else but an exercise in Black anger-management. They are designed to ensure that Blacks continue to preoccupy themselves with the symptoms of the problem and not its roots.

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Finally, in practice, white liberalism is more dangerous than white supremacy because it has the capacity to seduce (intellectually) Blacks into believing that it cares about them and that it is also fighting for their interests- when in fact it is merely perpetuating its historic mission of normalising white violence towards the Black body. Biko refers to this treacherous tactic amongst white liberals as the mentality of the ‘noble savage’.

Biko’s analogy of the ‘noble savage’ helps Blacks to understand why white liberals and their institutions are so eager to spend a lot of money on training programmes that are specifically designed for Black young people (across the world)- where they are fed a nyaopish concoction of such concepts as ‘diversity management’, ‘conflict resolution’, ‘race relations’, ‘social cohesion’ and many such concepts that have nothing to do with altering the existential reality of Blacks in Afrika or other parts of the world.

Furthermore, there is now growing talk in South Afrika about passing legislation that will criminalise ‘racist behaviour’. This legislation may have very negative consequences for Black people. First, if we go by the current legal definition of racial discrimination, such legislation is more likely to focus on criminalising what would be regarded as individual or collective acts of racist conduct.

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This might mean that, even though the historically-evolved-global constellation of economic and political power clearly shows that, even if they wanted to, Blacks are incapable of being racist, there is still the real possibility that Blacks in South Afrika might find themselves charged with being ‘racist’, under such legislation. And even more frightening is the possibility that they (Blacks) might end up being the majority of those convicted for ‘racist’ behaviour. Not because of their sheer numbers but because their lived-reality thrusts them into daily and often lethal confrontations with the violence of anti-Black racism.

If the criminalisation of racism in South Afrika is to be of any value for the historical and contemporary victims of anti-Black racism - Black people - then such criminalisation must primarily address itself to meaningfully altering the material powerlessness of the Black majority, by amongst others, ensuring that they get their land back and that meaningful wealth redistribution takes place.

This would be the most logical thing to do because the persistent landlessness, mass unemployment, poverty, inequality and general social misery of Black people in South Afrika are a direct consequence of the historical and contemporary violence of anti-Black racism. If this criminalisation of racism fails to address these fundamental issues, then it is likely to bolster racism as opposed to dismantling it. However, the bigger question is: Can a judiciary that operates on the basis of the philosophical logic of white liberalism be realistically expected to be pro-Black?

Finally, at a phenomenological level, it is critical that Black people fully understand what Frank Wilderson meant when he said:

‘How we understand suffering and whether we locate its essence in economic exploitation or in anti-Blackness has a direct impact on how we imagine freedom; and on how we foment revolution’.

In their efforts to imagine freedom and foment revolution as Wilderson suggests, Black people must first understand the place that Blackness occupies in the collective of unconscious of the world as we know it. I hold the view that, at a fundamental level, the historical and contemporary forms of white violence against the Black body can be better understood when viewed through the theoretical lens of anti-Blackness.

According to Michael Jeffries:

‘Anti-Blackness more accurately captures the dehumanization and constant physical danger that black people face. The “anti” in “anti-blackness” is denial of black people’s right to life.’

Lewis Gordon makes a complementary observation when he says:

‘In anti-black societies, to be black is to be without a face. This is because only human beings (and presumed equals of human beings) have faces, and blacks, in such societies, are not fully human beings...’

Drawing from the analogies of Jeffries and Gordon, to be Black in South Afrika and anywhere else in the world means ‘to be without a face’. To be ‘not fully human’. It is to live under the threat of ‘constant physical danger’ and ‘denial of your right to life’.

The theoretical lens of anti-Blackness enables us to better understand not just the driving motives behind the mechanical-interpersonal hostility of the white bodies which encounter each day, but also the lethal psychic logic that normalises the ruthless killing of Black bodies in Marikina, Kenya, Sudan, Nigeria, the DRC, CAR, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Libya, the Sinai desert, the Arab world, Ferguson or West Papua possible, and why the deaths of these Black bodies are incapable of bringing the world to a complete halt.

Anti-Blackness also helps Blacks to understand why the rare death of a far fewer number of white bodies in France or that of a Syrian toddler can instantly thrust the world (including the leaders of the Black world) into a global orgy of nervous rage. Most critically, anti-Blackness empowers the discourse on Black radical resistance today to come to the realisation that, the anti-Black nature of the world doesn’t merely Other Blacks, proletariatise them or confer upon them the status of the subaltern, it brutally and physically obliterates the very idea that Black people exist. The Black world will therefore have to formulate a framework and language of resistance that will contend with these realities, both at theoretical and practical level.

* Veli Mbele is an essayist and Black Power activist.


1. Ahmed, S. (2007), A Phenomenology of Whiteness. Accessed 11/01/2016.
2. Brewer, R. (2010), Black Radical Theory and Practice: Gender, Race, and Class.Accessed on 15/01/2016.
3. Biko, S. (2004). I Write What I Like, (Picador Africa–Johannesburg).
4. Biko, S. (1972). Interview with Gail M.Gerhart, Durban.
5. Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996. Accessed 14/01/2016.
6. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: Bantam Classic).
7. Fanon, F. (1952). Black Skin White Masks, (Editions de Seuil.France).
8. Gordon. L.R. (2015). What Fanon Said, (New York, Fordham.).
9. Jeffries, M. P. (2014), Ferguson Must Force Us To Face Anti-Blackness. Accessed 12/01/2016.
10. Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination, Act 4 of 2000.Accessed 13/01/2016.
11. Wa Thiong’o N. (2012), The Blackness of Black: Africa in The World Today, a lecture delivered at University of Free State on the occasion of 10th Africa Day Lecture. Accessed 10/01/2016.
12. Welsing, F.C. (1990). The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors. (Third World Press.)
13. Welsing, F.C. (1970). The Cress Theory of Color Confrontation: White Supremacy: Psychogenetic Theory and World Outlook, (Washington D.C.)
14. Wilderson, B.F. (2008), Biko and the Problematic of Presence. Accessed 14/01/2016.
15. Wilderson. F.B. (2014). We’re Trying To Destroy The World: Anti-Blackness & Police Violence After Ferguson. An Interview with Frank B. Wilderson, III. Accessed 12/01/2016. Retrieved from



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