Few words have captured the hopes, expectations, and ethical claims of twentieth-century South African progressivism as has ‘nonracialism’. The concept is in fact remarkably apt to embrace a range of contending ideologies, from white liberalism to African nationalism, from socialism to capitalist developmentalism. The introduction to the first documentary collection on the topic, published at the dawn of the post-apartheid transition, proclaimed:
When the people of South Africa make their demands for justice, there is one word they use again and again: nonracialism. In an era of past slogans sung and shouted at mass meetings and headlined in leaflets and banners, this word stands out precisely because it is not glib. The demand for a non-racial South Africa is the common ground that unites a wide range of forces for change. The primary goal is a completely restructured society, a democracy in which people are not differentiated according to racial criteria, but enjoy rights as equal citizens in one united country. To be democratic, the future South Africa must be non-racial: that premise is fundamental (Frederikse 1990: 3–4).
Looking back at the struggle's past, David Everatt (2009: 1) concurs that among the most consistent threads in the discourse of liberation in South Africa was a commitment to nonracialism. Much of the appeal of nonracialism has to do with how it blends an objective (a democracy with equal rights, opportunities, obligations, and responsibilities, regardless of race), a strategic vision leading to it (a movement that transcends racial divides by constituting the South African nation as the actor of popular and constitutional sovereignty), and the tactics translating that vision into practice (the alliance of organizations that, even when initially anchored to racial identities, sees them only as steps toward deracialized liberation) (see Gillespie 2010; Soske 2015).
In times of global fascination with Occupy Wall Street and ‘prefigurative politics’ — in which social movements proclaim their purity on account of the consonance between their practices and the social regeneration they herald — one can see why the political capital of South African nonracialism has depreciated less than that of its putative originator, the African National Congress (ANC).