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Obsessional Whiteness and the Unpaid Debt of Apartheid


Correspondence address: SARChI Chair for Social Change 24 Hill St, University of Fort Hare, East London, Eastern Cape, South Africa 5201. Email:


This paper considers post-apartheid South African Whiteness from a psychoanalytic perspective. A point of focus is Samantha Vice's controversial and much debated recent article on the ethical quandaries of post-apartheid White privilege, “How Do I Live in this Strange Place?”, which is read alongside J.M. Coetzee's essay, “The Mind of Apartheid”, written in the early 1990s on the brink of South Africa's transition. Coetzee used a Freudian framework of obsessional neurosis to highlight what he saw as the libidinal economy of apartheid, suggesting that apartheid policies were not only or even primarily aimed at consolidating White material privilege; they were, rather, in Coetzee's view, a set of measures designed to preserve the purity of the White social body from contamination. What the juxtaposition of Coetzee and Vice suggests is that, while the stain of South African Whiteness has shifted or been displaced, post-apartheid White antiracism, exemplified in the critical discourse Vice elaborates, remains as obsessional, as concerned with keeping the White social body clean, pure, as apartheid thinking. The paper then concludes by considering the usefulness, but also, crucially, the limits of psychoanalysis as a critical frame for interrogating the continuities between apartheid and the new South Africa.

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