For Brazil’s Minister of Racial Equality, the figure of Mandela is used to try to disguise racism in Brazil

Luiza Bairros: “It will take some time in order to produce such a strong, black international reference as he was.”
Luiza Bairros: “It will take some time in order to produce such a strong, black international reference as he was.”

Note from BW of Brazil: As the world continues to pay its respects to former South African President and human rights icon, Nelson Mandela, Luiza Bairros, the Minister of the Promotion of Policies for Racial Equality, shared her views on how Mandela’s image and South Africa’s legal system of racism was used to deflect attention away from Brazil’s own potent brand of racism, a point that has been previously shared on this blog. As the minister points out, legal segregation has never been necessary to enforce a system if exclusion that is just as potent. 

For Brazil’s Minister of Racial Equality, the figure of Mandela is used to try to disguise racism in Brazil

Luiza Bairros, of Seppir, assesses that Mandela’s death symbolizes the ‘end of an era’ in the fight against racism. The problem has yet to be overcome, neither among South Africans, nor amongst Brazilians.

By Tadeu Breda

The minister of the Secretaria de Políticas de Promoção da Igualdade Racial (Seppir or the Secretariat for the Promotion of Policies of Racial Equality, Luiza Bairros, was an activist of the Movimento Negro Unificado (Unified Black Movement) in the 1970s, when it began to discuss worldwide violations committed during the apartheid regime that segregated white and blacks in South Africa, depriving the rights to most of the population.

On December 6, commenting on the importance of the greatest figure arising from the resistance to violence, the minister from Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul (in southern Brazil) who planted her roots in the black movement in Salvador (Bahia, northeast Brazil), remembers that the figure of the former South African president Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5 at age 95, was often used to try to mitigate the severity of the events throughout the rest of the world. “Apartheid in South Africa was always used as an example of racism that, compared to national conditions, caused the racism practiced by each country seems to be something very mild,” she said in an interview by phone with the RBA.

For Luiza, both in South Africa and in Brazil there is a long way to go to overcome the differences between blacks and whites. If in the Brazilian case it was not an official institutional apparatus in the 20th century to commit violations of any order, the post-abolition State found ways to cause differences.  And now this same state must find ways to overcome them, but it faces resistance within and outside.

With this, the struggle of Mandela still has a double aspect. “The news of his death is received with much sadness. With it also goes a certain era of racism in the world. It will take some time in order to produce such a strong international black reference as he was,” says the minister, assessing that, on the other hand, his example will continue to be necessary to overcome difficulties.

Mandela during his 1991 visit to Rio de Janeiro. At far left (lgith blue jacket) stands Abdias do Nascimento (1914-2011), the Movimento Negro's most well-known modern day activist
Mandela during his 1991 visit to Rio de Janeiro. At far left (light blue suit) stands Abdias do Nascimento (1914-2011), the Movimento Negro’s most well-known modern day activist

How did Mandela influence the Movimento Negro Brasileiro (black Brazilian movement)?

The Brazilian movement reemerged in the 1970s, when the struggle against apartheid was very strong. There is this historical coincidence. Much information was circulated about the South African struggle. This has greatly influenced our ways of thinking about discrimination that blacks suffered in Brazil. Although apartheid was a different racist system from Brazilian racism, in the end, both there and here the consequences of racism were the same: countries with a black majority where blacks were mostly subjected to conditions of poverty without access to spaces of power. For our part, here, building a struggle against apartheid was also a way to denounce the internal conditions of the country. In the 1980s in Brazil there were anti-apartheid committees formed, very active, and that greatly contributed to the disruption of relations between Brazil and South Africa at that time. It was a major demand of the ANC at that time, to weaken the regime.

Mandela with his wife Graça Machel in 1998, in Brasília
Mandela with his wife Graça Machel in 1998, in Brasília

Does the fact Mandela has been transformed into a unanimously praised figure even among racist bother the Movimento Negro?

The fact of unanimity does not bother (the movement) neither is it viewed favorably. Unanimity reveals something else, which in Brazil has always been very clear. In countries where racism has negative effects on the black population, apartheid in South Africa was always used as an example of racism that, comparatively to national conditions, caused the racism practiced by each country seem something very mild. In Brazil it’s quite evident. It was always insisted on the existence of racism in South Africa, but not here. All this unanimity on Mandela, in some cases, involves people, authorities looking to South Africa to be able to deny the conditions in which racism operates in their own countries, such as Brazil (1).

Did Mandela’s struggle end when apartheid came to an end?

Mandela’s fight is not over. Apartheid was established in 1948. Even ending in the 1990s, it left extremely strong consequences in South African society. Police were formed to suppress blacks. They are very strong marks. The fact that the country lives in deep social inequalities means that there is still a significant portion of the black population living in black neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are far from urban centers, sometimes 50, 60 kilometers. This has not been completely eliminated. You have very large contingent of people who suffer a lot to survive in that society, in very similar situations with blacks living in Brazil.

Is there some kind of apartheid in Brazil?

You cannot say that there is apartheid in Brazil in the sense of a legal system. But the flaws of racism, anywhere, with or without law, are the existence of profound differences to the detriment of blacks. The lesson that we learned analyzing how racism operates in Brazil, the United States and South Africa, which in Brazil is the lack of racist laws did not prevent society from creating other mechanisms of exclusion of the black majority. For example, the fact that today we are trying to organize policies of the promotion of racial equality results exactly from this long historical path. You need the active participation of the Brazilian State to create strong consistent mechanisms that force a more advantageous integration of Blacks into society.

Can you say that there has been progress in combating racism in Brazil?

Advances in combating racism should be thought of on two levels. On one level the promotion of racial equality. It is in this direction is that Seppir operates within the federal government: how to create certain initiatives to accelerate the improvement of living conditions of the black population. Given the general conditions, Brazil has demonstrated a very strong political decision. The government in general. But from the point of view of combating racism, that’s another thing. Racist attitudes, racist practices in Brazil today are far more obvious than they once were 20 years ago. Precisely because of the fact that blacks have access to certain social spaces and places where they didn’t have before is provoking a reaction in people to this presence. So you have, in addition to advances in Seppir, manifestations of more frequent and explicit racism. One of the most recent cases was that of those young people who entered a mall in Vitória (state of Espírito Santo in southeastern Brazil) to protect themselves from a police raid at a baile funk (funk dance) and inside the mall were mixed up with young people who would have been be there to make an arrastão (dragnet or simultaneous crime wave) or something. The reaction of the Military Police was arbitrary and violent. The photos resemble paintings of blacks being hunted down and seized by the capitães (da mato or captain of the woods) (2).

What are the main barriers to combating racism?

They arise mainly from those sectors that have traditionally operated using racism as a resource. You now have strong debates within government initiatives to curb the violent deaths among young blacks, a phenomenon that is clearly influenced by racism. So many lives are lost in a country that is not at war, you can only imagine that they are lives that have no value. Working on this issue of racism from this point of view has been a great challenge. We haven’t managed to enter this debate with the police institutions, in the justice system, that have very important role in changing this situation of the high homicide rates of black youths. Another important space for this discussion that asserts itself is the media. There is still a process of transmission of negative images of black people all the time reinforcing these assumptions of inferiority.

Source: Rede Brasil Atual


1. The comparison of differences of racism in South Africa and Brazil has been mentioned on a number of articles on this blog. See here for example.

A "capitão do mato" as portrayed in a painting
A “capitão do mato” as portrayed in a painting

2. The capitão do mato, or captain of the woods, was originally a public employee of the last category in charge of suppressing minor offenses that occurred in the field. In slavery society of Brazil, the main task was to capture runaway slaves. The term capitão do mato (plural capitães) would later include those who, living in the city or interior provinces, captured fugitives and then delivered them to their masters for a reward. The German artist Rugendas, traveling in Brazil in 1822-1825, portrayed a black capitão do mato, riding a horse and pulling a captive (also black) with a rope. Source

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. Yes, but what you forget to mention is most of the killing of blacks comes from the hands of other blacks. It’s the same way here in the U. S. You can’t blame that on whites. In order for the situation to improve, there has to be some degree of personal responsibility. Blaming everything on whites discredits your movement.

    • “Black on Black” crime hasn’t got anything to do with it. It’s because of the ECONOMY, pure and simple. When you’re in an economic “dungeon”, crime stats will rise. That’s just a FACT. Black people didn’t economically supress themselves after slavery, did they? That’s why black people kill black people. It’s not because they can’t stand seeing each others faces. You can’t simplify it by just saying that “blacks kill blacks”. It’s more complicated than that. It always is.

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