The DA's reminder that a greater range of organisations and people were engaged in the fight against apartheid is timely, writes Richard Jurgens.
In a recent essay, published on his personal blog and republished in the Mail & Guardian, constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos offers some critical reflections on the Democratic Alliance's new campaign to 're-brand' itself as a party with a long history of involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle.
De Vos's comments are part of a salvo of criticism of the DA's new election campaign, which has also attracted the ire of the ANC. The ruling party is especially irritated by the opposition party's appropriation of its icon, Nelson Mandela, as well as its argument that the ANC now resembles the National Party that introduced apartheid. It is clearly also disconcerted by the DA's skilful adoption of its own favourite publicity tactic, guerilla marketing.
The political parties will of course fight out the issue in their terms. De Vos's comments are worth considering because they reflect the kind of conversation that is presently going on around dining room tables, the outcome of which will partially determine the result of the election next year.
Under cover of supposedly stepping back from "a sterile and vacuous debate", De Vos claims to offer "a broader view of the way in which many invoke, remember and politically deploy the past to advance their own interests". However, he apparently dislikes real history, so he fails to discuss it. Instead he simply asserts that the DA's insistence on recalling its own history of engagement against apartheid, as well as that of liberalism more generally, is tantamount to a "nostalgic" recollection of visits to the seaside.
To be specific, he argues that the DA is attempting "to nostalgically reclaim a cleansed and whitewashed past that could never have existed". By "aim[ing] th[e] spotlight away from the dark corners" of its own participation in an iniquitous society, he suggests, the DA is misrepresenting its own history. "Better to shut out those memories and nostalgically reminisce about that weekend at the seaside [on a whites only beach]," he says sarcastically.
In fact, the DA's reminder that a greater range of organisations and people were engaged in the fight against apartheid is timely. If the version of our history trumpeted by the ANC during its noisy occupation of the moral high ground since the advent of democracy were the only version available to a galactic historian, she/he/it would conclude that the party stormed the bastions of power unaided by any organisations or people outside of a tight little circle of true comrades.
Allies of convenience
But the ANC's rise to power was crucially aided by a range of forces other than those led by its closest friends. Among these were many which it defined at the time as allies of convenience, but which it quickly dropped when it attained power. These included liberal organisations and people, within parliament and outside it, whose work in de-legitimising the apartheid regime was crucial.
Nor was the liberal opposition to apartheid, including the parliamentary variety, a "visit to the seaside". Liberals faced a constant barrage of political vilification, threats to life, livelihood and property and personal insult, sometimes even from the very people who stood to benefit from their work. By surviving and evolving through a continued barrage of ideological hostility during the last two decades, the DA has contributed significantly to ensuring that the political debate continues to be about achieving a truly non-racial democratic society.
Apparently satisfied with his silly dismissal of the dedicated work of liberals over many years, De Vos then goes on to repeat a vacuous historical formula as if it were some kind of truth. Jumping on the bandwagon of "political correctness", so-called, he says that "only a special kind of thin-skinned, guilt ridden, [sic] fool will dispute the fact that we are still struggling to overcome the effects of more than 300 years of colonialism and apartheid and that South Africa is a more difficult country to govern well because of it".
Well, there can be little doubt that this country's contested history makes it difficult to govern. But Mr de Vos' ad hominum dismissal of people who do not agree that our history can be adequately described as "three hundred years of colonialism and apartheid" is as absurd as his ill-informed dismissal of the DA's social liberalism. To object on empirical grounds to a simplistic, formulaic reduction of a complex history does not indicate a thin skin or a guilt complex, only an instinct for the truth.
Major parts of the country did not fall under the sway of any form of colonialism until well into the late 19th century. In other parts the reach the colonial powers had was strongly contested and even held back by indigenous groups, again until well into the 19th century. It is a real historical question whether the Afrikaner involvement in the subcontinent can be described as "colonial" at all in the standard sense. And one can certainly dispute the moral tone of this shorthand history, which seems to suggest that there was some active and legitimate alternative to the expansions that created the global economy in which we now live.
One of the strange things about the ANC's insistence on repeating this mantra at every opportunity is that it effectively assigns to itself and the people whom it claims to represent the role of purely passive victims in history. Which raises the question why De Vos is so keen on it. Another strange thing about it is its claim to be a standpoint that represents a sensitivity to the rights of victims in history. Yet the ANC has consistently refused to mention, let alone criticise the world's most recent and most brazen act of outright occupation and colonialism, the Chinese plundering and destruction of Tibet.
So one could go on testing the meaning and validity of this silly proposition until the cows come home. But the main point is that it rehashes a convenient electoral sound-bite frequently used (deployed) by the ANC. De Vos's enthusiasm for it undermines his claim to "take a broader view". In fact, by uncritically repeating it, he is only echoing the ruling party's narrow and ideological standpoint.
Thus far, De Vos has succeeded in saying only one thing that we can recognise as truthful or coherent. This is that our past is a difficult and morally confusing place. Then, to make matters worse, he then goes on to say that that past must necessarily be a complex and difficult terrain for whites in a moral sense, but less so for blacks. "I [am not] in any way positing a moral equivalence between black South Africans and white South Africans and the choices they made during apartheid," he says unctuously. "That would be obscene."
Here he is like a party magician who promises to produce a rabbit from a hat and then pulls out a used condom. Turning suddenly on his own supposedly universalist aim to "step back" from the partisan chatter, he suddenly conjures a 'contextualised' sensitivity to the moral demands faced by people who were in the 'external' struggle against apartheid, while at the same time dismissing the possibility of any similar empathy for the moral demands faced by people who worked against it, but from "within" the system.
This empty, purely rhetorical connection apparently allows him to feel that he can insinuate that the DA's assertion that it too was involved in the fight against apartheid as "obscene". This is not an argument. It is merely the self-righteous assertion of an intellectual anxious to demonstrate his identification with the right moral "in-group".
Before we get too carried away by his fervour, we need to be clear on at least one thing. Morally there is no meaningful difference between the actions of a political commissar who tortures a prisoner in a military camp in Angola and those of an apartheid policeman who tortures a suspect in a cell at John Vorster Square. Nor is there any moral difference between the actions of white and black riot squad members who shoot protesters, or between vigilantes who murder protesters and protesters who necklace other protesters.
Similarly, there is a moral difference between a black South African who decides to do nothing about apartheid or another who actively collaborates with it, and a white South African who decides to do something about it and thereby gives up at least some of the advantages of his inherited racial privilege. That difference has to do with the fact that change requires individuals who are willing to act for the greater good, rather than only in their immediate personal or group interest. And it is a human quality that cannot be limited or defined by race, culture or creed.
Here is another mantra of the ANC, familiar to us in that party's categorisation of white people as 'colonisers of a special type'. It asserts that there was, is and always be some sort of moral or political difference between people based on their race or background. De Vos's willingness to accept it uncritically does him no credit.
As Noam Chomsky writes: "The principle of universality [holds that]: if an action is right [or wrong] for others, it is right [or wrong] for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others—more stringent ones, in fact—plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.'
To conclude, De Vos starts out by saying, in effect, that he wants to provide a diagnosis of a general South African moral illness, that is, 'a tendency to simplify the past to suit individuals' emotional and political or other selfish needs'. He goes on to suggest that he can provide a remedy, presumably some sort of intellectual balance. But then he suddenly plays favourites, and misdiagnoses one 'patient' while entirely failing to diagnose the other.
What, then, remains of his project in this essay, once we examine it critically? Little or nothing I'm afraid. He does us the service of pointing out that people in this country tend to get hot under the collar when a perceived outsider discusses their preferred view of history in critical terms. Which we knew anyway. And for the rest, he demonstrates that he isn't the person to attempt a cure of this illness. Indeed, he only contributes further to it.
Richard Jurgens is a writer, editor, journalist and translator. His latest books, The Joburg Job, a film script, and Hilton, a novel, are due out shortly with Barncott Press, London. See amazon.com