A better future need not dismiss the present or the past


A better future need not dismiss the present or the past

South Africa’s past has spread like tree roots. Whose history matters more, and who has the authority to draw a line under what happened before? ISMAIL LAGARDIEN ventures an answer.


THE history of history highlights the difference between how the past is remembered and how it is told. South Africa’s history seems to differ with every telling of the past. The most unfortunate thing about this telling is the way that aspects of what happened are restricted or censored at will and at the whim of anyone who chooses to speak.

We can pick any topic and find multiple iterations of the past, and occlude topics that sit uncomfortably. I recall a reference, more than a decade ago, to “scorn and abuse whites openly as a racial group”. This vilification turned into a cottage industry, and a type of certificate or a ticket to the credibility camp of “real Africans” or “real blacks”. Things have become worse since.

There are two important caveats that I would like to insert and defend. In a set of essays published in the media over the past few weeks, I suggested that when global public policymakers sit down some day, they ought to break the rigidity that places profits before people. Elsewhere, I wrote that “markets” are not autonomous or technical things. Closer to reality is that that everyday references to “markets” are actually references to millions of small transactions between people or groups of people who barter and truck (give money to charity, or fund projects) based on needs, wants, expectations or beliefs and values. Even philanthropism has its limits. Anyway, a second essay I wrote appeared racist to some people and “necessary” to others.

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When considered together, the responses have been slightly embarrassing, a little frustrating and entirely void of any intertextuality. They fed, unfortunately, into industries of loathing which meant the essays were filed in catalogues of “anti-white” or “pro-black” politics, when they really belonged in categories of humility and acceptance of history and the past as two different things, neither of which should be denied. All of this begs questions about whose history matters more and who has the authority to draw a line under the past.

‘The people’ and misreading the tea leaves

Political statements about “the people” are readily and often incorrectly appropriated by radical populists and revolutionaries. Some people, notably identity-politics brokers, are quite adept, and speaking about their own people they use terms like “culture” and appeal to moral sentiments about actual or perceived persecution. Discomfort and being asked to take a detour on the way to and from the braai becomes persecution and injustice.

The reference I made to “the people” was in the context of the global political economy and finance. I should have made it explicit, in the way that Ladybird editions appeal to children, that when the current system that governs the international political economy was established, economists were given almost free rein. The problem is that those millions of transactions that constitute “the market” — based as they are on needs, wants, expectations, beliefs and values — do not readily fit into the rationalism and “logic” of profit maximisation peddled by orthodox economics. So, when we sit down to discuss a “new order” for global cooperation and governance, it would probably be good to include people who are not economists. I should try an analogy.

Imagine someone hospitalised with a chronic health problem who is attended to by a doctor. The doctor typically makes a diagnosis, prescribes medication and leaves instructions for a nurse. That is the structure of power which gives the doctor authority and makes the doctor singularly knowledgeable and indispensable. Now imagine the patient is attended to by a doctor, a psychologist, a nutritionist and a pharmacologist (among others), all of whom provide their findings (as well as cautions and considerations) and determine the best way forward. In other words, if you leave public policymaking only to economists, the chances are (and this has been my experience at so many levels) that they apply economic theories, indulge in some backslapping among fellow economists (who have all studied, agreed on and examined one another on the same texts), and when things go wrong simply blame the victims or “the market” because their theories could not possibly be wrong. Let that sit, and let us turn to more recent and contemporary South African events.

The past and the history of history

Since the election we (including me) have stated and restated aspects of our past, and some of us have tied our horse to race either as a defining feature or as meaningful and important. Then there emerged the video clip of Renaldo Gouws ranting in a racist manner about black people. One immediate response was that he made the comments more than a decade ago, and they were therefore no longer valid or important.

At the same time, a video clip emerged of Ian Cameron in blackface and protesting (which is his democratic right) against affirmative action and policies to bring more black people into university. In one of the videos of Cameron’s blackface protests, a young woman said apartheid was over. The implication was that since the system no longer existed, efforts to include more black people in academic institutions should be unnecessary — and illegal. For what it’s worth, I have strong views that oppose social promotion in schools and universities. I do, nonetheless, hold the view that more black people need to be provided with access to vocational training and universities.

What stands out in the above is that the past has to remain in the past because it has no bearing on the present or the future. This is spurious. It is also disingenuous. Who, exactly, has the right to say which part of history is in the past and should not be recalled. This suggests, at worst, that apartheid has no lasting legacy and that its inheritors, those with vertically segmented privileges (privileges built and accrued over many decades), are somehow on an even footing with people who have been excluded from politics, participation and economic power, also over decades.

Here’s an easy and terribly unoriginal example: the Ladybird version. Take the stretch of Cape Town that includes Clifton and Camps Bay. For many decades, only a certain group of people (Europeans/white people) were legally allowed to own property there. This property increased in value, then in April 1994 it became legal for black people to buy it — because apartheid was over. But seriously, how many black people could afford to buy expensive property in Clifton or Camps Bay after years of being excluded from accruing/accumulating wealth?

Black people who were helicoptered into the elite “made” enough money, and by extension restored apartheid’s divisions. Something pretty much the same can be said about well-to-do Gautengers buying property in small towns across the Karoo and the southern Cape. Nobody would deny them. The fact is that many local people in the Karoo or the southern Cape could not afford to buy property in the towns where they had spent their entire lives. Now extend the Clifton-Camps Bay (and Karoo) example nationally.

The problem as I see it, and that I used as a literary device, is this: there are millions of people, including myself, who are inheritors and legatees of those who came before us under profoundly unequal conditions. It is rather disingenuous to claim that we don’t see colour, that apartheid is over and that whatever happened in the past (Gouws, Cameron, apartheid, settler colonialism) should be erased, removed or forgotten. Try telling that to the families and descendants of the more than 100 million Europeans who were killed between 1914 and 1945. Try telling that to the Afrikaners who were kept in concentration camps more than 100 years ago. Which history, and whose history matters more?

I should leave that question for the reader to answer.

Absence of intertextual reading

One of the gaps in our global education systems is a type of philistinism, a shirking of deeper intellectual engagement to foreground only what is happening here, now. This weighs quite heavily on writers and public intellectuals but it cannot be allowed to dictate what may be said or what may be occluded. Such intellectual occlusion serves only the narrowest interests.

Let me turn to a few personal examples. Over the past several years, I have expressed strong views in opposition to violence, the politics of revenge, rapine, fascism, corruption and ethical lapses, and always (exposing myself) on the side of social democracy, with a commitment to protect communities from the wanton politics of our populist revolutionaries. Then I made the fatal mistake of reflecting on our past politics of compromises, how today’s compromises have a familiar ring. That became definitive of everything that may have come before, over almost 40 years in journalism.

My approach to writing about world affairs and about South African state and society is shaped by a firm (truly unshakable) belief in pacifism and a loathing of the manipulation of identity politics. I believe, also, that people who are good, however you may define “good”, can be bad, and nobody governs without guilt.

Over the past couple of weeks I have received threatening personal messages because I dared to write — as critically as I had of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC — about descendants and legatees of European colonialism and settler colonialism who seem to have presented themselves as indispensable. One set of messages called for “banning me”.

Somewhere in one of the columns I have written over the past week, I explained how the German people (who voted for and praised Adolf Hitler when he was running rampant) began to see themselves as victims (I am not drawing any moral equivalence between Nazism and apartheid) and started blaming the international community (the Allies) the security forces (their own military) and, of course, “the Jews” for their “suffering” when they realised that the jig was up.

The problem is that unless I write, every time I do write, that X is bad/guilty and Y is good/innocent, I cannot and should not be a credible person. Unless I accept publicly and uncritically the safest route, a government of national unity, I am part of the EFF-MK axis, and unless I speak of markets, instead of people, I am a populist revolutionary. All of which makes me an evil person. It really is tedious.

South Africa’s past has spread like the roots of a tree. There are branches of the roots that we have yet to explore and understand. We cannot stop anyone from thinking and trying to better understand who we are and where we’re going. Other than the lunatics who believe that all whites should be killed, and there are many, most of us envisage a future that is stable, prosperous and with high levels of trust among citizens. Such a future cannot be had without addressing the aetiologies of current problems.

One good place to start is to accept that many of us in this part of the world owe our presence to European colonialism, a profoundly iniquitous thing. Many of us have benefited, many more have not. I certainly owe my existence (not my essence: I apologise for using this expression) to the colonists. I’m coloured, for goodness sake; I have  fair skin and green eyes inherited from or the result of “mixing”. I have accepted that and learned to deal with it.  

South Africa’s past cannot be sanitised. It is not racist to say that. We have to acknowledge that benefits and privileges build up over years and decades. Here’s a contentious statement: Harry Oppenheimer and Johann Rupert did not start sweeping streets or cleaning toilets in 1994 and build their fortune on three decades of hard work. And anyway, if hard work was so enriching, there would be millions of women in Africa, Asia and South America who are millionaires.

♦ VWB ♦

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