Crooked criticism and apartheid revisionism

LeonTony Leon caused was indirectly responsible for much outrage on Twitter today, thanks to his Business Day column titled “When crooked politicians were not tolerated”. In this column, Leon offers some examples of corrupt politicians during apartheid being imprisoned due to their crookedness, and compares this to modern-day examples in ANC governments, particularly Tony Yengeni (who returned from a brief prison spell, only to resume employment in the ANC) and Dina Pule (who has not been prosecuted, and probably will never be).

The responses I saw on Twitter included:

One paragraph of Leon’s piece reads as follows:

The NP promoted and prosecuted a political system which oppressed and disfigured this country, and its security apparatus did far worse. But it was not so forgiving of its own members who looted public office for personal ends. And to the extent that it turned a blind eye, it did not interfere when the departments of justice and correctional services indicted and processed its members, some of them very prominent indeed.

Is he wrong about that? Many – including some of those people I quote above – say that he is, and linked to this paper on as evidence. But the paragraph I quote there is notable in that the first sentence of it surely gives the lie to all three of the responses quoted above.

This is because the tone of these responses paint Leon as denying the corruption inherent in apartheid, and thus, comfortably fit with an established narrative (regardless of it’s truth) going back to Leon’s leadership of the DP that painted him as a enemy of racial redress. Well, to put it more plainly, the criticism in those days painted him as a racist, and sometimes made little apology for doing so.

For the record, I didn’t like either the “Fight back” or the “Stop Zuma” campaigns – in fact, the last line of a post I wrote at the time of the latter read

It comes as a great surprise to me, but I can’t say with any confidence that I’ll be voting DA tomorrow.

But Leon is not denying the corruption inherent in apartheid at all. He’s doing something we’re quite familiar with when it comes to liberals, including myself – he’s stating a (contestable, yes) fact in a tone-deaf sort of way, or in a way that doesn’t do enough genuflecting in the direction of his critics’ sensibilities. Perhaps something like this:

Strategically, this might or might not be a mistake, as I recently wrote with regard to Richard Dawkins. But to present Leon as having rose-tinted spectacles in a general sense with regard to the apartheid era is disingenuous to the point of causing me to distrust whether these critics are even interested in debate, rather than “winning” by simply caricaturing an opponent.

They are more incompetent than uncharitable readings, because they simply ignore the fact that Leon could well agree that corruption was rife under apartheid, but that nevertheless, there were more apparent penalties for violating the (corrupt) rules under that corrupt system than there are today. Honour among thieves, and all that. He’s not excusing the system – he’s saying that despite the overall horror of that system, here’s one element that functioned (relatively) well.

It’s also true that we don’t know know how selectively people were prosecuted by the system, and how much of a blind eye the government turned to corruption – but we don’t know that today, either. What we do know – and this is Leon’s point – is that Zuma has paid no penalty for a “generally corrupt” relationship with a businessman, and that the businessman himself served a rather small proportion of his 15 year sentence. We know of Pule, and Yengeni. We know that corruption is the leading topic on far too many news reports, and we know that little is done about it.

An occasional sacrifice or scapegoat (assuming that’s all the National Party’s victims as described by Leon amounted to) isn’t necessarily proof of moral rectitude. But it’s nevertheless a signal that there can be consequences to corrupt behaviour, and it thus helps – even if imperfectly – to rein that behaviour in. And this is what Leon’s column says. It concludes:

But in celebrating the democracy which replaced [apartheid], we should not avert our gaze from the undertow that came in its wake: the rapaciousness of public life and the lack of consequences for leading transgressors. Unaddressed, these might soon capsize the ship of state itself.

[EDIT] It has already become apparent via Twitter and T.O. Molefe’s comment below that the “things were better under apartheid” zombie-‘fact’ is being assumed in both Leon’s column, and this blog post of mine. No – Leon claims (at least on my reading) that more public representatives cared about their jobs then, and that a larger proportion of public representatives were punished for corruption under that government. Not that there was less corruption, nor any other “exceptionalism” claim related to apartheid. The best articulation of why that “exceptionalism” stuff is false, and why I don’t want support in comments from people who believe it, that I can recall is in this Ivo Vegter column in the Daily Maverick.[/EDIT]

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.