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.

6 replies on “Crooked criticism and apartheid revisionism”

F***ing. Boom. Sorry for being crude, but this is a superb piece. Bravo. Jacques, we need more from you, and more stuff with edges like this, in particular.

From the report you’ve linked to on Open Secrets:

“Public perception that a democratic South Africa is more corrupt than the apartheid regime dominated much of the public discourse for a number of years after 1994. It may be that white and black South Africans alike had come to believe their masters’ lie. Public perception of apartheid-era corruption was reinforced by the views of former leaders of the National Party, such as F.W. de Klerk, who noted in 1997 that:

“With regard to…crime and corruption, the true facts are that the situation has deteriorated seriously since the ANC took over.”

“This commonly held view probably reinforced another misconception, namely that there was a sort of South African ‘exceptionalism’ during apartheid. This is perhaps better described as a belief in white ‘exceptionalism’ that allows the regime to be remembered as ‘brutal’ in the way in which it wielded power, yet ‘honest’ in the way it managed its finances at the same time. It would follow, using this logic, that there was no war profiteering under apartheid and although other African dictators may have shifted funds abroad, in South Africa under white minority rule this was not the case. In such a scenario the politics of apartheid is trivialised as misguided idealism and the role of the business community in such a system was primarily about legitimate shareholder profit.”

Leon’s point of departure was this belief in what Van Vuuren described above as ‘white exceptionalism’. ‘White exceptionalism’ is embedded in the column’s internal logic, choice of examples and his conclusion: That “rapaciousness of public life and the lack of consequences for leading transgressors” came in the wake of democracy in 1994. The column suggest quite convincingly that Leon doesn’t agree, as you suggest he might, that corruption was rife under apartheid. He thinks anti-corruption measures functioned well. This denialism operates on two levels.

The first level is on how the NP dealt with contraventions to how corruption was defined at the time. The instances Leon sites of the NP disciplining corrupt party members are the exceptions, not the rule, which is why people referred you and him to the Open Secrets document. Corruption was prosecuted selectively under apartheid, so there was no honour among thieves. For him to selectively pick the examples he has out of others that disprove a central part of his argument is denialism about what happened under apartheid. To be fair, perhaps it’s ignorance. His choice. As Van Vuuren says, the belief in ‘white exceptionalism’ pervades.

The second level at which the denialism here operates, which goes to the point of the tweets you’ve selected above, is that apartheid, while legal, was, by definition, corruption. It was a looting of the public resources for the personal gain of whites only. The Nats’ apparently functioning intolerance to corruption defended and enforced the system, often brutally. So I think it’s completely understandable that peopler read nostalgia into Leon saying the national party didn’t tolerate corruption among its ranks.

Leon can and should build arguments against present-day corruption. We all should. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves and others about what apartheid was. It holds no examples for us to follow about how to deal with corruption in our times.

What you call the “first level at which denialism operates” is something I mention in the column. What you call the “second level at which denialism operates” is something Leon acknowledges, yet you somehow discredit.

In short, I find your analysis entirely circular. You might well find mine entirely specious. Your last sentence makes it clear, though, that there’s little point in talking about it.

To the first level, you say in your post, which is why I brought it up again in my response: “He’s saying that despite the overall horror of that system, here’s one element that functioned (relatively) well.” I and many others who responded said no, even this one element didn’t not function well at all. He introduced the “better under apartheid” argument by using the modern day as a basis for the comparison and that’s how folks read it. This “better under apartheid” view of anti-corruption is further reinforced by the headline: (a time) “When crooked politicians were not tolerated”. Even by the generous reading in your edit, his argument has no factual basis.

Also, he has not acknowledged the second level. He acknowledged only the brutality, but did not recognise that apartheid in itself was corruption. Had he done this, he would not have advanced the argument that “it (the NP) was not so forgiving of its own members who looted public office for personal ends”.

Finally, if apartheid holds models for us to follow to tackle the scourge of corruption, by all means, enlighten me. All Leon has said is that it selectively prosecuted some people who transgressed certain kinds of corruption, which is no different to what we have today.

(Sorry, slight edits made to fix typos, etc)

“which is no different to what we have today.”

Except that those people were jailed. The point is that the ANC does not punish their members, this is true even if the example of the nats is bad.

I mean I guess the way to judge this would be on a case by case basis, comparing the number of known incidents, the number of convictions, jail time served and whether the guilty just went back to other cushy jobs after they got caught and exposed.

If you think he is being selective you can quantify the difference between the two regimes and demonstrate it. That would be far more effective than just saying it is so because you say it is so.

On a paragraph level:

1. Better, not “well”, is the only standard that needs to be met by my argument. “Has no factual basis” is exactly what’s being contested – on his argument, there are examples of people paying a price then, and of people getting away with things now. That’s a factual basis, where the veracity of the facts (rather than motive) can be disputed.

You might think the facts misrepresented, etc., as I conceded (on Twitter) long before I wrote this post. Fine. But there’s still a long way from there to the implied denial of the wrongness of those years, in general, that you and other critics coyly suggest.

I’m struggling to not write your response off as mere trolling with the headline comment, seeing as I know you to be a person who contributes to edited publications, and who is therefore aware that it’s common for the author to not write their own headlines. Have you verified that Leon wrote this particular headline, or is this just opportunism?

2. I don’t find it at all plausible to read Leon as ignorant of the fact that apartheid was a corrupt system. He says enough in the piece to indicate that awareness.

3. Nope, sorry. You said “It holds no examples for us to follow about how to deal with corruption in our times”, which is an absurd, hyperbolic statement. It would be disproved simply by the existence of an extra police officer per x crime reports, for example. I mentioned it simply as an indication of what appeared to be a prejudiced view on your part.

Leon claims that the selection bias is different in degree, where it’s become increasingly difficult to ever trigger suspensive conditions. Resolving whether that’s true or not is largely an empirical matter, and doesn’t benefit from casting him as an apartheid apologist.

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