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:

https://twitter.com/TOMolefe/status/369762839717625856

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 OpenSecrets.co.za 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]

Mantashe wants to help you “Know your DA”

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

130418daThe headline “DA’s campaign a desperate propaganda” left me quite sure that the text was going to be one of those overwrought reader-contributed op-eds, or at worst a product of Jackson Mthembu’s excitable pen. The content did little to challenge that assumption, leaving me quite surprised to see the name of ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, adorning the foot of the column in question.

The campaign he refers to is of course “Know your DA”, the first of the Democratic Alliance’s campaigns for the 2014 elections. The campaign attracted criticism right from the start, when Helen Zille’s launch speech neglected to mention Tony Leon, who led the party throughout most of its growth from 1.7% to 12.3% of the national vote.

I’d be annoyed by this if I were Leon (though not as annoyed as Rhoda Kadalie apparently was, in comparing Zille’s “airbrushing of history” to that of Stalin (she’s since deleted the tweet), but I think I’d nevertheless understand the reasoning behind leaving him out of the launch speech. The man who was the face of the 1999 “Fight back” election campaign – at the time, derided as the “fight black” campaign – would be quite a hard sell in a 2014 campaign that centres on the DA’s role in fighting apartheid.

Not because Leon played no role, of course, but rather because election campaigns are often about attention spans and caricatures rather than facts. In the case of Leon, we have “Fight back”, the merger with the New National Party, and support for the death penalty. In the case of Helen Suzman, we have the sole consistent voice against apartheid in Parliament for the 13 years from 1961 to 1974.

Suzman was a national treasure, and it strikes me rather bizarre that FW de Klerk has a Nobel Peace Prize while she (twice nominated) does not. But it was her principled contribution to ending apartheid that led Nelson Mandela to speak of the courage and integrity that marks her out as “one of the outstanding figures in the history of public life in South Africa”.

It’s that association the DA is aiming for by showing the image of Mandela hugging Suzman, rather than the image being an attempt to appropriate Mandela as a DA supporter. For better or worse, most South Africans regard Mandela as a moral authority. His endorsement of someone’s character therefore carries significant weight, as the ANC – never shy of invoking the Mandela brand – seems to realise.

Mantashe claims that this is propaganda. On one level, of course it is, just as all electioneering is propaganda of a sort. Expecting the “Know your DA” campaign to talk about “all its history and not just the struggle parts”, as an anonymous “PR and marketing expert who has done political campaigns before” did in this weekend’s City Press, is absurd – we always try to present ourselves in the best possible light.

Not only because nobody has the time to hear or present a comprehensive history lesson in each speech, but also because the alternative is unreasonable. While electioneering, we don’t expect Jacob Zuma to remind us that he was charged with rape, or took a shower to avoid HIV infection. It’s not propagandistic to highlight the things one is proudest of, and if it is true that the DA of today still represents those values Mandela recognised in Suzman, it’s legitimate to point this out.

My view is that they represent fewer of those values than I’d prefer, yet enough of them to make a poster and campaign like this one risky, but nevertheless legitimate. It’s somewhat opportunistic to highlight Mandela’s recognition of Suzman, but it’s not dishonest.

If we understand propaganda to mean a selective presentation of facts to inappropriately or dishonestly influence someone’s beliefs, then I’d suggest that Mantashe himself has a few questions to answer following Sunday’s column. In it, he asserts that what has remained throughout the “evolution of whatever trend among the white minority … has been either brazen advocacy for white domination and privilege or some elaborate schemes for its retention in the guise of liberal policies”.

That’s Mantashe’s interpretation of DA policy, and some of you might share the interpretation. And while he and you are of course free to do so, there is of course another side to the story, and Mantashe knows it. That story involves not only those mentioned in Zille’s launch speech, such as Seremane, Balindlela and de Lille – but also a large group of emerging leaders from the youth structures, many of whom are not white liberals.

Mantashe speaks of the “disdain with which the DA treats transformation” as if it becomes true in uttering it, or perhaps through repeated refrain – and what would that be, if not propaganda? Again, the DA might be wrong in how it approaches transformation, but that’s an entirely separate question to whether they are sincerely wrong, or whether they are lying about their intentions to buttress white privilege.

As Mantashe points out, the “combination of desperation and dishonesty is a lethal one”, and if the DA’s “Know your history” will be perceived as an exploitation of struggle history, we’ll know about it once the ballots are counted. But 20 years after our first democratic election, it’s certainly possible to question whether the ANC are the sole – or more importantly, the best – custodians of our freedom and our future.

And yes, it is also an interesting and legitimate question whether Suzman would support the DA of today. Just as interesting and legitimate, in fact, as the question of whether or not Mandela would support the ANC of today.

COSAS is hamster number one

cosaslogoThere is never any reason to expect a new year to be any different from the previous one. The arbitrary shift from December to January is good for a few days off, and for many of us, too much indulgence – but changing minds and attitudes takes longer than that, and isn’t responsive to fireworks and Auld Lang Syne in any case.

So, it’s no surprise to find that – after a mere 5 days of 2013 – we already have (at least) 2 depressing examples of the hamster wheel that is discourse around race in South Africa. Much effort is put into keeping it spinning, but to little effect. And if one hamster dies, another – often indistinguishable from the last – takes its place.

COSAS is hamster number 1. This Black Consciousness movement was formed in the late 70’s to represent black pupils, following the Soweto uprisings. They have many proud moments in their history, regardless of whether you agree with their politics or not. You can read about their history here if you care to. The salient detail for my purposes is that the “organization’s principle aims were the conscientising of students and the wider community to the repressive nature of education in South Africa” (sic).

If you think the construction of that sentence poor, consider this, the first sentence of the recent COSAS statement on the 2012 Matric (Grade 12, the final year of secondary school) results:

The congress of South African students would like to unreservedly welcome the metric result of the class of 2012, this class is the class that reactionary forces anticipated negative outcomes from, as a way to put substance onto their argument which suggest that there is a severe collapse of order in the government that is lead by the ANC, the 2012 result beyond any other thing they are specially recognized by COSAS because they Are a reflection of a narrowing gap in terms of the quality of education between the model c schools and the township and the rural school, and such was made more than visible by the performance of a number of students who scored outstanding result from the lowest quintiles of our schools.

As a friend pointed out, this is a telling example, and “a massive indictment, of what mass education has done for born-free South Africans”. Not to mention proof-positive that COSAS’s work (as quoted above) is not yet done, in that the organisation’s Secretary General is still a clear victim of that repressive education himself.

The statement carries on in that vein (here’s the pdf), and in some respects gets worse when Tshiamo Tsotetsi (the Secretary General) expresses concern that publishing student names and results in newspapers is ill-advised because pupils are then targets for witchcraft: “All of these bad things can come to an end only if these results are no longer published. We would no longer loose our young people through depression or witchcraft.”

One of the leaders of an organisation devoted to improving school education, in other words, believes that children are being lost through witchcraft (and therefore, that witchcraft even exists). And of course, he’s right to some extent, seeing as pupils no doubt believe this too and are therefore victims of something people call “witchcraft”, despite their being nothing supernatural about it at all. But the tragedy is that 12 years of school isn’t sufficient to dispel these superstitions. Or, that nothing in the curriculum teaches skills and principles of reasoning that would help to do so. Worst of all, it’s probable that many teachers believe in witchcraft themselves.

The education system, the Matric results, and the gloating of the Ministry of Basic Education – even in the face of a reality where less than 1 in 3 pupils complete high school – could be the subject of an extended rant. As could hamster number 2, Gillian Schutte, with her recent prescriptive self-flagellation entitled  “Dear White People“. I’ll get to that in a separate post, and for now simply reiterate what I said on first reading her column (with apologies for misspelling Schutte’s last name):

I benefit(ed) from apartheid

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

I certainly benefited from apartheid. And I’ve bought the t-shirt that says so – two of them, in fact – even though I might never wear them except in the company of other 40-something white liberals, with whom I share enough history that misinterpretation is unlikely.

Misinterpretation is unlikely, even as we agree on how many different things the t-shirt could be saying, and often also agree on what it should and should not be saying. It does not need to say that because I’m white, I should feel guilt. It should certainly not be saying that white people should withdraw from political comment, as Samantha Vice once argued.

But outside of the shared space of those of us who – to a lesser or greater degree – participated in some form of protest or activism in the 80s or earlier, this shirt’s message is perhaps a little too ambiguous, and too open to misinterpretation. Two reactions illustrate the problem, and even though these reactions are both far too simplistic, they nevertheless serve as useful examples of two possible extremes.

First, there’s the contribution that “Frank” made to MyNews24, headlined “I benefited from apartheid and other fairy tales”. Frank’s column discussed the “new liberal buzz concept that we as whites … have hugely benefited from a system that has been dead and buried for 18 odd years”. There’s no value in linking to this, as it starts out wrong-headed and quickly ramps up to triumphalist – but completely unreflective – smugness.

While the fact that he thinks this concept “new” might reveal that he’s only started thinking about this recently, more worrying is the fact that he’s bought into a premise that I can’t help but associate with someone who’s unwilling to engage with South Africa’s past (and therefore, present and future) in an honest way. As I’ve argued before, the first democratic elections didn’t somehow flip a magical switch, whereby after 1994 we could be sure that everyone succeeds or fails entirely on merit.

Now, I might like to wear the t-shirt in Frank’s company too, so that he can know he’s alone in wanting to bury his head in the sand, or to engage in acts of “whataboutery” wherein you boycott SAA, or self-righteously stalk the aisles of Pick ‘n Pay rather than Woolworths for a week or two, to say “what about this new-fangled form of racism, eh? Is this what ‘we’ struggled to achieve?”

But then, maybe Frank will think I’m wearing the t-shirt ironically, and never think about the message it’s intended to convey. Or maybe he’ll think, “well, perhaps you did, but my life was hard, and now my kids can’t get into UCT Medical School. And you call this justice?” In other words, maybe Frank will make the mistake we all (white, black, female, male, poor, rich) sometimes do, of thinking that anecdotes count as data.

And then, there’s the other sort of extreme reaction, this time a comment left at the Mail&Guardian (excerpted):

sickening…how self rightous some white south africans can be…so you think a sorry is good enough..a woolies t-shirt with those words is good enough. for me it simply shows the depth at which white people think black people are stupid. How lowly they regard black people’s pain. Will this t-shirt wipe away the memories of apatheid, will it give me the land they took away from my family. will it educate me, will it take away the shame and inferiority complex I have that was passes down to me due to the whites manipulating black people’s minds.

The fact that this reaction is a straw man of the worst order is besides the point, as is the fact that the author of this comment seems to believe that white people are in general insensitive, manipulative, and of the view that black people are stupid. To put it plainly, it’s besides the point that the author of the comment appears to have racist attitudes towards whites.

The reason it’s besides the point is that whether (many or most) whites are like that or not is a separate issue from whether a wearer of this t-shirt in fact benefited from apartheid (which, in general, they certainly would have), what they are trying to say in wearing it and most importantly, whether they think that wearing a t-shirt is all they need to do to wipe the slate clean.

My answers to those questions are not going to be the same as yours. But the key point here is that regardless of what my or your answers might be, those answers aren’t going to necessarily overlap at all with how the t-shirt is perceived by others, and what they think you mean. Intentions aren’t transparent to those who pass us on the street, and the performative role of this t-shirt is a fundamentally ambiguous thing – not to mention potentially a rather offensive thing.

And lastly, there are two quite general problems with this t-shirt, which further decrease the likelihood of my ever wearing one, despite now owning two. First, because as much as it’s true that whites benefited from apartheid, apartheid – or at least its legacy – is increasingly becoming the narrative by which some tenderpreneurs and politicians (even Presidents) enrich themselves at the expense of people who are currently, not previously, disadvantaged.

As much as the t-shirt would speak the truth if I were to wear it, would it be any less true if worn by President Zuma, even though the benefits might be of a very different form? If apartheid didn’t provide Zuma and the ANC with a narrative of being essential to the liberation from apartheid, would he and others not perhaps be in jail?

The other general problem is that what the t-shirt says is partly false. Yes, I did benefit from apartheid, as (on aggregate) all whites did. But I still benefit, because of the cultural capital, the confidence, and from the fact that the vast majority of people in power at my institution are white liberal males, just like me. How could I not have benefited and continue to benefit? After all, isn’t that what apartheid was designed for?