Trusting ourselves after lockdown

South Africa will move to level 3 of our Coronavirus lockdown on June 1. More economic activity will be permitted, we can exercise anytime (within the curfew hours), buy alcohol, and attend religious services (in groups of 50 or fewer). We won’t be able to buy tobacco, even though the state’s case for this restriction is threadbare.

But even as the gradual resumption of something resembling normal life picks up pace, there sometimes seems little room for optimism. There are widespread riots in the USA after more black citizens were killed by police, and here at home, Collins Khoza is one of many who have been killed by overly zealous members of the police and army while enforcing their interpretation of lockdown.

Coronavirus lockdown, South Africa: bioethics and miscellany

Today is day 10 of South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown, which has been implemented with a resolve rarely seen in our country, with the military deployed to assist the police in keeping people in their homes. Unfortunately, neither they – nor the police – are (in general) accustomed to much besides being authoritarian. They certainly don’t have a history of “shower[ing] our people with guidance [and] leadership”, as President Ramaphosa asked of them when they were sent into the streets.

COVID-19, South Africa, and humility regarding scientific reasoning

Eusebius McKaiser (host of a show on Radio 702) and I were meant to be part of a public discussion at WiSER (based at Wits University) on COVID-19 and its social implications later this week. The conversation was in the end postponed – not because of health risks (although that is now an utterly sensible reason for postponing) – but because some people thought that a philosophical conversation was inappropriate, and that WiSER should include epidemiologists, virologists and the like on any panel related to this coronavirus.

South Africa’s LGBTI folk can have rights – others, not so much

South Africa has supported “a call for the suspension of the United Nations LGBTI rights expert“, because sexual orientation and gender identity “should not be linked to existing international human rights”. [Update, 22 November: SA has reversed course, and now support the establishment of the LGBTI rights expert position.]

Say what you will about whether “gender identity” is a confused concept (here’s Rebecca Reilly-Cooper with a thoughtful article on that), the fact remains that theoretical disputes are a separate matter from the fact that LGBTI folk are subjected to discrimination, harassment and violence exactly because of those identities.

The (unbearable?) whiteness of #ZumaMustFall

It’s an undeniable fact that yesterday’s #ZumaMustFall march in Cape Town was overwhelmingly white. It’s also true that – as I said in my previous post – the “Zuma must fall” hashtag and related tweets have provided an opportunity for some folks to flaunt obviously racist sentiment.

But neither of these features are good reason to dismiss the possibility that many of yesterday’s marchers were fully sincere, aware of their “white privilege” (quotes not because I reject the concept, but because the concept admits to different interpretations), and not at all inconsistent (some have been asking “where were they when the #FeesMustFall marches were happening”, etc.)

South Africa’s 2014 National Elections, in brief

I’ll be brief, simply because other people have written, or are writing, data-driven analyses that will end up being more valuable than these few fragments.

First, it is, or should be, a source of great head-scratching for some as to how the ANC didn’t lose more support than it did. My predictions had them achieving 62%, but even so, I think they should ideally have lost more ground than they did.

The short version of why I think they didn’t lose more is simply because there is a vast difference between the media I consume, and the people I talk to, compared with what the average South African consumes and who they talk to.

ELECTIONS-2014-01-709x700Those of us on Twitter, in academia and (occasionally, as I am of late) in the media themselves can, just as everyone else, mistake their personal filter bubbles for popular sentiment. And as much as one might wish it were different, it really doesn’t seem as if the scandals of Nkandla and Waterkloof, or the obscenity of Marikana, made as much of a difference as we thought it would.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, as some seem to want us to believe, that we have an unsophisticated electorate. Voters the world over vote on what they experience, and what they know – and the task before us is to understand the motivations for those who vote ANC despite these scandals, not think them defective because they don’t vote otherwise in protest. To be frank, in countries like ours (with the class divisions so closely correlated with race), arguments around “unsophisticated electorates” seem to frequently be little but cover for racist sentiments.

For example, note that in KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC won a larger number of votes than in 2009, and that even though the turnout there was lower than in 2009, the percentage drop in turnout was less than the national average. If Zuma was the problem (or rather, if Zuma was perceived to be the problem), KZN would be a likely place to observe a significant decrease in ANC support, or increasing apathy at the ballot box – neither of which seem to be the case.

So, why did the ANC not lose more support, in as adverse circumstances as one can imagine? One suggestion would be that the competition – besides the EFF, which grew from nothing to attracting 6.35% of the vote – isn’t offering a compelling alternative. The DA, as Stanley Greenberg put it a week before the election, might in retrospect have wanted to spend more time punting its successes than the ANC’s failures, one presumes because people are more interested in what you can do for them, rather than what the other party is failing to do for you.

This is perhaps related to the issue that I’ve mentioned before in my review of Eusebius McKaiser’s “Could I vote DA?“, namely that of the DA’s occasional tone-deafness, in this case arguably manifested in a focus on negative commentary on the failures of others, which – if you’re (wrongly, but nevertheless) identified as a white party – easily conforms to a race-based caricature whereby you’re the party of white privilege telling the (black) liberation party that they aren’t up to the job.

Even if people don’t think this way (and I don’t think many do), they might feel this way, and emotional factors also influence voting behaviour. This has been a concern for some in the DA for going back at least as far as Ryan Coetzee’s 2006 document detailing a strategy for becoming a “party for all”, and I’m not convinced that the lesson of separating the rational and emotional has ever completely been learnt in the party.

Which brings me, in conclusion, to today’s Business Day column by Gareth van Onselen, in which he discusses Lindiwe Mazibuko’s decision to take a sabbatical year, in order to study at the Kennedy School at Harvard.  First, congratulations and best wishes to Lindiwe, whom I’m friendly with. Regardless of anything else, it’s a great opportunity, and she’ll (and we’ll, if she returns to active politics) benefit from her choice.

But second, if his account is correct, it does point to significant tension within the Democratic Alliance around leadership and strategic direction. Some tension isn’t at all unusual in any large organisation, but the extent of it, as detailed in the column, should be very troubling to anyone who – like me – is committed to the liberal tradition in South Africa, and who has hopes for the DA to be flag-bearers for that tradition.

Not, to be clear, because I don’t think they’re capable of doing that. But more because internal squabbles, and their public airing, don’t create the impression of a coherent policy direction, or of broad agreement with a particular policy direction. As I’ve said many times over the years, I’d prefer to evidence to trump impressions, but it’s all too clear that they often don’t.

The ANC, with its established advantage in the electoral market, can get away with bad optics. The DA, less so.

[Edit]The DA’s current Director of Communications, Gavin Davis, has now responded to the van Onselen column linked above (my link is to his blog, but the piece was also carried as a letter in the Business Day.[/edit]

On Pew’s Global report on morality (including South Africa)

PG_14.04.11_MoralityHomePage_260x2601The Pew Research Center recently released their 2013 Global Attitudes Survey, summarising responses from 40 117 respondents in 40 countries to various moral issues. A local journalist called me for comment this morning, but as usual, only soundbites will survive and besides, many readers of Synapses might never spot the resulting article in any event. So, here are some thoughts on the Pew results as they relate to South Africa.

Things worth reading on South Africa, Mandela and fake sign-language

With so much content being produced on the average day, it’s easy for some of the most worthwhile pieces to pass you by, no matter how good your network of curators might be. Today, three pieces were published that I think worthy of your serious attention, and to them I’d want to add something written earlier this week. These four columns are superb, and because I suspect that the regular readers of this website would agree, I’d like to highlight them here.

First, Ivo Vegter’s Daily Maverick column on the old South African flag that he keeps as a reminder of where we’ve been as a country, and how we got to where we are today. Ivo and I are less than a year apart in age, and my experiences overlap considerably with those expressed in the column. But it’s not the veracity of the historical details that is most important in this column, rather the way in which Ivo captures the  mood of the time, and the soothing effect that Mandela had on a fractured nation.

As I’ve written before, though, that balm came at a cost – any grand mythology tends to do so, because they encourage us to substitute honest (and painful) self-reflection with optimistic cliches (the “Rainbow Nation”) or an inflated sense of our value to the rest of the world (to think that we belong in the BRICs, for example). Honest self-reflection about South Africa is what the second column, by Chris Roper (Editor-in-Chief at the Mail & Guardian) focuses on. In “The lies Nelson Mandela taught us“, Roper reminds us that we’re not special nor exceptional, and that nobody in the rest of the world has an obligation to think we are. Mandela allowed us to believe the opposite, and telling us these lies, Roper says, might well have given us a

kick-start as a nation. But they have run their course. It’s time to trade Mandela’s lies for Jacob Zuma’s truths, hard truths though they be. The truths of our extreme ordinariness and of our distressing propensity for the three isms of the apocalypse – nepotism, despotism and cronyism.

Third, and in a similar vein, Sarah Britten brings us a Thought Leader column (also on the Mail & Guardian website) on “The eloquence of the fake-signing man” – a title that readers would surely recognise as darkly ironic, in that Thamsanqa Jantjie (the “fake signer” in question) could hardly be less eloquent (in terms of the job he was paid to do) than he actually was on the day. Instead, he speaks eloquently, and tragically, of lowered expectations and standards in South Africa – on how convincing bluster can win the day, even if you have nothing of consequence to contribute to a debate, to a classroom, a Parliament, or a Presidency.

Which neatly (almost as if by design!) brings me to the fourth column, by Tony Weaver in the Cape Times. This column is arguably about what happens when you do your job well, but offend those with power and thin skins in doing so. Weaver’s “Man Friday” column is a first-hand account of the Cape Times newsroom on the night and early morning that Mandela died, and of how well the editor, Alide Dasnois, marshalled the various resources at her disposal to produce what Weaver describes as “the best newspaper I have ever worked on”, and which was also voted as “one of the 14 best front pages in the world” by Time Magazine.

Dasnois was relieved of her position that morning, just as many South Africans were first hearing of Mandela’s death. In writing this tribute to her editorship, for the same publication, Weaver has effectively told Dr Iqbal Surve (chairperson of the newspaper group in question) that whatever his strengths might be, defending editorial independence – and judging the quality of an editor – aren’t among them. Let’s hope he doesn’t lose his column for saying so.

To the four columnists who wrote these pieces – thank you. I know that it’s sometimes rather frustrating to put such energy and thought into constructing a column, only to find that it serves mostly as troll-fodder. There will be (and are) trolls aplenty on two of the columns already, but also many who, like me, are grateful and feel enriched thanks to work such as this.

The Afrikaner Broederbond – a legacy of racial nationalism

BroederbondLiberalism – liberal ideas, or self-identified liberal parties – has caused its fair share of trouble in South African politics over the years since Alan Paton’s formation of the Liberal Party in 1953. But for all the argument liberal ideas can provoke, an argument can be made that an ideology premised on individual freedom is never provocative of necessity.

In other words, there is no reason to assume that there is a logical inevitability of  liberalism leading to distrust, anger or violence, particularly of the physical rather than verbal sort. By contrast, nationalism – and particularly racial nationalism – is rooted in and reinforces conflict. This is because it sets up a necessary opposition between them, and us, however those groups are defined.

With this in mind, I regard the formation and trajectory of the Afrikaner Broederbond in 1920 as a key element in recent South African history. This is thanks to the way in which it set a tone and laid the foundations of racial nationalism, leading not only to very fertile ground for National Party dominance and the normalisation of apartheid in white culture, but also in setting a precedent for the racial nationalism of today’s African National Congress.

The AB grew out of an organisation called Jong Suid Afrika (Young South Africa), formed in 1918 (O’Meara, 1977). But understanding why it was formed and had the influence it did requires looking back to the South African War of 1899 to 1902, where the Afrikaners were defeated by the British (Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2013).

The “scorched earth” policy of the British during the war devastated farmlands, particularly in rural areas. Tens of thousands of Boer women and children died in British concentration camps. On top of this privation, there was gloating – Lord Milner’s policy of Anglicisation serving to rub salt into very open wounds.

Not only did this defeat leave the Afrikaners humiliated, but it also set the stage for what was to follow: the formation of the Broederbond, the National Party and also the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism in general.

While a class divide always existed amongst Afrikaners, the war helped to accentuate it. Some Afrikaners suffered financial as well as other forms of defeat in consequence of the war – poor conditions in agriculture, and deaths due to influenza, crippled families who had already suffered internment, or death in battle. Other families, especially in the Cape, enjoyed relative prosperity (O’Meara, 1977).

Responses to this crisis amongst Afrikaners varied, but the political consequences were undeniably profound. In 1913, the split in the South African Party was one consequence, with Louis Botha having dissolved his cabinet in the face of irreconcilable differences of opinion regarding how to deal with the competing interests of the Dutch and the English.

The National Party was a product of this split. It was founded in 1914 on a platform of “two stream” development, with Hertzog insisting on the Dutch and English pursuing their interests in parallel channels, by contrast to Botha’s ‘one stream’ policy whereby the two groups would converge as one people, in union (South African History Online, 2013).

There should however be no doubt that Hertzog and Botha were of similar mind when it came to black traditions and interests. While views differed on the two white groups in question, they agreed that black South Africans should be on an entirely different stream, totally segregated from whatever might occur with regard to white interests.

Except, of course, when white interests required black labour. As agriculture recovered and expanded, white interests were placated through measures such as the Native Land Act of 1913, that assisted in the recovery of the white farmers while crippling the interests of black South Africa.

Contemporaneously to these developments, 1912 saw the formation of the Native National Congress, later renamed the African National Congress. Despite the fact that some within the ANC championed the cause of non-racialism, the existence of such a strong climate of Afrikaner (and, white) nationalism cannot help but have informed the motivations and strategy of the ANC. When moderation, open debate and equal consideration of interests seem to be off the table, why waste ones’ time pursuing those goals?

Still smarting from the humiliating defeat suffered in the war, and still trying to rebuild their families, as well as their economic structures, the Afrikaner – or at least, some proportion of Afrikaners – now had to also contend with a growing voice of black dissent.

In one hypothetically possible version of history, the fact that Afrikaners knew full well what defeat and humiliation felt like might have inclined them to listen to the concerns of black South Africans, leading the country closer to the sort of equality we now enjoy (at least in law, if not entirely in reality).

But that sort of unselfish, forward-thinking attitude proved to be impossible, at least in those years. Much of this had to do with the formation and subsequent power – even if often behind the scenes – of the Broederbond.

As Schönteich and Boshoff put it in ‘Volk’ Faith and Fatherland. The Security Threat Posed by the White Right (2003), “the Afrikaner Broederbond was born out of the deep conviction that the Afrikaner volk has been planted in this country by the Hand of God, destined to survive as a separate volk with its own calling”. If God insisted on a separate destiny, one might think, who is man to quibble?

The origins of the Broederbond are in feelings of persecution – of being threatened by enemies known and unknown, but also of being proud, stubborn, and resilient. Even though the enemy might have been the British at the time the organisation was formed, that was only tangentially the point. The point, instead, was that whatever adverse circumstances were encountered, the Afrikaner would prevail.

Prevail they did, as all South African born before the 1980’s knows full well. The Broederbond was a key part of their success, in that not only did the Broederbond launch several cultural organisations as breeding grounds and reinforcements of Afrikaner values and culture (gathered under the umbrella Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge, or Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Societies), but they also ensured linguistic and cultural – and thus, racial – “purity” in positions of influence in education, commerce and politics.

It was in the 1920’s that the Broederbond became properly organised, and began being properly influential. In 1921, they started campaigning for Afrikaans schools and the preservation of Afrikaans culture in schools, which led to a rapid surge in membership. In 1927, this (now secret) society resolved “to take an active part in the life of the community, leaving no avenue neglected” (O’Meara, 1977).

The extent to which the Broederbond reinforced cultural and racial myopia is clear from its selection and membership criteria. Only “financially sound, white, Afrikaans-speaking, Protestant males, over age 25, of ‘unimpeachable character’, who actively accepted South Africa as their sole homeland, containing a separate Afrikaner nation with its own language and culture” qualified to be members (O’Meara, 1977).

Some highly-combustible elements were therefore being thrown into one pot – a group of pious Calvinists with persecution complexes (thanks to the British and the war), armed with a sense of religious predestination (or more crucially, entitlement), were setting up a structure that ensured that no heterodox thinking would be allowed to penetrate into their structures.

Psychologists and behavioural economists speak of confirmation bias (Wason, 1960) and concepts like the “filter bubble” (Pariser, 2011). Confirmation bias refers to our predisposition to ignore evidence that counts against (or, disconfirms) existing beliefs or hypotheses, and also to over-emphasise the relevance of evidence that confirms what we already believe.

The term “filter bubble” was coined to describe the results of Internet search personalisation, whereby we tend to get search results that play into our confirmation biases – if you tend to read liberal media, Fox News will tend to not show up in your Google results.

Even though the Broederbond didn’t have Google, what they did have was a trusted community of leaders and influencers who would tell them – and you, if you wanted to succeed – exactly what you needed to believe, and usually, exactly what you wanted to hear.

Little surprise, then, that Afrikaner politics was far more concerned with internal power-struggles than with the continued alienation and disempowerment of the majority of South African residents (“citizens” being too generous a term, if we are to be accurate). This incestuous dominance of power structures would enable and buttress decades of apartheid rule, and also allowed for the arrogance that led many within the National Party (in its 1948 – 1994 guise) to never question their divine right to rule, even as the country burned at Sharpeville and elsewhere.

This messianistic, Calvinistic and conservative Afrikaner nationalism, promoted by the Afrikaner Broederbond, was tremendously successful. “Every prime minister and state president in South Africa from 1948 to the end of Apartheid in 1994 was a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond” (Boddy-Evans, 2013), and its members occupied positions of power throughout other areas of South African society also.

The legacy this leaves us is not only racial distrust and tension, as exemplified in the modern-day Broederbond-lite of a Dan Roodt or Steve Hofmeyr, but also in the fact that nationalism, and perhaps tribalism, comes naturally in South African politics. We are attuned to that discourse, which makes the discourse of liberty outside of tribe, language group or race difficult for some South Africans to hear.

Afrikaner nationalism was premised on victimhood, and a commitment to never be victims again. It is perhaps little wonder that some Afrikaners felt – and continue to feel – threatened by the African nationalism sometimes apparent in the South Africa of today, and that the rhetoric of difference continues to prove so successful in South African politics.

This is a trap from which the country needs to escape in order to leave the divisive politics of identity and race behind. Only when African nationalism can mean, simply, a nation of Africans, can we truly say that apartheid has been defeated.


  1. Boddy-Evans, A. 2013. Afrikaner Broederbond. [Online]. Available: [8 July 2013]
  2. Encyclopedia Brittanica. 2013. Afrikaner-Broederbond. [Online]. Available: [8 July 2013]
  3. O’Meara, D. 1977. The Afrikaner Broederbond 1927-1948: Class Vanguard of Afrikaner Nationalism. Journal of Southern African Studies. Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 156-186
  4. Pariser, E. 2011. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Penguin Press.
  5. Schönteich, M; Boshoff, H. 2003.’Volk’ Faith and Fatherland. The Security Threat Posed by the White Right, Institute of Security Studies. Monograph. No 81
  6. South African History Online. 2013. Louis Botha. [Online]. Available: [8 July 2013]
  7. Wason, Peter C. 1960. On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (Psychology Press) 12 (3): 129–140.

Does it matter if you’re black or white? #CensusSA2011

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

On October 10, be ready to stand up and be counted. Well, you’ll need to stand up at least for as long as it takes to let the enumerator into your home, for that day marks the start of South Africa’s first census since 2001. There’s no question that conducting a full census costs plenty of money – R3 billion is the current estimate – but they also provide valuable information.