Don't encourage us
23 January 2018 13:54 (South Africa)
South Africa

Op-Ed: A storm in a Boulevard

  • Marelise van der Merwe
    Marelise van der Merwe

    Marelise van der Merwe writes about anything and everything. After she studied, and then studied some more, and then studied a bit more, she spent some years writing, editing, researching and teaching, before becoming production editor at the Daily Maverick. After a couple more years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you’re welcome) she ventured into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

  • South Africa

The debate over whether to rename Table Bay Boulevard after FW de Klerk raises some interesting questions about the role of whites in the reconciliation process. But isn’t South Africa a little bit past that now? Shouldn’t we be a bit more mature as a democracy?

Ja-nee, you know it’s a strange state of affairs when you find yourself siding with Tony Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich this week did not mince words when he said “naming of streets must be a matter considered by due process. They cannot be just a few whities who want to honour their heroes who were among the architects of Apartheid”, according to BDLive.

Indeed, I am rather concerned that it’s a bevy of “prominent citizens”, among them Helen Zille and Desmond Tutu, who convinced the naming committee to recommend the name change. It sounds so… undemocratic.

That said, “siding with Ehrenreich” is maybe putting it a bit strongly. Apart from the slightly exaggerated terminology of “a few whities”, really, when it comes to the naming of streets I don’t so much believe in due process as the lack of process at all. Far better avoid naming them after people in the first place: Northern Boulevard, First Avenue, Cape Town International. It makes more geographical sense for people like me, born without a sense of direction, and it saves a lot of money, time and argument. When in doubt, be pragmatic.

But this debate – and the passion it has awoken on social media and other forums – has led me to ponder the figure of FW de Klerk himself, and why South Africans feel so strongly about him.

So many iconic images of De Klerk and Nelson Mandela spring to mind. De Klerk and Mandela looking at each other, eyes questioning. Mandela, glancing slightly askance at De Klerk as De Klerk smiles, apparently unaware. Mandela grasping De Klerk’s hand. De Klerk and Mandela holding their Nobel Prize aloft.

Together, De Klerk and Mandela became symbols of reconciliation for South Africans. Especially in that moment in 1994, when Mandela grasped De Klerk’s hand and reassured the country that they would move forward together. It was an image that stuck.

For conservative white South Africans who were terrified of being left behind, that – and the fact that they did continue to work together, and remain friendly – must have been very reassuring. They were represented. It was safe. The swart gevaar was not going to come and stab them in the night.

But in the wake of Mandela’s death, we are standing in a different place. Our democracy is of age now, a ripe 21, the Economic Freedom Front is upon us (and surely its rise is no accident) and De Klerk remains a problematic figure, one whose continued exaltation rankles for many. Certainly, he did make the decision that delivered a collective sigh of relief for many. But the fact remains that he did serve in the Apartheid government for decades, and rose within their ranks, occupying no less than seven positions, including national education and planning, Transvaal provincial National Party leader and chairman of the minister's council in the house of assembly, which surely must have given him some awareness that there were inequalities afoot, even if, as he has maintained, he was not fully aware of the brutality of the system. Bantu education, anyone?

He has described himself as a “convert”, but this is not entirely so: in 2012, in a headline-grabbing interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he not only defended the “original concept” of Apartheid (and minimised the horrors of its subsequent execution) but also denied that Mandela’s imprisonment had been an injustice. He added that under Apartheid the homelands had equal rights, and the vote. (Filed under Things That Make One Go ‘Hmmm’.)

At the very least, even if, even if one gives him the benefit of the doubt as a man with good intentions at present, one who did at times give PW Botha a run for his money, and one who finally, finally instigated change, one must surely admit that he is not willing to fully acknowledge the impact and injustice of his past actions under Apartheid.

So it is entirely understandable that there is some resistance to the idea that Table Bay Boulevard be named after him – he is, at the very least, controversial.

My issue with this ongoing semi-canonisation of De Klerk is not necessarily with the man himself, I must clarify. It is rather with the mentality behind it. I can’t help the sneaking suspicion that white South Africa wants their liberator up there on the pedestal; not only for his sake, but its own. Where De Klerk is a symbol of white South Africa’s position in the transition to democracy, it follows that white South Africa doesn’t want to be forgotten when it elevates him to sainthood. We liberated you. It’s as if whites want to be represented equally in the history of the reconciliation process, that we somehow be given our prize so that we don’t feel so bad that we had to start sharing our toys (read: privileges). The early negotiation process under Mandela was shrewd in this regard. When you are dealing with unreasonable people, after all, sometimes you need to stroke them a bit. The Apartheid leaders, and their followers, had to be handled with care.

But it’s way past that time, people. Whites need to start growing up a little. We are not delicate little flowers. Our feelings are not made of crystal. Comedian Chris Rock makes an excellent point when he describes the term “race relations” as a misnomer. “When we talk about race relations or racial progress, it's all nonsense,” he says. “There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they're not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before."

Here’s a little reality check for us white folks. Firstly, we weren’t equally involved in the reconciliation process. Reconciliation implies enmity, not one-sidedness, i.e. that one side was a big bully and human rights abuser, capiche? It was the Apartheid victims who had to forgive us. The Apartheid government was pushed into a corner, and knew it. It had to start negotiating, or go down in flames. And as for its followers? Most white people just stood there wondering if they were going to get shot or whether they should start packing for New Zealand. (Some are still packing for New Zealand.) Precious few had anything to forgive. The rest of us still have precious little to forgive. Take a look around. Seen a white domestic worker lately? Didn’t think so. Seen the unemployment stats lately? Seen the wealth and poverty stats lately?

Sure, you can blame the ANC for the lack of change all you want, but here’s a thought for you: you are damn lucky that you didn't land in an extended game of tit-for-tat that would have been understandable, perhaps, but fanned the flames of revolution and rage. You're damn lucky that that land you’re sitting on wasn’t taken from you by force, the way it was taken from people of colour before you. You are damn lucky that the systemic violence of Apartheid didn't become an onslaught of indiscriminate violence in its aftermath. You are damn lucky that that brown person next to you smiled at you this morning, waved at you, spoke to you. You are damn lucky that an angry black person hasn’t just walked up to you and shot you in the head because they’ve had to read one more ignorant, racist comment on News24 and it just made them snap and do something crazy. Because you know what? If the shoe were on the other foot, and it were me, I might have been angry enough to go crazy. I might have gone out there with my AK-47 - I don't know. If you weren't on the receiving end of decades of abuse, you don't know how you would have reacted or what you might have become, and you have no right to claim the moral high ground. It could have been so much worse, if we were dealing with a less forgiving nation. There is violence in South Africa, yes, but there is not revolution (and contrary to the beliefs of Sunette Bridges and Steve Hofmeyr, white farmers are in fact the least likely to be murdered).

The overwhelming majority of people in this country are good, peaceful people. And that should be enough to amaze you.

You can say a prayer of thanks every day for the forgiveness in the hearts of the people in this country, as Beeld’s Virginia Keppler pointed out so incisively in her letter to Steve Hofmeyr. The misdemeanours of government aside, it’s a damn privilege to live in the (relative) peace that we do, and you should thank those who forgive you for the grace they have given you. Think of it this way: if you were in the schoolyard and someone was bullying you, and a teacher came and said it’s now against the rules to bully, and the bullying stopped, would you suddenly think that ex-bully was a nice person? Or would you be wary, thinking hey – they’re still a bully, but for the law?

The change of laws in South Africa did not, unfortunately, bring about a change of attitude in very many people. The Apartheid fence-sitters are still fence-sitters now. Privilege is still privilege. And for many people on both sides of the economic fence, very little has changed. Those who were shitting themselves in 1994 about the ANC are now shitting themselves about the EFF. Ja-nee, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But the swart gevaar is a bit younger now, its beret the colour of blood.

White South Africa, unless you were actually in the struggle, it’s time to realise you did squat. Most of us sat on our bums getting manna from heaven for decades and then, in 1994, when the party was supposedly over, we magically found out it wasn’t actually over – we somehow still had all the money and jobs, except we got the moral high ground as the great liberators as well. We should be on our effing knees saying sorry. Not saying sorry – doing sorry. Making it better. Doing volunteer work. Raising a kid who needs a home. Putting someone through school and university who doesn’t have the funds for it because we benefited (are still benefiting) from the system that made their parents earn minimum wage. Not spending energy on making sure the last Apartheid liberator gets his Boulevard. Surely the Nobel Prize was enough.

It’s not an accident that the EFF is gaining ground like wildfire. It’s not just that Julius Malema gives a soundbite a minute. The country is ready for change. Our beloved Madiba is dead. The country is restless. The conciliatory mood is over. South Africa wants a new start, and it seems that certain white South Africans are still sleeping. Still entitled. Still thinking they deserve their share – of the spoils and the glory – and more.

Wake up, country(wo)men. People are hurting. Start changing perspective, or you’ll be lying in a bed of your own making when revolution comes. DM

Photo: Then outgoing South African President F.W. de Klerk waves goodbye next to President - elect Nelson Mandela outside Parliament after the playing of the national anthems May 9, 1994. (Reuters)

* Disclaimer: This article in no way condones or incites violence. The author clearly states that she applauds black South Africans for NOT starting a violent revolution in the face of decades of abuse, and applauds a spirit of reconciliation on both sides. Those who wish to wilfully misinterpret the message of the article do so on their own conscience.

  • Marelise van der Merwe
    Marelise van der Merwe

    Marelise van der Merwe writes about anything and everything. After she studied, and then studied some more, and then studied a bit more, she spent some years writing, editing, researching and teaching, before becoming production editor at the Daily Maverick. After a couple more years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you’re welcome) she ventured into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

  • South Africa

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles

Reader notice: Our comments service provider, Civil Comments, has stopped operating and will terminate services on 20th Dec 2017. As a result, we will be searching for another platform for our readers. We aim to have this done with the launch of our new site in early 2018 and apologise for the inconvenience.